“Mary has chosen the better part.” Luke 10:42
Growing up in the small rural community here in the west of England, there wasn’t much regard for book learning, nor were university graduates accorded much respect. The main concern always was the constant work necessary to try to make a living from the small farms. People were always very wary of anyone they regarded as having learned more than was necessary.
My mother would regularly warn me about a man who had gone to university but had none of what she described as “common sense.” In fact, this man was so far removed from knowing the things that were considered important that, when he got a puncture in his bicycle tyre, he didn’t know how to fix it. When I went off to London to university at the age of 18, it was expected that I would return not knowing how to do the most basic things. For the people in our village, there were doers and thinkers and you couldn’t be both.
They were not people who went to church, but if they had and they had heard the story of Mary and Martha, there is no doubt they would have taken Martha’s part. Martha was a doer, a worker, someone who achieved things. They would not have understood why Jesus says that Mary has taken the better part. Mary would not have got the hay cut; she would not have fed the cattle; she would not have saved the crop in the wet summers we had year upon year.
Jesus does not suggest that doing things is not important – what he’s concerned with is that Martha seems only concerned with doing things. There are always more household chores that could be done if you look for them. Martha seems as though she has decided to do her entire spring clean just as Jesus has arrived. Saint Luke says that she was distracted by her many tasks. Now, either she is doing things she does not need be to be doing at that moment, or she is letting the things she has to do get blown out of their right proportions.
This is a modest household in First Century Palestine, Martha could not have had so much to do that there were not five minutes to sit down and be quiet. If you had asked the farmers here whether they had to work for every waking moment, they would have had to admit that there were moments in most days when even they sat down and thought. My grandfather always lingered at the table after the end of meal, after everyone else had gone, drinking his tea in silence and thinking about who knew what?
The question is one of priorities. Jesus’ challenge to Mary and Martha is whether the spiritual things are a priority over all the other daily concerns. Mary believes they are, Martha has not stopped to think about it.
What priorities do people have today? Is the only concern with getting on, with doing things, with making money, with having things? Perhaps people have gained the world and, in doing so, lost their soul.
One extreme or the other leads to poverty. There needs to be a commitment to doing things to create the material wealth that makes life better for everyone, but there must also be a commitment to the spiritual to ensure that society does not become somewhere in which only money matters and where higher values disappear.
Mary and Martha are both needed – to bring together in people’s lives both a desire to get on and to do things and the desire to stop and to look for deeper meanings.
If people never ask they question, “why am I doing what I’m doing?” If they never stop to look and around them and look for some meaning in the years that pass, they can reach a point where they have only sadness and emptiness.
I remember a television play some years ago. It was set in the North of England in an old industrial area and was about a man who kept racing pigeons – a very popular activity in parts of England. He had worked hard all his life, earning money, keeping his family, getting on with things. As he grew older he spent more and more time with his pigeons. When he finally reaches a crisis point his life he is challenged about the pigeons; he confesses that all through the years it was in his pigeons that he found something that wasn’t just about work or the house. In his pigeons, he found a world outside of his ordinary existence; in the speed and flight of his pigeons he found a beauty he didn’t meet elsewhere. It was a sad play about a community, about a society, that had material wealth and spiritual poverty.