-Fr. Lino Moreira OSB

Martha welcomed Jesus into her house (cf. Lk 10:38), but she failed as a hostess, because – as Saint Luke puts it – she was distracted with much serving (cf. Lk 10:40) and therefore had no time to listen. It would seem, then, that the very epitome of a true disciple was Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his word (cf. Lk 10:39). Mary’s attitude, however, should not be misconstrued as a call to passivity, for the Bible gives us Abraham as the perfect example of a host who was every bit as active as Martha, and yet, instead of being reproved, was rewarded by the Lord with the promise of a son.

The secret of Abraham’s success was that he worshipped and listened before he started to act. As the biblical author carefully notes: Abraham looked up and saw three men standing in front of him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground (Gn 18:2). He then offered them hospitality, and didn’t move until they replied: “Do as you have said” (Gn 18:5).

Martha, for her part, didn’t begin by worshipping and inquiring, but immediately plunged into action, trying to provide what she thought was good hospitality. On account of her misguided self-confidence, she soon lost her inner peace, and ended up addressing harsh words to Jesus: “Lord, – she cried – do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me” (Lk 10:40). Martha was so worked up that she could not see the real cause of her frustration and resentment; therefore Jesus replied: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things, but there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her” (Lk 10:41).

We are meant to take this gentle reproach as a warning to avoid Martha’s mistake and to follow Mary’s example. In other words, if we truly wish to serve the Lord, if we aspire to love him with all our heart, with all our soul and with all our strength (cf. Dt 6:5), then we need to listen to his word at all times, as attentively as we possibly can, and with a genuine desire to do his will.

There is nothing more personal than this constant dialogue with the Lord, where he calls each one by their name and confirms them in the mission they were born to fulfil. One he may encourage to play a very active role in the Church or in the world, and another he may ask to remain at his feet, worshipping his divine nature, which he shares with God the Father and the Holy Spirit. The latter is indeed what the author of The Cloud of Unknowing thought Mary was doing: “As she was listening to his word – writes the 14th century mystic – she was contemplating with all the love of her heart the supreme wisdom of his Godhead shrouded in the dark words of his manhood” (The Cloud of Unknowing, XVII).

Such exegesis became standard in the Middle Ages, but to look at Mary simply as typifying what later came to be called the contemplative life – which is the kind of life hermits, for instance, are supposed to lead – is to read too much into Saint Luke’s gospel. There Mary is presented as a model for all disciples, who like her should sit at the Lord’s feet and listen to his word (cf. Lk 10:39). So we are all invited to choose the good portion, and we are all promised that it will not be taken away from us; for the Lord will never refuse to speak to those who seek to hear his voice in the innermost depths of their heart, and life eternal is to partake in the unceasing dialogue of love between the three persons of the Most Holy Trinity.

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