In today’s Gospel we see two approaches to life. First there’s Martha, and we can imagine that she’s industrious and in a hectically busy way she always looks after her guest. She probably radiates a hullabaloo and from sheer enthusiasm makes a lot of bother for herself and for her guest. Then there’s Mary who sits at the feet of Jesus just listening to him speak. She has time entirely for him and is full of interest in him. Martha has welcomed Jesus into her home while Mary has welcomed Jesus into her heart. She makes him a gift, not of her activity, but of her attention.
Martha is making a great deal of trouble for herself and she’s in danger of forgetting the most important thing; what use is all the trouble and anxiety if in the midst of all that work she no longer has time for Jesus. What use is her hospitality if she wears herself out and has no energy to be with Jesus. Seeing to things and taking trouble to be hospitable are not bad, but they shouldn’t swallow everything up. It’s necessary to be active but our activity and our work needs to be supported by contemplation, moments of tranquility, reflection, and prayer. We can’t do it without prayer. Listening comes before acting, prayer before action.
John’s gospel tells us that Jesus loved Martha and Mary and Lazarus. Most likely Jesus was a frequent guest at their home in Bethany, a small village about two miles from Jerusalem. Many of us find it easy to identify with Martha. She welcomes Jesus and his disciples into her home and immediately goes to work to serve them. Hospitality in the Middle East is very important and Martha believed in it. We can imagine her frustration when her sister Mary ignores the rule of hospitality and sits to listen to Jesus, just sitting there, not working. But instead of speaking to her sister, she asks Jesus to intervene. He doesn’t. Jesus’ response isn’t unkind and gives us an idea of his affection for her. He observes that Martha is worried about many things that distract her and keep her from really being present to him. He reminds her that there is only one thing that is truly important, listening to him. And that is what Mary has done. In Martha we see ourselves, worried and distracted by our work, and sometimes forgetting to spend time with Jesus, it is, however, comforting to note that Jesus loved her just the same.
When I was very young we would sometimes visit my Dad at work. He was a machinist who worked for GM; he worked there for 30 years. He worked at various plants in Flint, but the one I remember most is plant 29. Every year there was family day when the plant was open to visitors. A very interesting place, I remember the assembly line with cars chugging slowly along as they were being built. I remember a huge oven with flames shooting out; I don’t know what it was used for but it was hotter than you know what. I remember a pigeon who had built a nest outside my dad’s window, something a future veterinarian would remember. I remember my dad’s work area with its huge tool chest, taller than me. He opened it for us to show us everything inside. I remember that on the inside top lid there were three photos, a photo of me and one each of my brothers Matt and Joe. But there was also something else I remember, something a future priest would remember, there was a crucifix tacked among the photos. And today I wonder, did my Dad use it as a reminder of where his focus should be? Did he use it as a reminder of the One who gives him his strength in the midst of all his work? Work he did to support his family.
Our Gospel tells us that Jesus sees that Martha is, “Anxious and worried about many things” and these work things distract her and keep her from being present to Him and listening to Him. We too can become worried, anxious, and distracted by all the many tasks we have to complete and we too can sometimes forget to spend time with Jesus or we can sometimes forget that Jesus is always our focus. This can easily happen to a priest as well.
But work doesn’t have to interfere or distract us from Christ. And we all work even if retired because there are still many household tasks and services for others that need to be done. We could be like my Dad and place a crucifix or a picture of Jesus in our work space. Reminding us that Jesus is our focus in all that we do, reminding us to listen to him. The catechism tells us that work honors the gifts and talents that God has given to us. Work can redeem us. By enduring the hardship of work in union with Jesus, the carpenter of Nazareth and the one crucified on Calvary, we collaborate in a certain fashion with the Son of God in redemptive work. This is a beautiful way of saying, as my Mom would say, “Offer it up.”
In last week’s Gospel we heard, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind.” And to love this way means that the whole sum of our life is for God. Even when God is not consciously in our thoughts, if we’ve given Him our day, offered him our day the moment we get up in the morning, then God will be in our hearts and hands as we pursue our work.
There’s an old prayer that a priest once recommended I pray every day and in this prayer we offer up to God our day, we offer him our work. It’s a way to make our whole day into a prayer, to focus our day unto Him. It’s called the daily offering, so even when our focus is elsewhere we’ve given our day and our work to God. The priest who gave it to me told me to tape it to my bathroom mirror.
O Jesus, through the Immaculate Heart of Mary, I offer you all my prayers, works, joys, and sufferings of this day, for all the intentions of your Sacred Heart, in union with the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass throughout the world, in reparation for my sins, for the intentions of all my relatives and friends and in particular for the intentions of the Holy Father. Amen
In the Gospels we only read of Martha in three passages. The last we read of her is in John 12 and all that’s written is, “Martha served” she simply served Jesus. My prayer for us today is that we always serve Jesus in all that we do, welcoming him into our home like Martha and into our heart like Mary.
Let us be great Saints,
Fr. Christopher J. Ankley