The story of Martha and Mary has always jarred with me – Mary, sitting (idly?) at the feet of Jesus has chosen the “better part,” while Martha, rushing around serving everyone, is told she is worrying and fretting over the unimportant. I relate to Martha, running around making sure all the little things are done. Even when I ‘sit at the feet of the Lord,’ I recall constantly all the things I must remember to do, or worse, might have done better.
Yet, reading the pericope in the broader context of Luke’s Gospel, I discovered two things. First, the passage is placed directly between the story of the Good Samaritan (who sees someone in need and does everything and more to help them), and Jesus’ instruction to his disciples on how to pray (simply, and without lengthy petitions).
It became clear to me that for Luke, there is only one instruction. Jesus commends Mary because she recognised the opportunity in front of her and chose to give herself to Jesus. Martha also saw a need and worked towards it, but without a prayer in her heart. She begrudged her sister thus her ‘doing’ was no longer a ‘gift’ of self. The “better part” that Mary chose was not simply choosing to sit and listen, but in her total gift of self to Jesus in whatever she chose. Jesus isn’t belittling the action of one over the other but honouring the intention of the giver.
As I go about my busy life, let me always remember that what I do, I do for God, and may my desire for God always be my “better part.”
Angela Marquis works for the Hobart Passionists at St Joseph’s in Tasmania, with WATAC (Women and the Australian Church), and as a primary school chaplain.