Lectio Divina: 16th Sunday of ordinary time (C)
Mary and Martha, friends of Jesus
Which is the better part chosen by Mary?
Luke 10:38 – 42
1. Opening prayer
Lord Jesus, send Your Spirit to help us to read the scriptures with the same mind that You read them to the disciples on the way to Emmaus. In the light of the Word, written in the bible, You helped them to discover the presence of God in the disturbing events of Your sentence and death. Thus, the cross that seemed to be the end of all hope became for them the source of life and of resurrection.
Create silence in us so that we may listen to Your voice in creation and in the scriptures, in events and in people, above all in the poor and suffering. May Your word guide us so that we too, like the two disciples on the way to Emmaus, may experience the force of Your resurrection and witness to others that You are alive in our midst as source of fraternity, justice and peace. We ask this of You, Jesus, son of Mary, who revealed the Father to us and sent us Your Spirit. Amen.
a) A key to the reading:
The text of the Gospel for this Sunday narrates the visit of Jesus to the house of Martha and Mary. Jesus tells Martha, “Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her!” Throughout the centuries, many times these words have been interpreted as a confirmation on the part of Jesus of the fact that contemplative life, hidden in the monasteries, is better and more sublime than the active life of those who work in the field of evangelization. This interpretation is not correct, because it lacks the foundation of the text. In order to understand the significance of these words of Jesus (and of any word) it is important to take into account, to consider the context, (that is, the context of the Gospel of Luke) as well as the broader context of the work of Luke which includes the Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles. Before verifying the broader context of the Acts of the Apostles, let us try to gaze a bit at the text in itself and try to see how it is placed in the immediate context of the Gospel of Luke. During the reading, try to feel that you are present in Mary’s house and feel close to the environment and to the outreach or importance of the words of Jesus, not only as Martha hears them but also as the community for which Luke writes his Gospel hears them and also how we hear these inspiring words of Jesus.
b) A division of the text to help in the reading:
Luke 10:38: Martha welcomes Jesus into her house.
Luke 10:39-40a: Mary listens to the words of Jesus, Martha is busy with the service in. the house.
Luke 10:40b: Martha complains and asks Jesus to intervene.
Luke 10: 41-42: Jesus’ answer.
Jesus entered a village where a woman whose name was Martha welcomed him. She had a sister named Mary who sat beside the Lord at his feet listening to him speak. Martha, burdened with much serving, came to him and said, "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? Tell her to help me." The Lord said to her in reply, "Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her."
3. A moment of prayerful silence
so that the Word of God may penetrate and enlighten our life.
4. Some questions
to help us in our personal reflection.
a) Which is the point in this text which pleased you the most or struck you? Why?
b) What would Jesus mean with that affirmation: “one thing alone is necessary”?
c) What was the “better part” which Mary chose and which will not be taken from her?
d) A historical event can have a more profound symbolic sense. Did you succeed in discovering a symbolic sense in the way in which Luke describes Jesus’ visit to the house of Martha and Mary?
e) Read attentively Acts 6:1-6 and try to discover the bond of union between the problem of the apostles and the conversation of Jesus with Martha.
5. For those who wish to go deeper into the theme
a) Context of the Gospel of Luke:
Luke 9:51 begins the second stage of the apostolic activity of Jesus, the long journey from Galilee up to Jerusalem. At the beginning of the journey, Jesus gets out of the Jewish world and enters into the world of the Samaritans (Lk 9:52). Even though He is not well received by the Samaritans (Lk 9:53), He continues in their territory and even corrects the disciples who think differently (Lk 9:54-55). In responding to those who ask to follow Him, Jesus makes explicit the significance of everything that has happened, and indicates to them the demands of the mission (Lk 9:56-62).
Then Jesus appoints seventy-two disciples to go on mission before Him. The sending out of the twelve (Lk 9:1-6) was in the world of the Jews. The sending out of the seventy-two is for the non-Jewish world. Having finished the mission, Jesus and the disciples meet and evaluate the mission, and the disciples give an account of the many activities that they carried out, but Jesus insists on the greatest certainty that their names are written in Heaven (Lk 10:17-37).
Then follows our text which describes Jesus’ visit to the house of Martha and Mary (Lk 10:38-42). Luke does not specifically indicate where the village of Martha and Mary is found, but in the geographical context of his Gospel, the reader imagines that the village is found in Samaria. From the Gospel of John we know that Martha and Mary lived in Bethany, a small village near Jerusalem (Jn 11:1). In addition, John tells us that they had a brother named Lazarus.
b) Comment on the Text:
Luke 10:38: Martha welcomes Jesus into her house.
“In the course of the journey, He came to a village, and a woman named Martha welcomed Him into her house” Jesus was on the way. Luke does not always say where Jesus was passing by, but many times Jesus is on the way (Lk 9:51,53-57; 10:1,38; 11:1; 13:22-23; 14:25; 17:11; 18:31,35; 19: 1,11,28,29,41,45; 20:1). Jesus had firmly decided to go up to Jerusalem (Lk 9:51). This decision orientates Him during all the stages of the journey. The entrance into the village and into the house of Martha and Mary is one more stage of this long journey up to Jerusalem and forms part of the realization of Jesus’ mission. From the beginning, the objective of the journey is definitive: to carry out His mission of Servant, announced by Isaiah (Isa 53: 2-10; 61:1-2) and assumed by Jesus in Nazareth (Lk 4:16-21).
Luke 10:39-40a: Mary listened to His words; Martha was taken up with service.
“She had a sister, named Mary, who sat at the feet of Jesus, and listened to His word; Martha, instead, was taken up with all the serving”. This was a normal supper at home, in the family. While some speak, others prepare the food. The two tasks are important and necessary, both complement one another, especially when it is a question of welcoming someone who is coming from outside. In affirming that “Martha was taken up with all the serving” (diaconia), Luke evokes the seventy-two disciples who were also busy with many activities of the missionary service (Lk 10:17-18).
Luke 10:40b: Martha complains and asks Jesus to intervene.
“Martha came to Him and said: ‘Lord, do You not care that my sister is leaving me to do the service all by myself? Please tell her to help me.’” Another familiar scene, but not so normal. Martha is busy only with the preparation of the food, while Mary is sitting, and is speaking with Jesus. Martha complains. Perhaps Jesus interferes and says something to the sister to see if she will help her in the service in the diaconia. Martha considers herself a servant and thinks that the service of a servant is that of preparing the food and that her service in the kitchen is more important than that of her sister who is speaking with Jesus. For Martha, what Mary does is not a service, because she says, “Do You not care that my sister is leaving me to do the service all by myself?” But Martha is not the only servant. Jesus also assumes his role as servant, that is, of the Servant announced by the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah had said that the principal service of the Servant is that of being before God in prayer, listening in order to be able to offer a word of comfort to take to those who are discouraged. The servant said, “The Lord God has given me a disciple’s tongue, for me to know how to give a word of comfort to the weary. Morning by morning He makes my ear alert to listen like a disciple” (Isa 50:4). Now, Mary has an attitude of prayer before Jesus. The question arises: Who carries out the service of a servant better - Martha or Mary?
Luke 10:41-42: Jesus’ response
“The Lord then answered, ‘Martha, Martha, you worry and fret about so many things, and yet few are needed, indeed only one. Mary has chosen the better part, and it will not be taken from her.” A beautiful answer and a very human one. For Jesus, a good conversation with people who are friends is important and even more important than eating (cf. Jn 4:32). Jesus does not agree with the worries of Martha. He does not want that the preparation of the meal interrupt the conversation. It is as if he would say, “Martha, it is not necessary to prepare so many things! A small thing suffices! And then come participate in this beautiful conversation!” This is the principal significance, so simple and human of the words of Jesus. Jesus likes a good conversation, and a good conversation with Jesus produces conversion. In the context of the Gospel of Luke, these decisive words of Jesus assume a more profound symbolic significance:
i) Like Martha, the disciples, during the mission, were worried about many things, but Jesus clarifies well that the more important thing is that of having their names written in Heaven, that is, to be known and loved by God (Lk 10:20). Jesus repeats to Martha, “You worry and fret about so many things, and yet few are needed, indeed only one.”
ii) A short time before the doctor of the law had reduced the commandments to one alone: “To love the Lord God above all things and your neighbor as yourself” (Lk 10: 27). Observing this commandment, the person will be ready to act with love, like the Good Samaritan and not like the priest or the Levite who do not fulfill their duty well (Lk 10:25-42). The many services of Martha should be carried out beginning with this unique service truly necessary which is the loving attention to people. This is the better part that Mary has chosen and which will not be taken from her.
iii) Martha is concerned about serving (diaconia). She wanted to be helped by Mary in the service at table. But what is the service which God wants? This is the fundamental question. Mary is more in agreement with the attitude of the Servant of God, because, like the Servant, she is now in the attitude of prayer before Jesus. Mary cannot abandon her attitude of prayer in the presence of God, because, if she did this, she would not discover the word of comfort to take to those who are wearied. This is the true service which God is asking from all.
c) Broadening the information:
A broader context of the Acts of the Apostles
After the death and resurrection of Jesus the communities will be born. They will have to face new problems, for which they did not have solutions already foreseen. In order to orientate themselves in the solutions to the problems, the communities tried to remember the words and gestures of Jesus which could bring them some light. Thus, the episode of the visit of Jesus to the house of Martha and Mary was recalled and narrated in order to help clarify the problem described in Acts 6:1-6.
The rapid growth in the number of Christians created divisions in the community. The faithful of Greek origin began to complain about those of Hebrew origin and said that their widows were set aside and neglected in daily life. There was discrimination in the environment of the community and people were lacking in the various services. Up to that moment the need had not arisen to involve other people in the coordination of the community and in the fulfillment of the services. Like Moses, after leaving Egypt (Ex 18:14; Num 11:14-15), the Apostles also did everything alone, but Moses, obliged by the facts, shared the power and convoked seventy other leaders for the necessary services among the People of God (Ex 18:17-23; Num 11:16-17). Jesus had done the same thing: He convoked seventy-two other disciples (Lk 10:1). Now, in the face of new problems, the Apostles did the same. They convoked the community and exposed the problem before everyone. Without doubt, Jesus’ word to Martha helped them to reach a solution. Below it is possible to read the two texts, one beside the other. Try to understand how they enlighten each other:
1 About this time, when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenists made a complaint against the Hebrews: in the daily distribution their own widows were being overlooked. 2 So the Twelve called a full meeting of the disciples and addressed them, 'It would not be right for us to neglect the word of God so as to give out food; 3 you, brothers, must select from among yourselves seven men of good reputation, filled with the Spirit and with wisdom, to whom we can hand over this duty. 4 We ourselves will continue to devote ourselves to prayer and to the service of the word.' (Acts 6:1-4)
38 In the course of their journey He came to a village, and a woman named Martha welcomed Him into her house. 39 She had a sister called Mary, who sat down at the Lord's feet and listened to Him speaking. 40 Now Martha, who was distracted with all the serving, came to Him and said, 'Lord, do You not care that my sister is leaving me to do the serving all by myself? Please tell her to help me.' 41 But the Lord answered, 'Martha, Martha,' he said, 'you worry and fret about so many things, 42 and yet few are needed, indeed only one. It is Mary who has chosen the better part, and it is not to be taken from her.'
The Apostles find themselves between two real needs, both of them very important, defined as service (diaconia): the service of the Word and the service at the tables. What to do? Which of the two is more important? Jesus’ response to Martha helped to discern the problem. Jesus said that Mary could not abandon the conversation with Him in order to go and help in the kitchen. Thus, Peter concludes, “It would not be right for us to neglect the Word of God so as to give out food!” Peter defines the service of the Apostolate: “to devote themselves to prayer and to the ministry of the Word.”
It is not said that one service is better than the other. What cannot happen is that the service of the Word be hindered by the unforeseen demands of the service at the table. The community was obliged to face the problem, be concerned to have enough people for all the services. The service of the word proper to the Apostles (and of Mary at the feet of Jesus) had two dimensions: on the one side, listening to the Word, receiving it, incarnating it, announcing it, diffusing it through the active work of evangelization and, on the other side, in the name of the community, responding to God in prayer and representing the community in a prayerful attitude before God. It is not a question of an opposition between the two services: word and table. Both are important and necessary for the life of the community. It is necessary to have people available for both of them. In the economy of the Kingdom, the service of the Word (Evangelization) is the root, the source. It is the better part which Mary has chosen. The service of the table is the result, the fruit, its revelation. For Luke and for the first Christians, “the better part” of which Jesus speaks to Martha, is the service of evangelization, source of all the rest.
Meister Eckhart, the great Dominican mystic of the Middle Ages, interprets this episode in a very amusing way. He says that Martha already knew how to work and to live in the presence of God. Mary did not know and was learning. This is why she could not be interrupted. The great mystics are the proof that this text cannot be interpreted like a confirmation on the part of Jesus that contemplative life is better and more sublime than active life. It is not good to make a distinction between these two words, because one is completed, is founded and is made explicit in the other. The Carmelite Friar Saint John of the Cross in a little more than ten years travelled 27,000 kilometers going through Spain. Saint Teresa of Avila was always on the move, very busy as she was with the foundation of so many monasteries. Jesus Himself lived the profound unity of contemplative and active life.
6. Recitation of a Psalm
Psalm 145 (144): God deserves praise
I shall praise You to the heights, God my King,
I shall bless Your name for ever and ever.
Day after day I shall bless You,
I shall praise Your name for ever and ever.
Great is Yahweh and worthy of all praise,
His greatness beyond all reckoning.
Each age will praise Your deeds to the next,
proclaiming Your mighty works.
Your renown is the splendor of Your glory,
I will ponder the story of Your wonders.
They will speak of Your awesome power,
and I shall recount Your greatness.
They will bring out the memory of Your great generosity,
and joyfully acclaim Your saving justice.
Yahweh is tenderness and pity,
slow to anger, full of faithful love.
Yahweh is generous to all,
His tenderness embraces all His creatures.
All Your creatures shall thank You, Yahweh,
and Your faithful shall bless You.
They shall speak of the glory of Your kingship
and tell of Your might,
making known Your mighty deeds to the children of Adam,
the glory and majesty of Your kingship.
Your kingship is a kingship for ever,
Your reign lasts from age to age.
Yahweh is trustworthy in all His words,
and upright in all His deeds.
Yahweh supports all who stumble,
lifts up those who are bowed down.
All look to You in hope
and You feed them with the food of the season.
And, with generous hand,
You satisfy the desires of every living creature.
Upright in all that He does,
Yahweh acts only in faithful love.
He is close to all who call upon Him,
all who call on Him from the heart.
He fulfills the desires of all who fear Him,
He hears their cry and He saves them.
Yahweh guards all who love Him,
but all the wicked He destroys.
My mouth shall always praise Yahweh,
let every creature bless His holy name for ever and ever.
7. Final Prayer
Lord Jesus, we thank You for the word that has enabled us to understand better the will of the Father. May Your Spirit enlighten our actions and grant us the strength to practice what your Word has revealed to us. May we, like Mary, Your mother, not only listen to but also practice the Word. You who live and reign with the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit forever and ever. Amen.