I love the story of Martha and Mary which we find in Luke‘s Gospel, Chapter 10: 38-45. In it we hear that Jesus visits their home and Martha is keen to offer him the best hospitality whilst Mary sits at his feet and is completely absorbed by his presence. It’s just one of the great stories in scripture that points to contemplative practice.
I often find that this particular story can disturb and even upset people. Why should Martha be rebuked by Jesus simply because she wants the help of her sister Mary in ensuring that their guest receives the best possible hospitality?
When we feel upset about Jesus’s response to Martha it is because we are falling into the trap of reading this at the surface, literal level where indeed it doesn’t make a lot of sense, of course we would want to give any guest, and especially this guest, the best hospitality we could offer, no wonder Martha was concerned that Mary didn’t seem inclined to help her in this. But it wasn’t so much the activity of offering practical hospitality that Jesus was concerned about.
Verse 41 says this’ ” Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things…” and that is the key to understanding this passage! Now we have all been worried and troubled by many things from time to time and I just want us to think about what happens when we are in that frame of mind. Usually our minds become full of chatter, the worry and trouble is expressed as a fretful internal dialogue perhaps, or worrying images and so the mind becomes full of distractions and is not really focused.
This particular state of mind not only has a whole physiology that goes with it… so the muscles become tense, breathing occurs high in the chest, there is certain brainwave activity and neurochemical responses but also any focus on what we are meant to be doing becomes dissipated as thoughts run on in a way that can sometimes seem beyond our control.
Mary on the other hand was quiet and still, sitting at the feet of Jesus listening. We think of her as being in the contemplative state, fully centred on the presence of Christ who is the guest. In contemplative silence we are listening with the inner ear which is ‘inclined’ towards God, we are alert and there is a single point of clear focus. There is an entirely different set of physiological responses to this; the breathing would be more full, muscle tone would be relaxed, heart rate blood pressure would be lower, and brainwave activity shifts to an entirely different frequency.
So the question is then, who was really offering hospitality to the guest? Was it Mary who is completely focused and inclined towards the guest or is it Martha who is distracted, dissipated and more inclined towards her sister’s unacceptable behaviour and the worry of all that needs to be done? You see the activity that Martha is carrying out is not the issue at all, it is the state of mind or the consciousness, we might say, from which she was acting that meant she was not present for the guest.
So if we delve deeper than the surface story of Martha and Mary as merely two sisters who are visited by Jesus in a time long ago – and think instead of them as being two states of consciousness which we can access within us….and Jesus as the ever present, indwelling guest then we have some choices as to how we respond to that guest.. We can adopt a consciousness of the worldly mindset which in today’s world is almost always full of stress and distraction of one sort or another; from this position we will not be offering a welcoming space for the indwelling God. Alternatively we can actively seek to develop a contemplative consciousness that enables us to be present to that sacred guest in our own soul. When we choose this path we discover that we are indeed the bearers of the presence of God and the most sacred act we can offer the world is to be fully present, in Christ, in all our dealings with others; whether that means offering the practical hospitality of Martha or the spiritual hospitality of Mary. It is the consciousness from which the space for the guest is held that matters.
This is why Jesus tells us that Mary has chosen the better part!