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The Sixteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C

Jesus, Martha, and Mary 

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Martha comes to Jesus and says “Lord, don’t you care that my sister isn’t helping me, that she’s left me to serve alone? Tell her to help me!” Jesus responds by saying “Martha, you’re anxious about many things and there’s only thing necessary, and that Mary has chosen the better portion, or the good portion, and it’s not going to be taken from her.”

Now what is going on exactly in this story? Most people, I think, and most homilies I’ve heard on this, will focus on Martha and Mary as kind of symbols for two aspects of the spiritual life. Activity, who would be represented by Martha, who’s serving, who’s doing something; and then contemplation, which is symbolized by Mary, who’s simply sitting and receiving and listening to the Lord. And as we will see in a minute when we get to the living tradition, that’s a very, very ancient interpretation. It goes all the way back to the 3rd Century A.D. with the writings of Origen of Alexandria, who is the most prolific Bible commentator among the early Church Fathers in the 3rd Century A.D., before the time of Saint Jerome. So it’s a very ancient interpretation and I don’t want to deny that interpretation. However, it’s important that we be precise here about exactly what’s going on because sometimes people will say, “Well Jesus rebukes Martha for being too active and he approves Mary for being contemplative”, but there’s a little bit more going on there if you look exactly what he says here.

So notice, if you read the verse carefully here, it says “Martha was distracted with much serving” and when he responds to Martha’s demand that he get Mary to help her, notice what Jesus says: “You are anxious and troubled about many things.” So if you look at the text carefully, you’ll notice that both Luke’s description and Jesus’ response actually put the emphasis not just on Martha’s serving, but on the fact that she’s distracted by her serving. So if you look at the Greek word there, Luke says she was “distracted by much service.” The Greek word is perispaō, it literally means “pulled away”. So if you’ve ever been distracted you know what that does. Maybe you have an iPhone, or you’ve seen a young person on the phone and you say “they’re being distracted”, why? Well because they are in a particular situation but the phone is pulling them away from the present and distracting them with something else. That’s actually what the Greek word perispaō means, something is pulling you away from something else, it’s distracting you. So twice Mary is described as being distracted and the second word that the text emphasizes is that she is “anxious.” Jesus says, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious about many things.” The Greek word there, merimnaō, is from the word “to remember”, so she has a lot on her mind. So she’s distracted, and she’s anxious, or worried, or fretful about many different things. But Jesus says to her, “There’s only one thing that’s actually necessary or one thing that’s needed, and Mary has chosen it”. So whenever you look at this terminology here, it should actually call to mind Jesus’ teaching elsewhere in the gospel when he tells Martha not to be anxious. He uses the same word that occurs in Luke 12:22 when he says to the disciples:

And he said to his disciples, “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat, nor about your body, what you shall put on.

Then he goes again to give his famous examples of “consider the lilies of the field, they don’t toil or spin but they’re clothed more gloriously than Solomon”, or “consider the birds of the air, they don’t work but your father feeds them”. So he’s saying don’t be anxious and don’t be of an anxious mind, but seek first the kingdom of Heaven. That’s from Luke 12:22-31.

So the focus of Jesus’ response to Martha’s demand that Mary help her is actually to correct her for two things: First, she’s distracted with her service. It’s not just that she’s serving, it’s that the service is pulling her away from something else. And second, that she’s anxious about earthly things, like preparing a meal for Jesus. So in this case here, it’s the service that Martha’s providing that is leading her to two problems: namely to be distracted and to be worried or to be anxious, and that’s what Jesus (so-to-speak) rebukes her for...

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