” Mary hath chosen the best part, which shall not be taken away from her.” — St. Luke x. 42.
There was great commotion in the little household of Bethany that evening. The Master had come, it may be quite unexpectedly, with several of his disciples. Martha, the bustling, anxious housekeeper, was at once full of excitement and care about the entertainment of her loved and honored guest. Her whole thought was to spread a bountiful table ; and immediately the servants were set in motion to provide the viands, the best plate was brought out, every thing thrown into confusion to be rearranged in better order, and all the other preliminaries to a repast in accordance with Martha’s domestic traditions and ideal of strict propriety were undertaken in a vigorous and rapid style. Naturally enough, as she was taken by surprise and rather pressed for time, when the hour for supper drew on she became a little worried and agitated in mind. She began to fear lest every thing would not be well prepared and ready in due time. Meanwhile, there was Mary, quietly sitting down at the Master’s feet, enjoying His conversation, without giving the least thought to the preparation of the repast, or offering to give the least assistance to her busy and anxious sister.
It must be admitted that this was a little trying to the patience even of a saint like Martha. It is not difficult to conceive of the irritation of her feelings as she was hurrying her preparations, and occasionally casting a significant glance toward Mary, which was altogether unnoticed by her. ” There,” she may have said inwardly, “is that thoughtless, wayward girl, for whom I have taken so much pains, and suffered so many heartaches, as usual, perfectly thoughtless about me, caring nothing that I have so much work upon me, and not willing to give me the slightest assistance. She is but lately converted from a scandalous life, yet she is the favorite of the Master, and is allowed to sit all the time conversing with Him, while I, who have always been so exact in fulfilling all the commandments, am considered only good enough to be a servant and wait upon every one. It is really too hard.”
… How wonderful, how rare, how brief, such a visitation was, an hour or two after long intervals out of the few years passed by the Son of God among men, accorded to this favored family, and to scarce any others in the whole world. Yet the thoughts of Martha were wholly intent on preparing food, setting the table, and chiding her sister for her indifference to those important matters. It does appear very strange and unaccountable conduct, especially in a saint ; but it was not. Her activity of mind and disposition, her solicitude about doing her work well, her peculiarly human and feminine attachment to our Lord, kept her thoughts too much preoccupied to have leisure or calm to attend to that which was supernatural and divine. For this reason, our Lord, though He reproved her, did it gently, without any appearance of taking offence at her querulous tone. He merely admonished her to moderate her eagerness about outside duties, in order that she might acquire a more spiritual and interior virtue. He exculpated Mary, without detracting from the praise due to Martha for her zeal and diligence. Thus, in the end, both profited by the visit of our Lord, and received the sanctifying Word into their souls. Mary, by sitting at the Lord’s feet, and listening to Him in absorbed silence, and Martha by serving Him and His disciples in outward things. Mary, as the youngest, the weakest in virtue, the most needing a physician, received the most attention and indulgence. Martha, as one strong inspirit, advanced in virtue, and free from all the deep maladies of soul, received briefer counsel, spiced with a slight flavor of reproof; yet no doubt efficacious to remove completely the slight defect which called it forth, and to make her worthy of the full approbation of Christ. It was not, then, that Jesus slighted the services of that pure, generous, noble-hearted woman, or forgot the fair, unstained record of her spotless, useful, charitable life, which was the cause why he checked her impetuosity, and pointed out to her the excellence of that “best part” which Mary had chosen.
Paulist Fathers, “SERMON XII. ST. MARY MAGDALENE THE MODEL OF INTERIOR LIFE”, Sermons preached at the church of St. Paul, the Apostle, 1861
This is of course the story of Jesus visiting two sisters from Luke 10. I’ve seen several discussions of this passage, and this one gives the nicest treatment to Martha, the housekeeper. She is the housekeeper in this context, even if it is her own home. So many discussions leap all kinds of blame on Martha for neglecting spiritual things. But I like how this one says that Jesus gave each woman what she needed: the mature sister gets a little rebuke, but the newly penitent person recovering from a life of sin gets more attention. Perhaps it is fitting that the beneficence of Jesus gets the most attention here.
Note that the complete sermon includes some claims about Martha being given some special eternal designation, which I would assert is extra-biblical.
PRAYER: Dear Lord, thank you for the example of Martha, who was able to speak clearly and boldy (pray!) to her Lord with her needs and frustrations. Thank you for the example of Mary, who was eager to be with you and consume your word. AMEN.