Today the Church celebrates the Memorial of Saint Martha. The Gospels tell us that Martha had a sister named Mary. One of the Gospel options today for proclamation in the liturgy is the story of Jesus entering a village and being greeted by Martha. She is waiting on Jesus by serving Him in manual labor – and is not too happy about it because her sister Mary is sitting at the feet of Jesus hanging on to His every word. The initial gut reaction of any human being would be to suggest that Mary is lazy; but Jesus said that what Mary is doing is partem elegit – the best part.
Martha’s part may not be the best part, but nevertheless is a necessary part. In the Rule of Saint Benedict are three words which are a banner for monasticism, but really is a basic, healthy formula for life in general. The words are ora et labora – prayer and work. It’s no accident that prayer is listed first, as it is the best part; and without it, as so many have learned, makes work all the more difficult and less fulfilling because without prayer Jesus is not the Center of one’s work.
Saint Augustine, in today’s Office of Readings, describes Martha as one “who had to be fed with the Spirit” and thus “received Him Who had to be fed with flesh.” That is to say, Jesus had flesh which could get hungry and would need to be fed; and because of this, Martha’s role here is necessary; but virtually all labors can produce complaints if one is not fed with the Spirit.
There’s a much larger story here as Saint Augustine continues to teach us that Jesus was welcomed by Martha and “received as a guest” and to those who receive Him, He gives them the power to “become children of God.”
As if Martha were standing in front of Saint Augustine, he says directly to her, but has us as witnesses that we may also ponder in our labors: “While blessed in your good service, you are seeking a recompense for your labors, namely quietem – rest . . . You feed mortal bodies . . . but when you have reached home will you find there a pilgrim to welcome?”
No, there will be no pilgrim to welcome; but He in Whom we have welcomed in this life represented by those we have offered service, will welcome us. Jesus said: “Beati, servi illi” – “Blessed are those servants” (Luke 12:37). For Jesus lovingly states that He will sit us down and He will serve us (cf. ibid.). Often mystery has us on the edge, but there is great comfort in this mysterious promise from our Lord.