38[Jesus] entered a village where a woman whose name was Martha welcomed him. 39She had a sister named Mary [who] sat beside the Lord at his feet listening to him speak. 40Martha, 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? Tell her to help me.” 41The Lord said to her in reply, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. 42There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.”
A Place in the Heart of the Christian Community: St. Therese of the Child Jesus had a powerful and unsettling longing for martyrdom. But since she was a contemplative nun in the convent of Lisieux in France, she could not possibly die a martyr.
She turned to the epistles of Paul in the hope of finding an answer and chanced upon the 12th and 13th chapters of the first Letter to the Corinthians. Here the Apostle insists that the greater gifts like martyrdom and apostleship are nothing at all without love, and this same love is surely the best path leading directly to God.
Thereupon, Therese found peace of mind. She proclaimed: “Oh Jesus, my love, at last I have found my calling: my call is love. Certainly I have found my proper place in the Church, and you gave me that very place, my God.”
In the Gospel, Mary has similarly found her place. It is by the Master’s feet, listening to his words. Martha thinks that her sister’s place should be beside her preparing food and being hospitable to their guests: Jesus and the apostles. She asks Jesus to tell Mary to help her.
Jesus certainly appreciates Martha’s love in serving him. If he corrects her, it is with all gentleness. But he is more honored by Mary who listens to his words. In her anxiety to attend to the demands of hospitality, Martha fails to realize that Jesus wants to give more than to receive, and that the best way to serve him is to listen to his words and put them into practice.
The story of Martha and Mary follows Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan. In this parable, the Samaritan obeys the commandment of love by coming to the rescue of a man victimized by robbers even if the victim is an “enemy” (a Jew) and risking ritual impurity by approaching a person presumed dead.
In Mary the evangelist gives another illustration of loving. It consists in sitting at Jesus’ feet and listening to him.
Some people do not have the opportunities to practice “active” service, like ministering directly to the poor and the sick. Contemplative religious, for example, spend their whole lives within the convent or monastery, working and praying and meditating on the Word of God. But they are as useful and as effective as anyone else for the building of the kingdom of God here on earth.
Like Mary and Thérèse, they have found their place in the heart of the Christian community, and this place will not be taken away from them.