At the feast of Martha, Mary and Lazarus, friends and hosts of the Lord, we hear a very well-known story in which the two sisters and Jesus are present. Martha and Mary are always recalled as sisters and the sisters of Lazarus, each one and together bound to the Lord Jesus, moved by his coming, as we read in the Fourth Gospel on the death of Lazarus (cf. Jn 11:1-45) which does not omit to note that “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus” (Jn 11:5).
At the beginning the text opens with a plural (“as they went on their way”), but it immediately focuses on Jesus, who is always called here Ho kyrios, “the Lord”, who enters a village, “and a woman named Martha received him into her house”. There is no abundance of words: “received him” suffices to tell of the duties and cares of hospitality embodied by Martha. The Evangelist moves on to the figure of her sister, of whom it is said that she listened to the words of the Lord sitting – crouching with humility and simplicity – at his feet. The disciple’s path was reserved for men, and yet here is Mary making herself a disciple, setting herself to listen. What was she hearing? We do not know, but “listened” indicates a duration, it involves a person in a state of being, in a manner, it creates an atmosphere. “But Martha”, Luke immediately follows, was as it were “distracted”, agitated because of her many services, literally her “much serving”. The emphasis seems to fall here on this “was distracted”: she was falling to pieces, dissipated in a “much”, a “much” which prompts us to intuit a “too much”. In the face of Mary’s silent listening the anxiety of Martha, inwardly divided, bursts in. Martha appears to us as a contradictory, a many-faceted figure, like each one of us, who risks, in her own eyes too, reducing herself to a role, she risks closing herself into one or more functions, into the “ought to do”. The problem is not doing things but rather agitation, which causes her stress.
The dichotomy is not between listening and doing but rather between the attitude to listening and the risk of being ensnared, being distracted by many things, of being too “full”. Perhaps Martha is only seeking to offer good hospitality, to be a good householder (a role commonly reserved for men). But the check lies here: Martha feels lonely, or rather she feels left alone, abandoned by her sister, by the one who should have been close to her to give her support, help and comfort. We imagine her completely overwhelmed in the kitchen and her complaint about Mary, her dissatisfaction, explode in a reproach addressed even to Jesus, the guest. Couldn’t she have addressed her sister directly? No, Martha, too troubled or perhaps too tired, as we sometimes are, becomes impatient and waspish, incapable of putting herself on an equal footing: she seeks a more authoritative word. It seems that Martha felt doubly alone and misunderstood: not only did her sister leave her alone to serve, but neither did the Lord pay attention to her! Martha lays claim to the lack of recognition, the lack of a relationship.
And here Jesus, who had been asked to intervene with the one sister on behalf of the other, calms the storm, addressing Martha directly, calling her by name with heartfelt affection: “Martha, Martha”. He brings her back to the tête à tête, to her central relationship with him, the Lord, and through him and with him to her relationship with her sister.
Jesus points out literally the “good portion”, not the “best portion”. There is no superiority in the text. Jesus does not intend to solve a problem by finding a solution, he does not instigate an easy contradiction, an opposition between the sisters, but rather seems to reveal something: the priority is convergence with him; the rest, all the rest, is relative, it is in any case a means, doing as praying. We can learn to serve if we first let our feet be washed. We can learn to pray if we listen to the Lord and let him visit us, if we also share our affections with him.
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