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SpiritualDirection.com / Catholic Spiritual Direction

The Danger of Martha’s Vindication

October 9, 2013 by  
Filed under Dan Burke, Prayer, Scripture

I have noticed a troubling trend in past years when the Gospel reading about Mary and Martha’s encounter with Christ surfaces. Of course we all know the passage:

“Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and Marthalistened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

What usually happens when this passage is discussed is that the speaker or writer immediately comes to the defense of Martha. Some point out that she was a saint (which she was), and others note that she was simply seeking to serve Jesus (which she was). I can’t know the individual motivations behind this tendency, but, regardless, the softening of Martha’s error in judgment runs contrary to what the Holy Spirit is working to reveal to us here.

We know that Martha is a good and holy woman, who is doing a good thing in her desire to serve Christ. Yet Jesus’ rebuke in this passage is harsh – which should not cause us to recoil, but instead inspire us to lean in and pay close attention.

Imagine yourself in Martha’s shoes, rushing around to care for Jesus with diligence and love. Christ knew the inner workings of her heart. He knew her desires, intent and concerns. He had the opportunity to honor her efforts, but he didn’t; quite the opposite.

If we were to render a modern, more sensitive scenario based on almost all the teaching I have heard, the scene would look something like this (Jesus speaking softly):

“Oh Martha, I am grateful for your desire to serve me. You are a good woman and one who obviously has my best interests at heart. I honor you for that. Please know that I greatly appreciate the love and care you are trying to show me. But please, lay down your concerns and rest a bit with me here along with Mary.”

Instead Jesus says, in effect, “Martha, your focus is wrong,” and “Mary, you are exactly on target.” Just to drive this painful interaction one level deeper, he reproves Martha in front of Mary and anyone else who may have been present. She appeals to him, and he rejects the appeal and corrects her!

Why would he do such a thing? Because the lesson he was attempting to teach was essential – too important to be missed. A subtle, gentle approach could not be risked.

So what was that lesson? What was so important for us to understand that he would wound a heart as good and beautiful as Martha’s?

It is simply this: Prayer is more important than action. There’s nothing subtle about it. Martha had it exactly wrong. Mary had it exactly right.

All of the analysis about the good of Martha is dangerous and runs exactly contrary to what Christ was teaching her (and is teaching us). We should, instead, allow Jesus to pierce the spiritually destructive facade of our excessively active and distracted culture. We should embrace his rebuke and soberly test ourselves against it.

Maybe it’s time to ask, “If I were in the physical presence of Christ right now, would Jesus give me that same rebuke, or would I hear, “You have chosen the better part”?

Maybe it’s time we all answered his call to come to the quiet.

PS: If you would like to learn more about how to navigate your way to a deeper prayer life, go to www.NavigatingtheInteriorLife.com

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Art for this post on the The Danger of Martha's Vindication: Christ at the house of Martha and Mary, Alessandro Allori, 1605, PD-US published in the U.S. prior to January 1, 1923, author's life plus 100 years or less, Wikimedia Commons.

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About Dan Burke

Dan is the President of the Avila Foundation, the parent organization of SpiritualDirection.com, the Avila Institute for Spiritual Formation, Divine Intimacy Radio and Divine Intimacy Radio - Resources Edition, Into the Deep Parish Programs, the Apostoli Viae (Apostles of the Way) Community, the High Calling Seminary Preparation Program, and the FireLight Student Leadership Formation Program, author of the award-winning book, Navigating the Interior Life - Spiritual Direction and the Journey to God, Finding God Through Meditation-St. Peter of Alcantara, 30 Days with Teresa of Avila, Into the Deep, Living the Mystery of Merciful Love: 30 Days with Thérèse of Lisieux, and his newest book The Contemplative Rosary with St. John Paul II and St. Teresa of Avila. Beyond his "contagious" love for Jesus and His Church, he is a grateful husband and father of four, the Executive Director of and writer for EWTN's National Catholic Register, a regular co-host on Register Radio, a writer, speaker and pilgrimage director who provides online spiritual formation and travels to share his conversion story and the great riches that the Church provides us through authentic Catholic spirituality. Dan has been featured on EWTN's Journey Home program and numerous radio programs.

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