May my words be in the Name of the Holy & Undivided Trinity: + Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. Amen.
There is a story told of Queen Victoria, most likely apocryphal, that it was once told about an order of enclosed nuns. It was explained to her that they spent their lives secluded from the world in order that they might spend their time in constant prayer. The great queen pondered this idea for some moments before remarking 'But could not something useful be found for them to do?' The quote, true or not, illustrates the all too common but unfortunate notion that prayer is not useful in itself and is something to be engaged in once all other, more important, useful work has been done.
I was reminded of it while considering today's Gospel, the well-known passage where the Jesus has gone to the home of Lazarus. His two sisters are there, Mary and Martha. Martha is doing all the 'useful' work that needed to be done to entertain a guest. St Luke does not tell us what it is, but we can imagine that she is getting food ready for our Lord and the disciples who are with him. Mary chooses a different path; she instead sits at the feet of Jesus and listens to what he is saying. Again St Luke does not tell us what our Lord is saying, but to sit at someone's feet is indicative of the master and student relationship, so it is safe to assume that Jesus is engaged in teaching those who have gathered around him as all wait for the meal to be served.
Martha, we are told, is distracted by her many tasks. Of course she is; she suddenly has a great many unexpected guests in her house. And we know from elsewhere in the Gospels that Lazarus and his family were devoted followers of Jesus. So not just guests, but honoured guests. To have our Lord under their roof makes it a special occasion, which means there is even more to do than usual. And in the middle of all this busy-ness Martha notices that her sister is not helping her – she is lounging around, sitting down at her ease, while Martha is doing all the work on her own.
So she is not pleased with her sister. And also it would seem from the text she is not altogether well pleased with our Lord either. For when she decides to do something about the situation she does not quietly enter the room and whisper in her sister's ear that she would appreciate it if she would come into the kitchen and help. No, she goes to the Lord, St Luke tells us; so we can imagine her bustling in, red-faced from the heat of the cooking fire, and stands before him. And interrupting his teaching she says: ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.’ Consider well what she is saying here. She doesn't say 'Lord, can you not see?' but 'Lord, do you not care?' It would seem then that she thinks it obvious what is going on, that her sister is neglecting her duties and leaving all the work to her, and she charges our Lord with being uncaring about the situation. And then she commands Jesus to correct the situation 'Tell her then to help me.'
Now we may pardon, I think, Martha's attempt at rebuking the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity and trying to tell him what to do. She would not at this time have understood that he was God incarnate. But as one his close followers she would have known that he was indeed the Messiah; which means that she should have realised, harassed though she might have felt by the pressure she was under, that the way she was speaking to our Lord was more than a little inappropriate. So we can imagine the gasp of amazement that would have come from the mouths of all present at the occasion. But Jesus is unperturbed; and he responds to her outburst with gentleness and understanding. 'Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.’
Now, we must be careful to understand that Jesus is not denigrating the work that Martha is doing. Work is important; the necessity of honest labour is made clear in the Bible – as St Paul tells us, those who do not work shall not eat! And Christ, by his constant references to the work of fishermen, farmers, shepherds and others might well be said to have emphasised the dignity of labour and sanctified it. So the work that Martha is doing is good – but through her busy-ness she has missed something better. For by it she has missed the opportunity to spend time with the Lord.
The issue is not about whether whether work is somehow in competition with our devotional life of prayer, scripture reading, and worship; it is about balance and understanding where the priority lies. The time we give to God is not some kind of an afterthought, nice if you can find time to do in the midst of a busy schedule, at the bottom of a list of more important things, such as spending a extra hour at work, or watching the latest episode or your favourite TV show. No, it is the heart and soul of your day, the good portion, the better part around which all things must fit in. And it makes abundant sense that it must be so: for the rest are only the things of this life, things that will be left behind, while the other helps prepare you for eternal life in the next. I pray that all here will be like Mary and always choose the better part. Amen