The Word Embodied
Working and Wanting
“Anxious and upset about many things.”
The story of Mary and Martha has always irritated me a bit. You have these two sisters. One of them, Martha, takes the opportunity to welcome Jesus into their home. The other, Mary, as soon as Jesus comes in, sits down at his feet and seems to hang on his every word.
So what is Martha to do? Sit down too, and let the stew boil over? If she also rests at Jesus’ feet, who is going to serve? How will they eat? What will they have? Nothing will get done.
Then Jesus gets on her case, telling her that she frets and bothers about many things and that Mary (of all people) has chosen the better part by just lolling there doing nothing.
I would like to have been a mouse in that house to hear what Martha might have answered. “O.K., you two make the dinner, set out the meal, and clean up the place. I’m tired of working and being unappreciated.”
Perhaps she would even remind them who had invited Jesus in the first place. At least that is what I would have said, or maybe muttered into the fire that no one else bothered to stoke.
Of course, my perfect riposte reveals why Jesus saw fit to chide the Martha in me. He spots the resentment that rises when I think others are not doing their share—especially when I am so dutifully doing mine.
My urgent solicitude reveals something quite other than generosity. So does my reminder that I, after all, am why this little get-together is even happening. Poor me, I brood with perfect logic: If that is the way he wants it, let him have it. “You do the work, if you think it is so paltry.”
I finally squeeze into the teeny tight hollow of my ego.
Ah, but there are those other days, those lovely times of labor when I’m not looking over my shoulder at how well I am doing and how little others seem to accomplish.
Like Abraham’s Sarah with her warm bread, choice meats, and fresh milk, I can go about my tasks knowing that they, too, are the presence of God. My work is no longer something exacted of me, toil grudgingly given. Rather, it flows freely, a display of how good it is to be alive, to be here, to be now.
The Martha in my mind is not distracted on those good days. Nor do I feel any need to complain to God that others around are not following my script. Best of all, I do not complain that I am doing it all by myself.
Those days are rare. But when they arrive I realize that my annoyance with the story of Mary and Martha is not about the value of work, but about the way we work. Martha, like me, need not stop the labor. We just need to stop the fuss.
There is Martha, that saint, in all of us. Just as there is Mary a saint as well. In fact, there is probably a lot of Mary in Martha and a lot of Martha in Mary. The challenge is in letting them get along. And when we sit down before the feet of God, let not our Martha fail to rejoice in the moment. And when we go about preparing the meals of life, let us labor, not with comparisons or resentment, but with the joy of having seized an opportune moment.
John Kavanaugh, SJ
Father Kavanaugh was a professor of Philosophy at St. Louis University in St. Louis. He reached many people during his lifetime.
**From Saint Louis University