My grandmother hates this Gospel. As she says, if Martha hadn’t worried, no one would have eaten that day! I tend to agree with her. Throughout the years, this Gospel has often been used, among other things, to say that monks are automatically holier than laypeople, which is just not true. We do not choose our vocation, God does, and he calls us to holiness through our vocation, which may be a life of contemplation, but may also be a life of work.
Instead, let me offer an interpretation that a seminarian friend of mine offered to me. He pointed out that “sitting at the feet”, as Mary did, is the traditional posture of a student. He went on to say that the difference between Martha and Mary is not that one worked and one did not, but that Martha received Jesus as a guest, while Mary received him as a teacher.
Think about that: anyone can be a guest. A guest is someone who comes to us from away, and we show them hospitality as a way to recognize their human dignity. How we receive the person has nothing to do with their identity, and in fact the less we know the person, the more impressive our hospitality toward them is. Abraham, for example, had no idea that he was greeting the Lord, but he showed his guests great hospitality anyway, and it was this kindness to a stranger that was Abraham’s merit.
The flip-side here is that we do not have to know Jesus, or who he is, to receive him as a guest. But we do have to know Jesus and who he is to receive him as a teacher. To learn from someone, to allow them to teach you, requires trust: trust in their goodness, truth in their learning, and trust that they will not lead you astray. The teacher must be recognized as having something to offer the student. And the student must be willing to place their entire self at the feet of the teacher.
So Martha received Jesus like she would receive anyone else. But Mary recognized that Jesus was special, that he had something to offer, that from his lips would come the words of life. Mary certainly did choose the better part, because she chose to see Jesus as he really is, rather than to treat him as just another guest.
Think about how often we are guilty of falling into the same trap as Martha did. How often do we treat Jesus as just another nice guy, or just another moral teacher, or just another prophetic voice? How often do we respect his words just as much as we would respect the words of Gandhi or Abraham Lincoln? How often do we talk about Christianity as though it is just a personal preference that offers the same spiritual journey as Hinduism or Buddhism or Islam or Yoga?
The thing is, we cannot treat Jesus and his Church like we would anything else. They are something unique, something special. Jesus is the only source of truth and life, he is the only one who is God Himself made flesh, he is the only one who can save us from sin and death. When Jesus walks into our lives, we have to receive him as something special, something different, because he is different. The world has never seen anyone like Jesus before, and will never see anyone like Jesus again. Jesus is our Lord, our Master, our Savior, our God. Sure, we can have good feelings about Jesus, and be curious about him, but until we fall at his feet, like Mary; until we give ourselves entire over to him and open our hearts to him, we will never know him as he truly is; we will never know him as our God.