The car on the drive has been fully loaded with outdoor and picnic equipment, a child has already been seated inside the car with seatbelt fastened. There’s a woman standing beside the car, slapping her forehead, suddenly remembering she has to go to Mass because it’s Sunday; opposite her stands a man in despair, frustrated by his wife’s sudden realisation. What I’ve just described was a cartoon image I spotted years ago on the cover of the book How to Survive Being Married to a Catholic. I found the combination of the title and cartoon really funny – perhaps because it was so true…
It’s just a different incarnation of the situation described in today’s gospel, where Martha does all the domestic chores to make her guests welcome and feels left behind by her sister, who sits and listens to Jesus. We can easily imagine Martha’s growing irritation, up to the breaking point, when eventually she asks Jesus to basically tell Mary off and spur her on to help Martha. The reaction she gets from Jesus surely isn’t something Martha expected. It sounds like a gentle rebuke of her and a pretty unambiguous praise of her ‘careless’ sister Mary. I’m pretty sure Martha felt that was unfair. How can I be so certain?
In the Semitic world of the Bible hospitality was a virtue both commanded and commended throughout Scripture. In today’s first reading the elderly Abraham could have told one of his servants to take care of the three visitors; instead, he was waiting on them personally – such was his respect for the visitors. The New Testament’s Letter to the Hebrews refers to that event when it urges Christians to be hospitable: ‘entertain strangers, for by doing so some people have entertained angels without knowing it.’ (Hebrews 13:2). Jesus himself refers to hospitality in his vision of the Last Judgement: ‘I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ Essentially, active hospitality is the test of authenticity of faith. So, we see how important hospitality was and why Martha was so diligent to offer her best to Jesus and his companions. So, why did Jesus seemingly disparage her efforts?
Martha’s problem seems to be… Martha. Firstly, the gospel says that ‘she was distracted with all the serving.’ Secondly, when she talks to Jesus about the whole situation, she appears to blame Jesus for it: ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister is leaving me to do all the serving?’ This whole affair is in fact about her, not her special guest Jesus. It’s a bit harsh, but Martha appears to run around a bit like a headless chicken.
It often happens in our lives too. We get distracted by many things and lose from our sight what’s really important. We fall victim to terror of immediacy, only to realise the absurdity of such an attitude afterwards. When Jesus praises Mary in today’s gospel, he doesn’t commend or condone inactivity in the name of religion. He praises the willingness to listen first and to act upon what has been heard. So, when we come to church on a Sunday, or when we pray individually, we’re supposed to listen to Jesus twice as much as we talk to him – that’s why we have two ears but one mouth. When we listen to him, our priorities can be re-ordered, we can understand what really is important in our lives and what we can give a miss. When we listen to him, we have a greater chance of avoiding wasting our life chasing phantoms.
Once Jesus was asked, ‘Of all the commandments, which is the most important?’ He answered: ‘The most important one is this: Sh’ma, Israel – Listen, O Israel’ (Mark 12:28-29)
Cartoon from the cover of How to Survive Being Married to a Catholic by Rosemary Gallagher & Michael Henesy