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Jesus’ Teaching Against Self-Absorption (It’s NOT About are you a Martha or Mary)

by David Gray, July 21, 2013
It’s common for us in the Catholic tradition to look at the Gospel reading today from Luke 10:38-42, and ask the question, “Are you a Martha or a Mary”, meaning are you the active (busy) type or are you more the contemplative type. Are we are finally ready to go deeper with this reading than that type of cursory self-reflection? It’s sadly ironic that the type of self-preoccupation that traditional question promotes is precisely what Jesus Christ is teaching against in this Gospel reading.

In other words, the question “Are you a Martha or a Mary?” is the type of question that always leads to an answer that is all about you. I’m a Mary because I … – I’m a Martha because I … In the spiritual life answers that point to us have absolutely no value whatsoever. So, what I’m briefly going to do in this reflection is redirect this passage of Scripture back on Jesus and His message.

Getting the most of the Scriptures always begins with asking it the right questions; questions that begin with who, what, why, when, and where. Concerning the four Gospel books in particular, it’s when we add the word, ‘unique’ after those five W’s is when we really start down the path of getting to the bottom of things. What is unique about this narrative? Well, the first thing that jumps out is that it tells us that, “Jesus entered a village where a woman whose name was Martha welcomed him. She had a sister named Mary who sat beside the Lord at his feet listening to him speak.” Whoa, Jesus – a Jewish male – is alone with women who are not His relatives? A woman is serving Him? Martha and MaryJesus is teaching women in their own house? That first sentence informs us that this narrative not about Mary and Martha at all – it’s all about Jesus. He’s just done something here that was revolutionary at this time.

Jesus becoming the dominate figure in a situation where He isn’t expected to be is a baseline narrative of the Gospels. Here in this story it is very interesting to note that although He is a guest in the home of Martha, He becomes the host in a sense. He is the one who they recline to, question, and listen to.

If you ever want to find a villain or the next person up to be corrected by Jesus in the Gospels, just look at who is talking just as much as He is. Whoever is running their mouth around Jesus is usually the next person up to find themselves in a teachable moment. That little fact also is applicable to our own life. In the instant case, it’s Martha who is running her mouth. “Martha, burdened with much serving, came to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving?” Oh, also another indicator that someone is about to get admonished by God is when they start telling Him what to do. Case point – Martha who says, “Tell her to help me.” Jesus responds to her complaint and demand by kindly saying, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.”

The “one thing” that we are in need of is Christ Jesus through the cleaving of discipleship. In Christianity, the word ‘discipleship’ is a synonym to the word ‘sacrifice’; also in our tradition love is the only thing that motivates us to sacrifice. Therefore, discipleship is always the polar opposite of self-absorption or self-preoccupation or self-glorification. The life of a disciple of Christ is to lovingly, sacrificially, and gratuitously do the work that God has called them to do. That is, with complete abandon of self, the disciple of Christ goes through life only focused on the ‘one thing’, which is cooperating with God in the work of His will begin done on earth as it is in Heaven. Inevitably, the fruit of true disciple in this life is suffering that can only be alleviated by our response to God’s grace.

It is also good to note that true disciples of Christ are not concerned about what others think about their service to God. A true disciple is actually the completely opposite of Martha who cried out to Jesus, essentially saying, ‘Look at me. I am doing everything all by myself’. Don’t we run into Martha’s all the time? People who want everyone to know what they are doing for God, and feel as if everyone should be doing precisely what they are doing so they too can share in the correct path to holiness. Out of one side of their mouth they say ‘Look at me’ and out of they other they say, ‘Be like me’, or like Mary commanded Jesus, “Tell her to help me.”

What the Catholic Church can say with the authority of having produced saints in Heaven for the past 2,000 years is that ‘the one necessary thing’ is to be singularly devoted to the service of Christ Jesus in your calling, even in the midst of personal suffering and sacrifice. Nothing else matters but that. Is that a hard saying? Absolutely, but the cost of discipleship is clear. Jesus addressed it when He said “If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple” (Lk. 14:26-27).

The Gospel reading today is calling you to leave behind the cares of this world to devote all of your heart to the singular service of God, while remembering that this sacrifice to carry your own cross to your own Mt. Calvary is suffering. Remember that we cannot follow the Lord to Calvary with a ‘look at me’ attitude, because there will come a stretch or a period of time when no one is going to be there to help you carry your cross and you are going to feel abandoned by everyone, even God, but you are going to have to keep pressing on, and if your motivation comes from the rewards of self-glorification (accolades, shout-outs, and hoorays for you) then you are not going to be able to make the trip to Calvary. You are going to give up. You are going to drop your Cross and go home with your tale between your legs. Serving the Lord in secret and sitting at his feet in silent listening are the difficult portion of the spiritual life, but they are also the necessary things that are guaranteed to make your life most rewarding!

As you reflect upon the readings at Mass today, here are some questions for you to consider:

  1. Are you the villain in your story with Christ Jesus or are you always finding yourself in teachable moments with Him? Do you talk more than you listen?
  2. How does the concept of being ‘singularly devoted’ to Christ Jesus look in your life right now? Where is there room for improvement?
  3. Has there been a time in your life when you can truly say that you were on fire for the Lord? How does that fire burn now? Is it a more mature and sustainable fire, or has it died?

PSALMS 15:2-3, 3-4, 5
One who walks blamelessly and does justice;
who thinks the truth in his heart
and slanders not with his tongue.

Who harms not his fellow man,
nor takes up a reproach against his neighbor;
by whom the reprobate is despised,
while he honors those who fear the LORD.

Who lends not his money at usury
and accepts no bribe against the innocent.
One who does these things
shall never be disturbed.

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Scripture texts in this blog are taken from the New American Bible with Revised New Testament and Revised Psalms © 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C. and are used by permission of the copyright owner. All Rights Reserved. No part of the New American Bible may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the copyright owner.

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