Now as they went on their way, he entered a village; and a woman named Martha received him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving; and she went to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38-42)
Jesus is visiting two sisters, Martha and Mary. The Gospel reading is presented to us along with the story of the angels visiting Abraham one year before the birth of Isaac.
And the LORD appeared to him by the oaks of Mamreh, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day. He lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men stood in front of him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them, and bowed himself to the earth, and said, “My lord, if I have found favor in your sight, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree, while I fetch a morsel of bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on — since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.” And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Make ready quickly three measures of fine meal, knead it, and make cakes.” And Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. Then he took curds, and milk, and the calf which he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate. They said to him, “Where is Sarah your wife?” And he said, “She is in the tent.” The LORD said, “I will surely return to you in the spring, and Sarah your wife shall have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent door behind him. (Genesis 18:1-10)
One cannot avoid noticing Abraham organizing his wife and servants to take care of feeding his visitors while he remains by their side in case they need something. Sarah is listening attentively. The generosity of Abraham and Sarah is compensated by their visitors who give them both an unexpected gift: a son. Sarah laughs at the fantastic idea of being pregnant in her old age, more so when her husband is even older than she is. The laughter is not disrespectful of the oracle uttered that day. Sarah laughs because suddenly her heart is pierced by joy. She believes the unbelievable news from Heaven. Her son will be called Yitschak [יצחק] which means “laughter” — the first inheritor of the divine promise will carry in his name the joy of spring, the joy of a barren womb suddenly surprised by life.
Martha and Mary are also surprised by Jesus visiting them. Like Sarah and Abraham, the two sisters are not expecting company and so Martha hastes to get some serious meal ready for the Lord but Mary stays listening to Jesus and lets her sister deal with preparing dinner. She instinctively knows there is something more important in her Master’s words. The pleasure of listening to Jesus is urging her more than her natural sense of hospitality.
Martha complains that she is left alone to serve the meal but Jesus does not send Mary to help her sister. On the contrary, he praises Mary for listening to him. Both sisters are hospitable but Mary is opening her heart to the Word while Martha is merely opening her home.
And so we oscillate between faith and anxiety in this life, not knowing how to surrender our heart to God’s will. Ever since the days of Adam we strive to rebuild Paradise, to make our home a place worthy of God’s visitation. We fail over and over to wake up to the fact that such visitations are in themselves complete and fruitful. Jesus, who had made a meal for thousands, could have easily made a meal for three if no one had prepared dinner. Martha’s efforts are of a lesser kind than Mary’s. Abraham and Sarah tried to produce an inheritor to the Promise on their own and made a lot of trouble for themselves when Isaac was waiting inside them perhaps delayed by their own anxiety to see the fruits of the Promise.
“Thy will be done” is mysteriously intertwined with “give us today our daily bread” to teach us that everything that happens is God’s work. God is good. He is our perfect benefactor. If we are his, God will surprise our hearts when least expected if we only wait and walk with Him.
I wish I could practice this lesson as easily as I can write it here. My anxiety has me going out to pick flowers in wintertime because I lack the patience to wait for spring. My heart however, reminds me that one man was told to go pick flowers in the midst of winter, the long awaited flowers of Tepeyac sprang from the rocks, like Isaac grew from the barren womb of Sarah, and Jesus walked out of the tomb to surprise Mary on that first Resurrection Sunday.
The secret is to listen to Him. As a watched kettle never boils, the anxious heart will never be surprised by joy.