Have you ever acted without thinking, or more specifically, without praying? I know I have. My parents could tell you countless stories of the things I did without thinking when I was growing up, and how seldom that worked out for me. The gospel today gives us an image of praying and working, and how they must relate to each other.
This story follows directly on the heels of last week's story about the Good Samaritan. Last week, we saw Jesus upset the social convention by turning the samaritan, a member of a hated group of people, into a good guy, making him the hero of a story. Today we see more social conventions being broken, and more folks than just Jesus are getting in on the act. First off, Mary's place as a woman in 1st century Judaism was indeed in the kitchen. It was the man's place to entertain the guest, or in this case to sit and learn from the guest since he was a rabbi. But instead, Mary is sitting where the men belong and learning from the rabbi. But Martha commits the biggest social blunder by asking the guest, an esteemed rabbi, to interfere in this family argument.
So what's going on? Is Jesus just upsetting social convention for the heck of it? I don't think so. I think he is trying to teach Martha and Mary something important, and in turn he is trying to teach us also. A very traditional interpretation of this story is to see Martha and Mary as representatives of the active and contemplative lives. Martha represents the active life. All of us who have taken up normal jobs and work in the secular world have taken up the active life, we work in the world to bring about the Kingdom of God. Mary represents the contemplative life. The contemplative life refers, usually, to religious communities that have shut themselves off from the world and labor for the Kingdom of God by their constant prayers. Although we don't see them, their prayers are vitally important to the Church. So in this traditional interpretation of the Martha and Mary story, Jesus appears to be simply validating the contemplative life by saying that she has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.
I think this is a good way to understand this story, but I want to push it further because I think Jesus is trying to teach us something here in the Martha and Mary story, and that is the importance of listening to God before acting. Throughout the Bible, anytime someone sets off to do a great thing they always take time to hear the voice of God first. The good kings of the Old Testament consulted God through the prophets before they undertook anything. The apostles had to be prepared for their mission to the world by following Jesus for three years. And even Jesus went to the desert for forty days to listen to his Father before he began his public ministry. In the Bible it is always clear that hearing God comes before action.
If we work with that traditional interpretation, where Mary represents contemplation and Martha represents action, then we see that Jesus condemns neither Martha nor Mary. Keep in mind, of course, that we are using Martha and Mary as they are presented in this short story as representatives of entire ways of life. I'm sure this short story doesn't sum up their personalities. I'm sure Mary did her fair share of housework, and I'm sure Martha prayed too. But at this point, Mary had her priorities a bit more correct than did Martha.
So in our own lives, do we allow contemplation to come before action? And by this I mean do we spend serious time with God before we begin trying to work for him? The psalms tell us that if the Lord does not build the house, in vain do the builders labor, and if the Lord does not watch over the house, in vain does the watchman keep vigil. We have to make sure we are doing the work God want's us to do before trying to work for him. There's a quote I've heard before that basically asks: "Are you working for God or doing God's work?" Hopefully we are constantly trying to work for God, but we have to pray to him to see if the work we are doing is actually what he wants us to be doing.
When I talk about working for God, I'm not just thinking of those of us who are paid by the Church, I'm thinking of each of you, and all the good things you do each day, raising a family, being obedient to your parents, and quietly witnessing to God's power every day. We must pray before undertaking big actions because we want to know God's will in these things. If I live my life only in the sphere of action, I can and probably will find God from time to time. But if I spend some time in contemplation, some time where I set action aside, I can't help but meet God.
Now when I say that it's important to occasionally set action aside and spend time with God, I'm not talking about giving up all your legitimate responsibilities to run off and be a hermit. That is probably not what God wants from you. What he does want, though, is to be involved in the decisions of your life. So rather than acting without thinking or praying, like I did when I was a kid, ask God what he would have you do. Mary's posture of listening to Jesus and Martha's posture of working for him are both important, but Mary's must come first. If we don't first follow Mary's example of listening, then Martha's example of work will very soon lose its way. That's how we work for God without doing God's work.
I want to address the men for just a second. Sometimes we struggle to listen to God because we have our own plans and we don't want to consult anyone else about them. It kind of rubs us the wrong way to have to ask anyone else what's best for me. It takes a real act of humility to sit back and just listen to the Lord's plan for us rather than try to formulate our own plans. But in this humility we have Jesus as our example. His humility, his ability to just receive God's plan rather than try to come up with his own, gave him the strength to face down the devil himself. This is the sort of strength we want, but this sort of strength only comes from a humility that can surrender to God's plan.
And now back to all of us. Take from this reading the example of both Martha and Mary. Mary shows us how to listen to God, and Martha shows us how to work for God. Both are necessary, but Jesus tells us clearly that listening to him must come first. We must first hear God's voice in prayer before we try to do any work for God. So listen every day for his voice, find out what he wants from your life, and then act on what you hear.