The story of Martha and Mary has been interpreted for hundreds of years as the difference between the active lifestyle and the contemplative lifestyle. Mary has chosen the better part means that the life of contemplation is superior to the active life. I think that many of us who live the active life might agree. Have you ever wished you could dash off and join a monastery? A life of prayer, solitude, and silence sounds pretty good sometimes. But, there is more going on in this passage. I think this passage can also teach all of us about the life of prayer.
The story really gets interesting after Martha complains about having too much work to do. We almost expect Jesus to tell Mary to get up and help Martha, don't we? Yet, Jesus tells Martha that she is anxious and upset about many things. Only one thing is needed. This is not the first time that Jesus talks about anxiety. There are actually 4 more places in Luke's gospel where he talks about anxieties and worries:
Luke 12:11-12 When they take you before synagogues and before rulers and authorities, do not worry about how or what your defense will be or about what you are to say. 12 For the holy Spirit will teach you at that moment what you should say.
Luke 12:22-23 He said to (his) disciples, "Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life and what you will eat, or about your body and what you will wear. 23 For life is more than food and the body more than clothing.
Luke 8:14 As for the seed that fell among thorns, they are the ones who have heard, but as they go along, they are choked by the anxieties and riches and pleasures of life, and they fail to produce mature fruit.
Luke 21:34-35 Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life, and that day catch you by surprise 35 like a trap. For that day will assault everyone who lives on the face of the earth.
So, the story of Martha and Mary seems like another story where Jesus is teaching us about the dangers of being anxious and upset. How many times have we been anxious and upset? Daily? So many of us feel like we have the candle burning at both ends. You run from baseball practice, to volleyball camp, to recitals, just to make it home in time for supper and bed. Many of us experience life as a whirlwind, where we look like the Tasmanian devil flying through life with reckless abandon. When we do this, we often become like Martha: anxious and worried about many things.
Today Jesus reminds us: there is only one thing that is needed. In the midst of the craziness of our life, when it seems like we need to work, we need to take care of the kids, we need to take care of the house, we have to remember that at the end of the day, only one thing is really essential: our relationship with Jesus. All too often, when we get caught up by the craziness of our daily lives, we can lose sight of our relationship with Christ, and when we do that the path toward anxiety and worry is very short. How do we keep up our relationship with Christ? Mary has chosen the better part.
There is no better image for prayer than that of Mary, sitting at the feet of Jesus. To have a relationship with Christ, we must pray. In order to pray we must spend time with Christ. We sit quietly and listen to him, speak with him. We will never have a relationship with Christ without prayer, without sitting at his feet listening to him, speaking with him. When your life feels like Martha, you probably haven't been spending any time like Mary.
We all need time of prayer every day. Fulton Sheen used to say that everyone in the world needs a half hour of prayer… Unless you are busy, then you need an hour of prayer. And it is true, the busier we are, the more we need to reinforce our relationship with Christ. Think of it as a tithe of your time. You will only gain control of your life if you sacrifice some of your time to Christ. You will only be free of worries and anxieties by relying on the help of Christ. This doesn't mean that your life will become simple overnight, it just means that no matter what you are dealing with in your life, you will only be able to deal with it properly if you have a firm foundation of prayer.
Abraham, Martha, and Mary all welcomed the Lord, and it was a great blessing for them. We need to be sure that we welcome the Lord on a daily basis. Every morning start the day with prayer. Every night end the day with prayer. During the day, be like Abraham: sitting at the door of his tent, on the lookout for the Lord. This is what it means to have a prayer life. We are on the watch for the Lord ready to welcome him, whether he comes in the form of angels, if he would visit our home like Martha and Mary, but most especially we welcome the Lord when he comes to us in this Holy Eucharist.