Today’s gospel immediately follows last Sunday’s passage (do you remember? The parable of the good Samaritan), and maybe it serves to “balance” that parable: the story of Martha and Mary could be considered as a completion of what the parable of the good Samaritan taught us: we have to become neighbor of others, yes; but, first of all, we have to stay at the Lord’s feet listening to his word.
Commentators usually stress the opposition between the two sisters: Martha, all busy in her service; Mary, quiet and attentive to Jesus’ word. The Holy Fathers see in this episode the superiority of the contemplative life over the active one. Actually, Jesus rebukes, though mildly, Martha for her anxiety, and praises Mary’s attitude. He says: “Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.” It is clear that, if we had to make out a list, we should put at the first place the “contemplative life” and only at the second place the “active life,” just as, between the two commandments of love, the first is “You shall love the Lord your God,” and the second, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But we are not required to draw up lists. And I have the impression that today’s liturgy does not emphasize this opposition.
If you have noticed, in the first reading we have heard the story of Abraham visited by God at the Oak of Mamre. Usually, at least during the Ordinary Time, the first reading is linked with the gospel. The connection is quite clear: in both cases we have an act of hospitality. It would seem that the liturgy prefers Martha to Mary. Certainly, hospitality has always been one of the most important duties for a Christian. The letter to the Hebrews, referring to the episode of Abraham, says, “Do not neglect hospitality, for through it some have unknowingly entertained angels” (Heb 13:1). I think that exactly in this text we can find the key to understand today’s liturgy.
Just as Abraham received God under the tree and Martha welcomed Jesus (excepit illum) into her house, so we are invited to receive the Lord into our life. There are two ways—complementary, not incompatible—to do it. We can receive Jesus welcoming our brothers and sisters. Do you remember what the King will say in the last judgment? “I was a stranger and you welcomed me … When did we see you a stranger and welcome you? … Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Mt 25:36.38.40).
But there is another way to receive Jesus. Nobody points it out, but in the gospel it is not only Martha that welcomes Jesus; even Mary receives him; just in a different way. A guest needs not only food, but also attention; if every one of his hosts were busy with the housework and left him alone, he would not feel at his ease. So, on the pretext of having to serve our neighbor, we cannot neglect the Lord, who orders us to do it. Even because, if we stop staying on hearing him, in the end we risk forgetting why we are doing it. That is why today’s world has become so inhumane, in the face of ages of humanitarian ideologies: because we have stopped spending our time with God. Even many who consider themselves Christian do not feel the need of spending just one hour a week with their Lord. We thought that there was no need of God to help others, but now we do not know anymore why we should do it. Only putting ourselves again at the Lord’s feet listening to his word, we will rediscover the reason for serving our neighbor and we will experience the joy of encountering him in them.