In Luke’s Gospel, Ch. 10, verses 38-42, we find a very short story with a big moral. Jesus and his disciples are on the way to Jerusalem. In a certain village they stop at the house of a woman called Martha. In four verses we don’t learn much about her. We are told, however, that she has a sister, Mary. Now given the other Mary’s in the New Testament, we shouldn’t be surprised at how the story develops. Martha seems the one in charge of things, while Mary acts like the stereotypical younger sister. She sits at Jesus’s feet and listens to what he has to say. Martha, busy acting as hosting, gets upset at having to do all the work, while that sister of hers is hearing all the interesting things she’s missing. Martha then does the only sensible thing and takes her complaint to their honored guest. “No fair!” says she. “Send my sister into the kitchen to help me with my work. “Martha,” he replies. “You just don’t get it! Your sister is smart enough to take advantage of this opportunity of a lifetime, while you bustle around and miss everything. Mary’s got it right.” By implication, of course, he’s telling Martha, who’s doing the job of everyday hosting, that she’s got it wrong. This is yet another example of Jesus being counter-cultural by implying that this was not the time for the two sisters to do the conventional thing but to discern how a unique occasion should be met. One sister gets it; the other doesn’t...
Nowadays the story is often taken as an allegory of the active versus the contemplative life—bustling versus centering. Life of course requires that we do both. I think of the Franciscan friar and priest, Fr. Richard Rohr, whose Albuquerque, New Mexico headquarters is called The Center for Action and Contemplation. Fr. Richard considers both activities to be like two sides of the coin of life, like the rhythm of sleeping and wakefulness, night and day. Activity requires inwardness, while inwardness is made possible by activity. It’s not a matter of either/or but of both/and. Moreover, the Gospel story holds up the need for discernment concerning when to be everyday active and when to attend in a quiet fashion to a special opportunity, as in the country song about poker which advises players to know when to hold and to know when to fold.
In the matter of balance, I think of the Javanese proverb I learned in Indonesia: “Outwardly active, inwardly quiet.” In other words, do things in an unattached, mindful way as preached by the late Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nath Hanh. The English Romantic poet William Wordsworth (d. 1850) put it this way in his sonnet:
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon! …
In our America of frenetic activity, where we routinely profane whatever Sabbath our ancestors held sacred, getting the inner-outer balance right is a major task. We are mainly Martha’s to a fault, busy about many things. It’s high time, I believe, for you and me to Mary-up less we too miss the boat of having had a life worth living. Whoever has ears, let them hear!