Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302
Make her help me!
by Father Michael Savelesky, for the Inland Register
(From the Aug. 2, 2007 edition of the Inland Register)
Every once in a while I become a bit envious of those large sign boards which stand in front of many of the churches in our area.
In addition to the name of the church, they usually announce the theme of the Sunday sermon. Sometimes the titles are rather curious – surely inviting passers-by to join the congregation for worship.
A few weeks ago I would have put on my sign: “Jesus, make her help me!”
The Sunday Gospel was the well-known story of Jesus visiting Martha and Mary for dinner. Mary sits at the feet of Jesus, listening to his every word. Martha busies herself with the details of hospitality, and complains to Jesus that her sister, Mary, should get with it and help with dinner preparations. In effect, Martha is soliciting Jesus’ cooperation in making Mary help with the kitchen duties.
Jesus’ response is insightful and challenging to both: “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and upset about many things. Only one thing matters. Mary has chosen the better part, and it shall not be taken from her.”
This scene portrays the well-known Mary-Martha dilemma. The problem is not exclusive to Mary and Martha. Their dilemma is our own, for certainly this scene gives voice to a fundamental tension in Christian spirituality. To pray or to work? Do we carry out our legitimate responsibilities or do we “take time out” for reflection and prayer?
At first hearing it would appear that Jesus chooses sides in this dilemma – the side of Mary and her “prayer time.” Should this be the case, the dilemma would only be intensified. After all, each of us has legitimate responsibilities which demand our energy and attention. Someone has to fix dinner, as it were.
Actually, Jesus has refused to take sides. He indicates that both modes of living are valuable and necessary. His words, however, caution against the temptation to choose sides, picking work over prayer or prayer over work.
Jesus’ recognition that Mary has chosen the better part is not a chastisement of Martha, but a caution that the pursuit of the deeper dimension of life, gleaned from explicit prayer-time conversation with God, cannot and should not be neglected if one is to live a rich and balanced spiritual life.
His words are most appropriate, because the first thing to leave our consciousness and daily or weekly schedules is indeed specific time for prayer. Business – sometimes inordinate business – creeps in and the better portion we have chosen disappears. Life returns to a shallow dimension and we survive – but empty-handed, and empty-hearted.
Jesus’ words to Martha sound like a chastisement, but they are not. Rather, they are words which occasionally need to be heard.
Jesus does not criticize Martha for being busy or for carrying out what are obviously legitimate and necessary household duties. Rather, he chastises her for being upset and anxious. She has lost touch with a rich and beautiful dimension of her faith.
In the Jewish tradition (and by association, our own Christian tradition) hospitality itself is a form of prayerfulness which manifests an openness to God’s presence. The family, the neighbor, the visitor – even the enemy – is served as if they enfleshed the very presence of God.
Martha had forgotten this and saw her dinner preparations only as busy-work which demanded Mary’s assistance. When true hospitality becomes sheer duty, comparison leads to jealousy.
So true of us as well. The vast majority of our waking day is spent with legitimate business, necessary responsibilities and appropriate daily tasks.
Jesus’ words remind us that these, too, must be incorporated into our spiritual growth, our growth as disciples of the Lord. There is a way to sit at the feet of Jesus in explicit moments of prayer and reflection. There is also a way to sit at the feet of Jesus in the home, school, playground, or place of business.
A balanced Christian spirituality calls for both types of sitting, as well as the gift of wisdom which recognizes when the balance is not there. Without the balance, our spirituality suffers from a kind of suffocation which makes itself known in lingering feelings of emptiness or purposelessness, or in nagging admonitions of conscience to listen more attentively to God.
The Mary in us needs to protect against losing the better part – the explicit time with God in prayer. The Martha in us needs to get with it and perceive the presence of the Lord in the multitude of tasks and responsibilities which occupy our every day.
God is to be found in both, and both are needed.
(Father Savelesky is pastor of Assumption Parish in Spokane.)
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