JOHN’s Gospel tells us that “Jesus loved Martha and Mary and Lazarus” (11.15). In this Sunday’s Gospel, Luke recounts Jesus’s first visit to their home. On this occasion, Martha allows her anxiety about the practical arrangements of his visit to overwhelm her. When she expresses resentment at her sister for sitting and listening to Jesus, he corrects her. Martha has allowed herself to become “worried and distracted”, when, in fact, “there is need of only one thing”: precisely the attentive listening that Mary of Bethany is engaged in.
Jesus is neither denigrating practical action nor setting up contemplation as a rival —and superior — occupation. Rather, he is calling Martha to integrate them in her life: to recognise that there is a time to listen attentively, and a time to act. Indeed, it is only when action flows from an encounter with her Lord — from sitting at his feet, and receiving his word — that it will be faithful and fruitful. Perhaps because of Mary’s attentiveness, she is one of the few disciples who truly understands Jesus’s teaching, anointing him for burial on the eve of his Passion (John 12.1-8).
Mary also shows us the difference between attentive listening and mere passivity. As David Lyle Jeffrey explains, her behaviour in our Gospel reading is “most unusual”; for “women were not in Judaism permitted to sit at the feet of a rabbi, since discipleship in their context was reserved for men alone” (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible: Luke). To listen at Jesus’s feet was itself an act of boundary-crossing. We see this same courageous spirit at work when she anoints him in Holy Week.
Kenneth Leech warns that excessive busyness is the enemy of the spiritual life — and a constant danger for those called to the most active ministries. They are the ones who need most urgently to cultivate a contemplative heart. Leech cautions against “frenzy and compulsive busyness”, which leads to “lack of focus, a tendency to accumulate more and more things, a collapse of reflection, and the cultivation of a personal culture of obligatory tiredness. This personal culture then becomes socially infectious so that one may communicate little to others other than one’s own exhaustion” (Through Our Long Exile). Today’s Gospel offers an example of the “infectious” nature of such busyness. We see how anxiety and distraction can lead to resentment of those who refuse to get drawn into it and, like Mary of Bethany, choose “the better part”.
Stillness and silence should be a component of every Christian life. Some vocations involve more of that than others, but Mary’s “better part” is “needful” for us all. We should draw encouragement from the fact that even the saints most famous for their contemplative practice did not find this easy. St Teresa of Ávila used to shake the hourglass that marked out her time of silent prayer to make it pass more quickly. The distracted state of our minds and hearts makes stillness challenging, and the fruitfulness of our times of prayer is not dependent on whether they feel fulfilling or enjoyable.
In our Old Testament reading, the hospitality of Sarah and Abraham is offered unwittingly to three heavenly messengers (cf. Hebrews 13.2). Their hospitality includes attentive listening as well as physical provision. Sarah, like Mary, will not allow herself to be excluded from this process — although, rather than listen at her guests’ feet, Sarah’s more cautious response is to eavesdrop at the entrance to the tent.
For Sarah, Mary, and Martha, attentiveness to earthly encounters provides an opening to the things of heaven. Precisely because the earth is God’s creation, the two worlds, if we have eyes to see, are intertwined. This, as Margaret MacDonald explains, is the message of our epistle: “The earthly and heavenly, the local and universal domains sometimes merge to such an extent that they become indistinguishable. Early church members were caught up in a drama in which cosmic events became replicated in human experiences” (Sacra Pagina: Colossians and Ephesians).
To allow earthly things to be a gateway to the things of God rather than a distraction from them is a central spiritual task. It focuses our hearts on the things that will endure for eternity. As St Augustine explains, when “all our busy activities” are over and done with, “the only thing that will remain will be alleluia. That is the delightful part that Mary chose for herself.”