Jesus’ visit to the home of Martha and Mary in Bethany teaches us a great deal about joyful service and the power of our thoughts, whether positive or negative, to shape our day. In this Gospel account, we learn that we can give glory to God in the little things we do for one another. In this encounter, Jesus invites Martha to renew her mind (Ephesians 4:23-24), taxed with negative thinking, and illuminate her thoughts with the thought of Him by rejoicing, praying, and giving thanks to God for the opportunity to serve her Lord.
Martha felt alone, unheard, and unappreciated. She was distracted with much serving and was worried and troubled about many things while her sister Mary sat at Christ’s feet and heard His word. Martha cried out to the Lord for help. The Gospel tells us that Martha approached Jesus and asked Him if He didn’t care that her sister had left her alone to serve. She begged Jesus to tell Mary to get up from His feet and help her. Jesus answered, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things. But one thing is needed, and Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:41-42) What is this better part Mary chose? Was it wrong for Martha to be focused on completing her household responsibilities while Jesus was visiting? What do these two sisters and their encounter with Christ teach us?
Jesus said that He came to serve and not to be served. (Matthew 20:28) Therefore, the wrong Martha committed could not have been with serving as such. Rather, as Martha was setting the table, pouring the water, mending the food, sweeping the floor, and welcoming guests- all beautiful and necessary things by the way- her mind was worried and her heart was troubled. Mary chose the better part because she was present to Christ, but Martha could have chosen the best part by being present to Christ whilst seeing her tasks as her divine calling and sacred service.
Instead of complaining, Martha could have completed the duties of each moment in the presence of Christ by rejoicing, praying without ceasing, and giving thanks (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18). Our little tasks, our housework, then, can be elevated to spiritual work when we do it in the presence of Christ. Thus, nothing is mundane when we invite Christ and serve Him through what we are doing.
(1) Rejoicing: We can pour joy into our tasks when our secret ingredient is love. We can sing and dance as we work and put an extra touch into whatever it is that we are doing for our spouse or our child. For example, maybe our spouse really appreciates it when we fold their clothes a certain way or when we bring them a cup of coffee in the morning as they are getting ready for the day. It’s amazing how an act of service pouring over with love and given with a smile can cheer up a little boy or a little girl who had a rough day by simply saying, “Here, I was thinking about you and made this just for you.” Amidst all of our housework there are so many opportunities to heal broken hearts, bind up wounds (Psalm 147), and lighten up someone’s burden by freshening the weary and satisfying the faint (Jeremiah 31:25).
(2) Praying: We don’t need to see housework as an obstacle to doing spiritual work. If we remember God as we work, our housework can be our prayer. As St. Benedict teaches, ora et labora, pray and work. The Church gives us a powerful and beautiful method to achieve this unity of prayer and work: the Prayer of the Heart. The Prayer of the Heart or the Jesus Prayer (“Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner” or, simply, “Lord, have mercy”) can be recited while we complete our tasks as a way to invite Christ into our presence. Hence, the Jesus Prayer invites us to to place ourselves before the feet of our Lord like Mary while we continue to serve like Martha. Instead of troubling our minds or worrying our hearts as our bodies are already getting taxed, the Jesus prayer is a way to cast all of our troubles and our worries to the Lord as we ask Him for mercy. As St. Peter invites us, “Cast all your anxiety on Him because He cares for you.” (1 Peter 5:7)
(3) Giving Thanks: Instead of seeing our housework as mundane tasks we need to simply get over with, we can see them as sacred and salvific service offered to God to benefit our household and our guests. Our day to day life is full of opportunities to bring glory to God. We can be hermits, monastic, martyrs, confessors, evangelists, apostles, healers, priests, prophets, kings, holy men and women by simply fulfilling our duty of the moment, our housework, with love in the presence of Christ by being Mary and Martha at once. As we begin each week with the Divine Liturgy, we can continue to commune with our Lord’s Eucharistic presence throughout the week by coming before each duty of the moment with thanksgiving, which is precisely what the word Eucharist means. We can see, taste, hear, touch, and smell God’s mercy and compassion all at once in a simple cup of coffee. We must be attentive and thankful for the subtle gifts God blesses us with throughout the day. And when worries and troubles make us forget the presence of Christ may we pray: “Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God. I will yet praise Him, my Savior and my God.” (Psalm 42)
Let us thank God for the opportunity to serve Him by loving our brothers and sisters as we joyfully serve them without complaint and without expectation to be thanked or helped. Of course, if and when we are thanked or helped, we should receive it gracefully giving all glory to God.
“The Lord is my helper”(Hebrews 13:6) and “I can do all things through [Christ] who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13). During this Great Fast, may we die with Christ that we may indeed rise with Him and receive His gift of peace: “I am leaving you with a gift—peace of mind and heart. And the peace I give is a gift the world cannot give. So don’t be troubled or afraid” (John 14:27) And so, Christ says to us, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things… Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Luke 10:41, Philippians 4:6)