The story of Martha and Mary is often seen as black and white. Two choices. You are either Martha (working hard) or Mary (praying hard). And when Jesus declares that Mary has made the better choice, we can get confused, because we know that God wants our prayer and our good works.
But today’s gospel is really about PRIORITIES and an order of doing things. Jesus is really saying that it’s more important to welcome Him into our lives than to do things for Him. That’s because by welcoming Him our hearts are changed. Jesus knows that when we receive Him well, our hearts will change and we won’t be able to help doing things for Him (working for Him, getting tired for His sake, even offering our lives for His sake). But it comes from a different place. We are like a reservoir that needs to be filled with God, but once it is filled, it overflows with good works. Or to use another analogy from St Paul [Rom 12: 4-8], when we welcome Christ we become a part of His body more perfectly, and when we are united with Him we serve Him better.
We all need to be filled…to be a part of Christ’s body. When we are separated from Him we become like Martha, anxious and overwhelmed. We may work, but eventually we will burn out. Jesus is warning us today to keep our priorities straight so that we don’t burn out. In a way, it’s about our self preservation. Jesus wants us to be able to persevere to the end.
It is about the quality of our service to Christ. If we receive Him poorly, our work for Him will always be poor and superficial…without transcendence. If it doesn’t spill over from what God has poured into our hearts (the overflowing reservoir) then what are we really giving? It must be ourselves and not God. But people need God, not us, and if we give ourselves we will end up with a weak apostolate that won’t change hearts. If we receive Him with all our hearts and listen to His words until every fiber of our being resonates with Him, then we will be able to give people what they need…we will be able to give them God. We will be able to give them the same Spirit that we have received…a Spirit with real power. The consequences of keeping our priorities straight are huge. The choice Mary made had huge consequences.
Please don’t get me wrong. It’s important to work in the Church, and to be generous in our self giving. But it’s crucial that we let Jesus work through us…we can’t give what we don’t have, and we need to receive Him before we can give Him. This is precisely why St Paul could say, “I have toiled harder than all of them; not I, however, but the grace of God [that is] in me.” [1 Cor 15: 10] He had his priorities straight.
Our gospel is also about the quality of our prayer. Sometimes we think that prayer is a matter of talking and talking and talking to God…telling Him what we need and when we need it. But for prayer to really fill us, we need to come to Jesus with a disposition of listening and silence. That was the prayer of Mary of Bethany, who understood the one thing needed, and it was the prayer of Mary of Nazareth, who knew how to treasure things in her heart. When we pray like that we are able to give our lives more fully, saying, “Whatever you want to do with my life, Lord…I am yours."
Let’s try to explain it another way. It may sound strange, but today’s gospel can also be seen from the perspective of FINANCES…basic economics.
One of the most beautiful definitions of love is found in Chapter 13 of St Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. It says essentially that real love doesn’t count the cost. “It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” When we love like this we are spent…we are poured out. St Paul is referring to love as a gift form the Holy Spirit (from chapters 12-14 of his letter). He doesn’t mean love as a feeling or emotion, but as a gift. God Himself makes that self donation…He spends Himself for us. And He teaches us to do the same.
Let’s take a look at our gospel for today. Martha is counting…she is keeping track of the time she is giving…she is saying something like, “This is the score: me…30 minutes of serving. Mary…nothing. Look at her sitting there. She is lazy and I’m doing all the work myself. Now it’s me…45 minutes, and still Mary…nothing”). The more she counts the angrier she gets, until she finally says, “This is enough!"
Or maybe she was thinking of the fairness of the distribution. “I did all the preparation and serving, now it’s Mary’s turn to get up to clear the dishes and clean up.” Maybe she was so concerned with justice that she was blinded to the possibilities of love. We can get that way…doing such a good job of keeping track of who is giving what and who ISN’T giving that it’s all we can think about. There are people who count the number of offenses against them, or keep track of who is showing up late to work, and how often. Those kinds of thoughts can blind us to the possibilities of the kind of love God wants for us.
Let’s think about economics for a minute (not your typical homily topic). I don’t know much about economics, but I do know that it has to do with resources. When resources are scarce, the cost gets higher. If there is not much of something (a rare book, for example) the cost is high, and we want to protect and preserve it. The amount of money we have is limited, and so we keep track of how much is in our account. But let’t think for a minute about air. There’s a lot of it…plenty of it…and so it’s free. You can breath all the air you want and no one will charge you.
Some people apply this idea of scarce resources to their personal relationships as well. They count the affection that is given and guard it like a scarce resource. The thinking behind this is that because we only have one life, we shouldn’t give it away. We only have one…there ism’t another one…it’s a scarce resource that needs to be protected. But how can we apply the words of St Paul that we heard earlier…”love doesn’t count the cost?”
Only one who has had the experience of a love that isn’t scarce at all, but is ABUNDANT and overflowing, can understand St Paul’s words. When we have experienced the generous love of God, freely given, we will stop saving love for later. We’ll stop protecting it and hoarding it, like it’s a scarce resource. We’ll stop being afraid that we will run out of love if we give it. We’ll find that we have enough love to give and keep giving…to our spouse, children, neighbors, friends, the guy at work, the woman who is homeless…it will never run out. When we have experienced the abundant…really not just abundant but INFINITE love of God...we know that love isn’t like a rare book or a bank account. It is like air. It will never run out.
Today is a good opportunity for us to check our attitudes on love. Do I know the abundant love of God? Have I let that love fill me, so that it can overflow for others? Or am I like a miser, hoarding love…being stingy in the way I give it. Martha was stingy. She saw love as a limited resource…one that had to be counted and kept track of. But Jesus gave love abundantly…all the way to the cross. Let’s learn from Him.
As we said at the beginning, it’s important to check our PRIORITIES. In order to experience the abundant love of God, we must become and receive Him into every corner of our being. We need the sacraments…we need them frequently…we need daily prayer… Once we learn to receive God more perfectly, we will be filled with Him and will be able to give Him…to give love…without counting the cost.
That doesn’t mean we stop caring about ingratitude. Jesus suffered because of the indifference and lack of charity caused by our sins. But the pain that He suffered didn’t stop Him from loving us. Even when we present obstacles to His love, He doesn’t stop loving. This is marvelous by brothers and sisters! Our love is imperfect…we can be stingy…but remember these words of St Paul: “Where sin increased, grace overflowed all the more.” [Rom 5: 20] Our Lord will help us to get beyond our Martha-ness. He will help us to work hard without becoming anxious and overwhelmed, and to learn to be at peace at His feet. He will free us from our fears…the fear of running out of time, running out of our youth, running out of inspiration. Lord, help me to remember that you are infinite and that your Heart overflows with a love that will never run out. You will provide all my soul needs, and enough to share with many others.
Mary, Mother most pure, help me to be like you and to have a heart like yours. Teach me to remain at the feet of your Son and listen to Him…like you remained at His feet while you held Him as a baby in your arms, while He preached to the multitudes, while He healed the wounded, while He welcomed sinners and while He raised the dead to life. Mary, help me to remain there at His feet like you did, especially while He hung there on the cross…always listening to Him, accepting His will, always uniting your heart to His and your soul to His, and so experiencing the joy of knowing that the result of all of those years at the feet of Jesus…all of those hours spent with Him…have eventually made you the extension of His merciful and loving Heart for many souls who are searching for Him. Amen.