“Mary Has Chosen the Better Part”
July 29th Readings Reflection: Memorial of Saints Martha, Mary and Lazarus
Today’s Gospel recounts the familiar story of Mary and Martha. Mary sat at Jesus’ feet and listened to Him speak while Martha was busy serving Him. When Martha asked Jesus to tell her sister to help her, Jesus replied that Martha was “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.” There have been countless homilies and interpretations given on this Gospel passage, and we sometimes think of Martha as being petty or overly concerned about earthly things. However, the great Father of the Church St. Augustine of Hippo wrote that such an understanding of Martha could not be farther from the truth.
The first piece to note is that Martha welcomed Jesus into her house. Mary came and listened to Jesus speak, but it was Martha who first welcomed Him into her home. This shows an admirable level of faith already present in Martha, who then set about serving her divine Guest. As St. Augustine explained, both work and meditation are good and necessary in our lives. Jesus did not say that Martha had chosen the bad part, merely that Mary had “chosen the better part.” “[M]uch serving” is needed in order to live, for we must toil and work to provide not only for ourselves but also for those in need. The corporal works of mercy exist so that we can serve our neighbour’s bodily needs out of charity, recognizing each person as a child of God.
Furthermore, in the Book of Genesis, God saw that His creation was “very good” (Gen 1:31 DRB). Since God’s creation is “very good,” it is not condemnable to labour in order to serve the needs of ourselves and others. Thus, St. Augustine said that Our Lord was not rebuking Martha but rather showing how both sisters were serving Him. Martha “minister[ed] to His mortal flesh” while Mary listened to His eternal word. Both means of serving are important in the life of the Church.
On earth, we must toil and labour to provide for our physical and spiritual needs. We are in a constant battle against the devil as we seek to cooperate with God’s grace in resisting temptation and sin. There are “many things” that occupy our hearts and minds during our time on earth. However, once we reach our heavenly home, we shall experience eternal joy as we glory in the presence of God Himself with the angels and saints. All the trials and sorrows of the world shall pass away and, like Mary, we will be mindful of “only one thing”—God Himself.
While we live our lives with the hope of eternal beatitude, we are able to experience glimpses of it here on earth when, “removed from business, and laying aside domestic cares, you meet together, stand, listen. In so far as you do this, you are like Mary,” St. Augustine said. Thus, when we pray and meditate on Sacred Scripture, we are imitating Mary and choosing the better part. The most perfect way in which we do this is by assisting at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. There, we receive the Word of God in two forms: through the sacred words read from Scripture and physically in the Holy Eucharist.
At the end of Mass, the priest or deacon dismisses us and sends us forth. The word Mass derives from the Latin word missa, which means dismissal. Having received the Word of God like Mary, the Church sends us back into the world to serve others like Martha. Thus, both Martha and Mary served God and are worthy of being imitated in our own lives.