Two sisters named Martha and Mary extend hospitality to Jesus as he stops for a visit while on his journey to Jerusalem. Mary sits beside Jesus as a disciple talking with him. Martha, burdened by much serving, asks Jesus to tell Mary to help her. Jesus instead tells Martha that while she is needlessly worried about many things, there is need of only the one thing that Mary has chosen.
The first reading of this Sunday’s Mass is the story of Abraham and Sarah, who offer hospitality to three strangers. Their generosity in meeting the needs of the strangers knows no bounds: rolls made from fine flour, meat from a choice steer, curds and milk. Martha, a true child of Abraham and Sarah, wants to extend the traditional generous hospitality of her people to Jesus by preparing an elaborate meal for him. Jesus tells her that just one thing will be enough–perhaps a dish of yogurt (no need to prepare a tender choice steak). Jesus then uses this simple incident to talk with his two friends about a deeper level of human need and hospitality.
Jesus, also a true son of Abraham and Sarah, certainly would affirm Martha’s generosity in meeting his very human need for food. So that we do not miss this point, Luke places the present passage immediately after Jesus’ parable about the Good Samaritan, who responds with generosity to the needs of a man who had fallen victim to robbers. To be a disciple of Jesus does mean to respond with generosity to people in need of the basic necessities of life. That’s what Jesus himself did, and the Good Samaritan parable remains an essential part of his teaching. The incident of Jesus’ visit and his conversation with Martha and Mary became part of the gospel tradition, however, for another reason.
Jesus knew from his own experience about the basic human needs to which Martha with traditional hospitality was responding. However, he was also aware of a deeper human hunger that things like food, drink, shelter, and health cannot satisfy. It is the hunger for personal encounter—the hunger to be in personal communion with another in mutual self-giving. This deepest of all human hungers is satisfied to some degree in human friendship; ultimately, only in friendship with God. Saint Augustine prayed, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” Julian of Norwich, like so many saints, expressed the same truth, “For by nature our will wants God, and the good will of God wants us. We shall never cease wanting and longing until we possess him in fullness and joy. Then we shall have no further wants.” Is it any wonder that Jesus said that Mary had chosen the better part?
How are we to understand the complementarity of Martha’s generous hospitality in meeting Jesus’ need for food and Mary’s longing for personal communion with him? In response, we might follow the way of Jesus. He fed the hungry, cured the sick and expelled demons of every kind as an expression of love. In other words, our love must also become incarnate in whatever we do to meet the needs of others. Thus, our good work—whether cooking a meal or voting for a bill in congress—becomes a sacrament or an effective sign of our self-giving love. Etty Hillesum, a young Jewish woman who died at Auschwitz, expressed a similar understanding when she wrote that in prayer “‘God can enter you, and something of ‘Love’ too…the love you can apply to small, everyday things.” Today in our Eucharist we might join in her prayer: “Let me perform a thousand daily tasks with love, but let every one spring from a greater central core of devotion and love” (An Interrupted Life).
Campion P. Gavaler, O.S.B.