“Jesus entered a village where a woman whose name was Martha welcomed him. She had a sister named Mary who sat beside the Lord at his feet listening to him speak. Martha, 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.” The Lord said to her in reply, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.” (Lk 10:38-42)
The above passage was the Gospel at Mass the last day of our immersion in Navotas. Scholars often interpret this episode to mean that Jesus prefers passive prayer over busy work. They see Jesus reprimanding Martha while placing prayer over work. There is truth to this explanation. But through prayer, shaped by the six previous lessons, I am shown a different perspective.
Jesus does correct Mary, but mainly because she is “anxious and worried about many things.” She is not only focused on the challenges and problems of serving, but she is also intent on making sure that her sister is also likewise focused. In her genuine desire to deliver the best of Jewish hospitality, she is “overburdened” by the tasks. Moreover, she compares. She sees her active service as better than her sister’s work of attentive listening. So Jesus reprimands her, mainly because of her comparison and focus on the lesser part. He lovingly reminds her “Martha, Martha” to keep her gaze on him and not to berate her sister.
Through the lessons of these past weeks, Jesus is likewise correcting my vision. I am taught in a new way, to receive Jesus who desires to give himself to me much as possible, who humbles in washing my feet, who has a preference for the poor and least among us; to “waste” time with Jesus; to simply be myself; and to see myself honestly, patiently before God. It is not easy for me to look at myself, especially my own shadows, with patience while keeping my eyes on Jesus. It is not easy for the families of Navotas to face their family problems and innumerable concerns of daily living. It is not easy for the people of the Philippines to rebuild after two destructive typhoons (the worst in 40 years), especially when the damage is made more severe because of a lack of land reforms to resettle squatters away from the rivers, of continued logging which denudes nearby forests, of poor waste management that clogs the waterways, all sustained by corrupt governments. It is tempting to focus on our problems and forget God’s promise.
I am reminded by the wise humor of an elderly Irish nun: “Tri, God is not on time, but is never late. God always keeps promises.” Yes, Sister, God does not do things our way, nor abides by our schedules. God is not on time, but is never late, for God acts decisively when God’s time comes. The Bible, especially Luke’s Gospel, emphasizes that God keeps promises to God’s people, even when they repeatedly betray the covenant. God keeps promises to the remnant of Israel in captivity, to the poor family of Mary and Joseph, to the elders Anna and Simeon. When I asked our host families in Navotas during the homily if God has ever not kept any promises God has made to them, they responded “No!” When I asked if God always kept God’s promise to them, everyone nodded “Yes!” Resoundingly both times. My own family and I would also agree wholeheartedly!
Jesus reminded Martha to focus on him rather than her worries, concerns, or agendas. We are likewise invited to turn or gaze on God’s promises rather than our problems. I am called to rely more on God’s providential care and acceptance than on my tendencies toward greediness and judgment. We are taught, like Martha, to face our weakness, challenges, and problems but focus on God’s care. To listen to God while we work, God who is present and laboring through the difficulties that confront us, God who will lead us through the wilderness of our worries and bring about greater meaning and purpose to our lives and sufferings. When we focus on God’s love and care, we approach things differently, with deeper insight and strength. We will embrace the best of both Martha and Mary, and not dissipate our energies by comparing.