Story 4: Hospitality at Martha’s Home
In this series, Every Meal is a Story, we are looking at stories in the Gospel of Luke where Jesus breaks bread with all sorts of folks where they live in order to teach simple truth. And the truth is that we will experience and understand more of who we are as we break bread in community.
Read Luke 10:38-42
As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”
“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
One Sunday at our church in India, a Nigerian guest pastor spoke on this story of Jesus in the home of Martha and Mary. He followed a preaching style that I later learned is called “flower-petal,” a method of repeating the central point of the story and then going out on petals of explanation and then returning to repeat the central idea over and over again. His deep voice boomed, “Mary chose the good part,” drawing out and elongating each word for emphasis. I’ve never forgotten this King James version of Jesus’ words to Martha: Mary “chose the good part.”
Luke also draws our attention to other women who “chose the good part” traveling with Jesus and supporting his ministry including Mary Magdalene, Joanna the wife of Chuza, Suzanna, and many others. (8:1-3) Perhaps their traditional roles were serving and providing resources as the men proclaimed the good news of the kingdom, yet they were with Jesus, choosing to be with him.
You can imagine that welcoming Jesus home meant a lot of work for Martha, hosting his tired and hungry company. Yet it seems that her anxiety was not so much about the work, but her sister’s choice to sit and listen. The closeness of their daily relationship and desire to please Jesus could easily have led to comparison and complaining. But Jesus affirms the choice Mary makes to take the listening position of a disciple at his feet. Breaking tradition and offering freedom to choose, Jesus allows the women to be disciples who listen, learn, and worship, as well as serve.
Like our Nigerian friend, God’s instruction booms out in a voice from the cloud in the transfiguration story, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.” (Lk 9:35) Yet God’s instruction to listen gets lost in the many words and worries of distraction and anxiety. Jesus repeats Martha’s name twice to get her attention: “Martha, Martha.” Try to imagine the tone and inflection of his voice when he said, “You are worried and upset about many things.” As humans we are multi-tasking, consumer oriented, people drawn into the complexity of voices and viewpoints, identity and position. Many of us self-identify as “Martha,” and not “Mary.” There will always be a tension between devotion and service. Jesus’ response to Martha challenges us to the better part of listening and being that sustains and enlivens our going and doing.
REFLECT: Knowing our culture and nature to distraction and anxiety, think about what you could do to embrace intentional listening in devotion to Jesus. Do you identify with Martha, with anxieties or stresses causing you to compare or feel alone with the responsibilities you carry? As Martha was bold to share her feelings with Jesus, express what has risen up in your heart and mind.
PRACTICE: An Ignatian practice called “Imaginative Contemplation” allows the Holy Spirit to personalize this story as we “listen.” First, get in a quiet place and center yourself by removing distractions and taking time to breath deeply. Reread the story aloud and enter the scene with your imagination. Move beyond the words and allow yourself to recreate the story as a guest in the room, or as Martha or Mary. Notice small details, like the cooking fire, the smells, the hungry guests, or what Jesus might be doing. What emotions rise up in you? How do you respond to your sister? To Jesus? Do you identify with the busyness of Martha, or the intentional listening of Mary?
Hear Jesus as he calls your name twice. Draw close to him. Sit with him and wait and listen. What do you hear?
Imaginative Contemplation is one part of Ignatian Prayer discussed in this primer: