Getting the Better Part
Martha and Mary Receive Jesus by Anton Laurids Johannes Dorph
Every morning during the school year, the students at St. Mary Magdalen would gather in the gym for morning prayers, the pledge of allegiance, and to recite the school rules. As often as I would go over to join them, I could never remember all the rules. There was one, however, which I still remember, maybe because it was the shortest—Make good choices. It's a simple rule but a good rule. There is, of course, a lot more to making good choices than reciting, "Make good choices." Nonetheless, it's a start, and repetition is the mother of learning.
In the Gospel of Luke (Lk 10:38-42), Jesus says, "Mary has chosen the better part." Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, chose to sit at the feet of Jesus and listen to everything He said. We also know that this caused a scene in the family. Martha says to Jesus: "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? Tell her to help me." Jesus responds, "Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, and it will not be taken from her."
There is so much we can draw from this passage. First, mothers and grandmothers often tell me they don't like this passage. My Grandma didn't like it because Martha was toiling away, probably cooking and serving, and she is the one that gets "reprimanded," while Mary is just sitting doing nothing and gets praised for it. I understand, but I invite you to set aside the difficulty and consider the Gospel passage once more.
This passage comes immediately after the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk 10:25-37), in which a scholar of the Law confronted Jesus. So, He gave the parable as a challenge to the scholar. Martha, in contrast to the scholar, welcomes Jesus. She doesn't challenge His teaching but instead brings Him into her home, and she waits on Jesus. The change in setting is substantial. We are in a more privileged moment, and Jesus can teach differently in this setting. The essential teaching is that the better part is welcoming and receiving Jesus. The passage is about hospitality, too, but fundamentally it is about receiving Jesus—choosing Him.
So what about Martha? Well, we aren't offered many details, but a few things stand out. First, this isn't the only time we hear about a pair of siblings in the Gospel of Luke. In the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Lk 15:11-32), we hear about two brothers, a profligate younger brother and an embittered older brother. The scene with Martha and Mary, and the contrast between them, is not so intense and dramatic, nor as developed. It seems that the older sibling, Martha invites Jesus to their home and takes the lead role. Her comment to Jesus, which appears to convey some resentment, may also reflect the history of her relationship with Mary. Second, Martha, who's doing a lot, is burdened and seems to break with hospitality etiquette. She asks Jesus, a new acquaintance and a guest, to intervene in a family issue.
Shifting from the sisters to the Lord, Jesus says she is 'anxious and worried about many things,' a rebuke of sorts, but it might also be a moment of tenderness. Jesus SEES her. He knows her heart and points her to the one thing that truly matters—receiving Him. Ultimately, the issue is Jesus. Martha and Mary did not receive some ordinary man but the Son of God, who sees all and knows the heart. He also conveys that what Mary has received won't be taken from her. Very often, when we are envious or resentful of someone, we want to take away the good thing they have as a perverse consolation prize for ourselves, which Jesus knows is of no use to Martha.
So what do we make of all of this? Well, Jesus was not criticizing Martha for hosting Him. Jesus wanted, instead, to dispel Martha's anxiety and worry. He wanted her to be free of those things, so He named them and identified the way out of them. In other words, Jesus loved Martha and wanted her to be a saint, which she became, along with her sister and brother.
More than that, we see the change and growth of Martha's sanctity in the Gospel of John with the raising of Lazarus. At that point, Martha, Mary, and Lazarus were known friends of Jesus, and we know Jesus loved them (Jn 11:5). When Jesus arrives, Martha is presented as a bold woman of tremendous faith. She says in part, " Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God (Jn 11:22-27)."
The family life and holiness of Martha, Mary, and Lazarus mean that you and I can become saints. Becoming a saint means becoming friends with the Lord, choosing to welcome Jesus into your life, and listening attentively to Him.
After this Gospel passage, Jesus teaches His disciples how to pray. We welcome Jesus into our hearts through prayer. There is an excellent painting hung at St. Matthias Parish in Bala Cynwyd. In it, Jesus, dressed as the Good Shepherd with staff in hand, is knocking on the door of a little house. On closer inspection, one notices the door has no doorknob on the outside. The door can only be opened from the inside. That house is you and me. It is an image for our hearts. Jesus won't force His way in, but He calls us to open ourselves to Him.
The better part is to receive Jesus and always live in His presence, which changes us and is what will save us. One way to live in Jesus' presence is a constant prayer of the heart. The whole of our spiritual life is grounded in the prayer of the Mass, the Word, and the Eucharist, but the gift of Jesus' presence and action in the Mass is meant to extend to every moment of the day. One way to do this is through short prayers said in the heart. The Eastern Christians speak of the Jesus Prayer or the Prayer of the Heart, which is concise and to the point: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner. When you are worried or anxious, say this prayer in your heart. When you seek inspiration, pray, "Jesus, send me your Holy Spirit." When you are thankful, say, "Jesus, thank you."
Whatever the moment or situation, and whatever short prayer fits best, call out to the Lord. Every time you pray, you are opening the door to Jesus. Whenever you open yourself to Jesus, you aren't just making a good choice; you are choosing the better part.
What is most remarkable is that Jesus not only comes to visit the home that each of our hearts is to Him, but He invites us to pray together in the House of the Lord that is His Church. Ultimately, He invites us to His Father's House. May the Lord bless us with His presence, change our hearts, and bring us at last to the Father's House and the festal gathering of heaven.
—Fr. Alex Gibbs