Martha and Mary

This is not an easy gospel on which to preach. Jesus came to visit the family of Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. Martha did all the work to prepare for the Lord’s visit. She says to Jesus, "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the serving? Tell her to help me." And instead Jesus replies, "Mary has chosen the better part." But what would the Lord have had to eat and drink, and where would he sit if it had not been for Martha? In our homes, our schools, our work, and in this parish, what would happen to us without the Martha’s of the world?

By way of introduction, may I say that within each one of us, please God, are the traits of both Mary and Martha. I hope that we all help out at home and church, and that we all pray at home and church. We need both to perform and to benefit from the practical caring that Martha does, and to enjoy the wonderful conversations that Mary enjoyed. There is a minimum and maximum of work that is required of us, and a minimum and maximum of prayer that is required of us. Catholic morality teaches that virtue lies in the middle: we can sin either by excess or insufficiency. If all we do is work, something very meaningful is missing from our lives. If all we do is pray, we’ll starve to death. In the 5th century, the famous St. Benedict of Nursia changed monastic rules from only praying to praying and performing manual labor. In this church we have pictures of two great women saints who balanced prayer and work: St. Catherine of Laboure and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton.

Mary, Martha and Lazarus lived at Bethany. Mary of Bethany is oftentimes identified as Mary Magdalene, i.e., Mary of Magdala. Bethany was located just one mile east of Jerusalem, and Magdala was located 50 miles north of Jerusalem. These are two separate women. Ironically, Mary Magdalene has a feast day, Martha has a feast day, but her sister Mary of Bethany has no feast day in the church’s liturgical calendar.

I’ve asked my six sisters about this Martha and Mary story. Their comments cover a broad spectrum. One sister said, "Mary seems to be very contemplative; she wanted to sit at the feet of and listen to Jesus." Another sister retorted, "I think Mary just didn’t like to work." One sister said, "How could you not stop working, put down your broom and dust pan, and just listen to the Messiah, when he is sitting in your kitchen? Doesn’t the gospel say to "rejoice with the bridegroom while he is in your midst?" Another sister challenged, "If Mary had listened to Jesus, she would know that we were to be servants of one another. Remember the criterion for judgment: "When I was hungry and thirsty, did you give me to eat and drink? … As long as you did it for one of these least ones of mine, you did it for me." One sister admired Mary’s remaining at home with her deceased brother, and meekly, passively accepting God’s will. Another sister rejoiced that Martha did not sit passively at home, but rather went forth outside to meet Jesus, and to challenge him, "If you had been here, our brother would not have died." The discussion went back and forth, and the perceptions seemed to depend on my sisters’ different personalities. My mother interjected saying, "God gave me Martha’s job, but Mary’s mind."

I want to take a poll among the women at this Mass. Three questions: the first two are, 1) "In today’s gospel, do you identify more with Martha?", or 2) "In today’s gospel, do you identify more with Mary?" Third question), how many think my mother said it best by saying, "I have Martha’s job, but Mary’s mind."

In conclusion, may I repeat the words with which I said earlier, "We all need to live like Martha and Mary." Balance time for work, and time for prayer; time for caring, and time for taking care of yourself; time for doing, and time for doing nothing. As St. Paul says, "Pray always," so when we work, begin with a prayer, and say brief prayers for people and the quality of our work during quiet moments throughout our working day. In the end, our work will cease, and our conversations with the Lord will continue for all eternity. In this great Martha-Mary discussion, remember, "Mary has chosen the better part."

Read other homilies by Father O'Malley