I’m sure we can all agree that Martha chose a good part also. I’m sure Jesus very much, in the fullness of his hungry humanity, enjoyed the quick meal that Martha worked so hard to put together.
In the words of Jesus to Martha, while Mary is totally silent, the Lord draws a distinction between better parts and somewhat lesser parts of offering our attention to him. Without question, Martha symbolizes the corporal works of mercy in her person. She’s the fulltime doer. The one who feeds the hungry, gives drink to the thirsty. Martha is the one with the nurse’s bag always on the stand next to the front door, ready to pick it up and go on a call in the village when a sick call comes in. Or the one to go visit the sick and provide for their many needs.
We can form the impression from this Gospel story that Martha is somehow doing something in the presence of Jesus she shouldn’t be doing in that moment. It’s openly apparent that our Lord is – in a very nice way – telling her to slow down for a short time, take a break, chill out, and have a seat. However, in saying that Mary her sister has chosen the better part, there is no minimizing Martha’s running around with full love in her heart for Jesus, and a little less love for her sister.
As Mary sits at the feet of her Lord, we ourselves come to an insight for our Christian lives of the importance of listening to God’s voice, and not the distractions of a world that is constantly seeking your attention, begging you to buy their million different sales pitches. In Mary’s good choice of a better part in that moment, we’re taught by Christ why this is a better part for us too. Not at the expense of forgoing the corporal works of mercy of Martha. That would be a poor excuse for not performing acts of Christian love that are demanded each day. There are no good excuses for such neglect. But with the silence and attention of Mary, we’re offered a couple choices necessary to deepen our love for Christ, a love that never peaks in this life, even for the Saints. This is what the Gospel story rides on.
The first better part is sitting with our Savior. That’s obvious! I strongly recommend we not wait to see him face to face after death in order to sit with him. There are numerous opportunities to sit with him now. Do we avail ourselves of them? Do we recognize them? Mary not only chooses to sit before the Lord, but that choice leads to a greater capacity of intimacy with our Savior.
When Martha complained, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving?” Mary, who was sitting within earshot, heard none of those words of complaint about her. The first better part that supersedes even Martha’s loving service is this total attention on Christ our Light. Who of us can do that even for a moment each day, where all the noise around us cannot be heard because of our full attention is on Him? If we could capture just one minute of such attention with Christ each day, we would experience the joy of divine peace needed in a world of cable news, rabid politicians, and a bad Red Sox team. A short span of attention on the Lord Jesus goes a long way toward inner peace, sanity, and perspective.
The second part of the better part of Christ is the holy desire of Mary to welcome the Messiah within her. In our 2nd reading from Colossians today, St. Paul writes so nicely about the mystery hidden from ages and generations past, but now manifested to the holy ones… it is Christ in you.”
As lovely as what Martha is doing in feeding the hungry Jesus, her movement around the house in this moment of the Lord’s presence becomes a personal distraction for her. Again, her actions of love are not criticized by Jesus. But timing is important, as we know. Mary’s choice to sit at his feet is a teaching for us that says, “I want you, Jesus, internally, within me. I want you not just in my life, but inside of my life.”
In our Catholicism, we can live our lives on the edges and peripheries of our faith by fulfilling Sunday obligations, forgiving once in a while, performing that corporal work of mercy so ingrained in St. Martha to the point of complaint. All such spiritual goods are accomplished through the power of Christ in us. But he doesn’t want the “edges of our lives.” He wants the center. Your core. Our very soul. And since he created us, he deserves that burning bush within us. This is what Mary seeks, which is the better part.
My prayer is, like Mary, we give at some point each day the better part of our burning bush to him who is Lord and God. To invite him within us, to the center. And then go out and enjoy the many blessings of this life.