July 18, 2010


There is need of only one thing. – Luke 10: 42

Before we get into the Mary versus Martha thing, let’s look a bit closer at the text for some startling revelations. First, notice that Mary is sitting at the feet of Jesus & listening to Him speak. That is a position that only a male disciple would normally assume. The first hearers of this tale would have picked up on that immediately. Not only did Jesus accept this, He seems to have endorsed it. The mutual respect & acceptance speak of an equality that is a powerful between-the-lines subtext of this Gospel.

Then there is Martha who might come across as a Type A personality who can’t sit still. But this is to underestimate her passion & her faith. Notice that after the death of Lazarus, it is Martha who, after scolding Jesus for being late, comes up with the profession of faith every bit equal to that of St. Peter when she says, “I have come to believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God” (John 11: 27). This makes her Peter’s female counterpart & a co-founder of the faith.

Having said that, let’s return to the familiar story. It needs to be said that it is NOT an either/or situation: either contemplation or action. These two aspects of Christian spirituality are not in opposition to each other. Some of the greatest mystics in Church history have been both activists & contemplatives. St. Teresa of Avila & St. John of the Cross would be two classic examples. They went around founding Convents & Monasteries as well as having powerful spiritual experiences.

Jesus’ remark that Mary had chosen the better part is not to say that one is better than the other, but to underscore BALANCE, as if to say, “Stop what you’re doing & reclaim your center.” Have you become so busy as to forget what you are doing it for, what your purpose is? What motivates you? How does your life, your work, fit into the larger picture?

I know of a parish that required all of its ministers to go away twice of year for a day of recollection at least, if not a retreat that was really about prayer. We Americans are especially tempted to allow competence to subvert spirituality. It is important to remember that in our work for the Lord we do not forget to pay attention to the Lord in our work.

All Marthas, & the center evaporates & burnout sets in. All Marys, & charity & service go undone. We need to do works of mercy & compassion, but do not let our good deeds get separated from the word of God. That is why all of us need to take some time for prayer, spiritual reading & recollection. It is equally true that such things alone are not enough. A healthy spiritual life requires balance. THAT is the one thing needful! AMEN!