Oh Martha. Poor Martha, whose claim to fame is being the one who chose the worse part. The one of whom Jesus basically says “don’t be like her.” She clearly did not have editorial rights over the scriptures, as I am certain she had many wonderful moments, tons of strong, redeeming qualities, and happy, loving interactions with our Lord. This most famous one just wasn’t one of them. I have always liked Martha - she was striving to serve our Lord in the best way she knew how, and in fact, I have heard many a homily that came to her defense, stating that Jesus did not discourage her from loving him in her chosen way; He simply defended Mary, who had chosen to be with Jesus rather than in the kitchen. But this year, I listened to my brother’s homily, and he brought several very insightful elements to my attention (I highly recommend listening to his whole homily at the podcast The Truth in Love: Homilies and Reflections by Fr. Stephen Dardis). The first and most important was that Martha WAS wrong - not for serving Jesus or his disciples, but for the state of her heart and her mind while she was doing so.
It is not a difficult scene to imagine: Jesus preaching to his disciples who are gathered around him, and Martha running around, an unexpected crowd in her home, trying to serve them all, welcome them all, care for everyone, and, all the while, bubbling over with resentment towards her sister. It’s a moment and a sentiment with which we can all sympathize. We’ve all been there. Back in college, I had the honor of planning a retreat for which we had an unprecedented number of freshmen register, and it was a week of pure chaos trying to plan this mammoth event. The pressure was on. This was going to be huge. We were running around trying to order tents to house the unexpected extra retreatants, trying to envision what it would look like to organize a schedule with literally hundreds of college freshmen, how we would transport them, gather for Mass, have enough confessors, divide them into groups, FEED them! The list went on. I was in way over my head, and I needed the whole team to get to work! But I couldn’t find Caitlin. She was MIA, and I. Was. Furious. Finally, I went up to the chapel to begin our meeting without her, only to find her sitting, completely peacefully, in front of our Lord. She had chosen the better part. She knew, far better than I did, that more important than the buses or the tents or the s’mores, was the most important part - the ONLY thing that actually mattered about this retreat: Jesus. It was a humbling moment, one that I revisit as often as I relearn the life lesson she taught me that day. And, yes, the argument could be made that the buses still needed to be reserved, the food purchased, and the logistics ironed out, but those things only serve us, they only serve Jesus, when they are done with a heart of love, not a heart of resentment. Martha’s gravest error was not that she tended to the details or was choosing to love Jesus through acts of service, but that she allowed her thoughts to be overtaken with anger, and all of her generosity was turned against her sister, and therefore against Jesus, because she lost control of her thoughts.
This is a challenge I face as a mother. I have, more times than I care to admit, allowed anger and resentment to accompany me through my daily mundane tasks instead of joy. Moments that could have been born of beautiful, selfless love, were instead filled with frustrated growls and entitled feelings of underappreciation. The key to avoiding this, I have found, is to guard every thought I allow myself to dwell upon. As Paul tells us, we must “take every thought captive” (2 Cor 10:5). Obviously, thoughts will come and go, but our choice lies in which ones to entertain and focus our mind on, and which ones to quickly dismiss. Our first, and primary battle with the enemy is over the custody of our own thoughts. If I only allow myself to have joyful, positive thoughts about my husband and children, the enemy is powerless over me. If, on the other hand, I allow negative thoughts to enter my mind and even let them run rampant around my brain all day, then it’s a quick and painful fall that affects the entire family and ruptures relationships. If I allow my mind to be a breeding ground for angry thoughts, then it really doesn’t matter how kind or generous my outward actions appear to be. If I let myself assume bad intentions of those in my life - my husband who made a silly comment that had no meaning beyond itself or my children who forgot to say thank you or failed to complete their morning chores - I am acting with malice and anger rather than the love God is inviting me to experience. Instead, if I dismiss such thoughts as mere temptations, and focus my mind on the myriad of wonderful qualities espoused by my husband and children or happy memories we have shared, I can turn small, otherwise meaningless tasks into great acts of love for them, thus building up our relationships with every second of my day. The choice is mine, as St. Paul reminds us: “Finally brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phil 4:8).
The smartest thing Martha does in the story is that, rather than continuing to boil over with resentment and frustration, she brings her heart to Jesus. To be honest, it always came across a little bratty and tattle-tail-y, but she still manages to turn to Jesus in her anger. And Jesus responds, not by encouraging her in her error. He doesn’t say “Hey, Martha, no worries, you’re doing great too!” He reminds her that she’s lost sight of what she was trying to do to begin with. “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 10:42). That had to be a difficult teaching moment for Martha, as teaching moments do tend to be a bit painful. But Jesus reminds Martha, and by extension, all of us, that the accomplishments of the world - and the anxieties that go with them - are not the reason for our existence or the meaning of our life. They aren’t necessarily bad things, but they can be if they come to define us.
So what is the “better part” in our life? I have found that in my life, the “better part” comes in many different forms, and I need to be flexible about how God is calling me to respond in that moment. Sometimes, the better part is forgetting about the breakfast dishes (I mean, they’ll get done eventually, right?), and sitting on the floor to build a double decker, unparalleled in its beauty as well as its brilliant engineering train track with my child who needs some one-on-one time. Sometimes it means getting a babysitter and going to sit in adoration, rather than running errands alone. Sometimes it means snuggling a baby after his nap instead of getting dinner ready early. Sometimes it means turning the TV off after a long day of parenting and saying my rosary or listening to a podcast of my brother’s homily because building up my relationship with Jesus the way those things do is far more important than watching reruns of old sitcoms, though that can be a fun way to unwind. And sometimes it means serving my family by doing the laundry or the dishes or the cooking (on repeat) with joy and love, rather than frustration or resentment.
God calls us to love Him, not in spite of our ever-growing to-do lists, but through them, keeping in mind that the nurse at the doctor’s office or the cashier at the store is someone He is calling us to love in that moment. While I might have planned to check items off of my to-do list, God might be calling me to clean orange juice up off of the kitchen floor. Because that’s where it is, and it needs to not be there. Or perhaps He is calling me to forget my plans and tend to the needs of those He is calling me to love - the ones He is placing right in front of me (the friend who calls, the child who needs extra time or attention, the spouse who needs to talk about work). Whatever God is calling us to do, He is calling us to do it with a spirit of joy and a spirit of gratitude. But He is always calling us to define who we are and why we are here, living this life, by His love for us, not our accomplishments or our amazing hosting skills. The “better part” in that moment is wherever we find the heart of Jesus beating for us. Wherever we feel our heads resting on His breast, wherever we know we are loved by our Lord, that is the better part Jesus is inviting us to choose.