Today’s short and well-known Gospel about the visit of Jesus to the home of Martha and Mary is packed with wisdom.
There’s the longstanding takeaway from this story: because Martha and Mary are sisters, so too is there a strong kinship between what they have come to stand for: Mary and the life of prayer and contemplation, Martha and the life of service and action. Contemplation and action are inseparable sisters in Christian life.
Also here we have a wonderful example of hospitality both extended and received. Just as the sisters opened their doors to Jesus, so, too, Jesus opened Mary’s heart to his wisdom teaching, and Martha’s heart to his guidance.
But I want to focus on Martha’s complaining and the toxic nature of a chronic complainer, and, more importantly, the always-ready remedy, the gift of presence.
Once upon a time, at a very strange and silent monastery, the abbot had this rule. Once a year, each monk could visit the abbot and summarize the year in two words. So a new monk went after his first year and said, “Better food.” The next year, the monk returned and told the abbot, “Warmer blankets.” For the third year, the monk came in and said, “I quit.” The abbot responded, “I’m not surprised. Ever since you got here, all you’ve been doing is complain.”
Humor aside, complaint and growth in the spiritual life are incompatible. Remember, Judas Iscariot was a complainer before he was known as a traitor. Here today, Martha was “burdened” with all her serving; another translation says she was “distracted.” She’s preparing the house, but she is resentful and complaining. She even ropes in Jesus just as he arrives and wants him to take sides.
On the other hand, Mary is doing the “one thing needed” by simply being present; in this moment present to Jesus. But we can be equally present in doing daily tasks.
Today in society we see complaint taken to new and disturbing levels: for example , the so-called “Karen” personality, a slang term for someone who weaponizes and escalates complaint. More “Marys” are needed to counteract the complainers, the Marthas and the Karens.
I make a special appeal to all those of many years in our congregation today. Because of our life experience, we could have accumulated many grievances, resentments, complaints. And we have also accumulated thousands of opportunities to simply be present to the reality at hand. By the way we are living your life right now, we are showing everyone – especially younger generations – that as we age, we are becoming more like Martha, or more like Mary. It’s never too late to change, but the choice is yours, and it’s an important choice.