The Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled by many things. But there is need for only one. Mary chose the good part. It won’t be taken away from her.”
Luke 10: 41-2
In his commentary on the stories of The Good Samaritan and of Martha and Mary in Luke 10, Luke Timothy Johnson writes: “Less familiar, perhaps, is what [in them] goes beyond psychology into gospel: the compassion that is not simply a feeling but translates itself into the self-giving that takes risks, that disposes of the self and one’s possessions and then allows the other to leave without clinging; the hospitality that receives the other as the other wishes to be received, that listens” (The Gospel of Luke, p. 176). In Johnson’s reading of the familiar story of Martha and Mary, the gospel teaching centers on Mary’s hospitality, a hospitality that is not first a doing for but rather a receiving “as the other wishes to be received, that listens.”
In the old days when one actually went to a retail store to purchase something, it was not unusual to be greeted by the salesperson with the words, “What can I do for you?” As native speakers of a shared common language, we understood that the person was asking us what our need as a consumer was to which they could respond. Our meeting was purely transactional. We needed or desired something in particular and we assumed that the salesperson had the commodity to respond to that need or desire. The customer was being welcomed into the store, but the welcome was a very well-defined one based on the requirements of the transaction at hand.
In more recent times, as the local stores became super markets or super stores of other kinds, the limits and boundaries of the welcome and encounter became evermore constricted. More often than not, as one passed through the check out line at the supermarket, the cashier would not even look up or make eye contact with the customer as he or she passed through. As a result we can find ourselves powerfully affected when even for a moment another actually recognizes and acknowledges our presence in the course of the transaction.
The experience of living through the last half of the twentieth century and the first decades of the twenty-first is an experience of increasing commodification of life, of all relationships becoming more and more transactional in nature. Accomplishing a transaction, however, is not a distinctively human act. There is now very little business that we cannot transact through technology. Yet, it is only the human person in his or her spiritual potency that can create a space by which another person can be received as they wish to be received, that can, in the deepest sense, listen to the life of another.
As the story of Martha and Mary teaches us, there has always been a tension in human life between being for and doing for another. We recognize in the parable of the Good Samaritan the importance of doing for, of doing what is to be done for the other, of what Johnson calls “the self-giving that takes risks, that disposes of the self and one’s possessions and then allows the other to leave without clinging.” For those of us formed into a reductionistic and materialistic view (the two countervailing formation ideologies of the 20th century, communism and capitalism, are both inherently materialistic) of the human person, there is an even greater tendency than in the past to respond more by doing for than by being for. Although not necessarily always up to the level of generosity that responds adequately to the needs of the one before us, at least we can understand the call to “do for” the other. As our spiritual senses atrophy, however, the very meaning of the call to “be for” another seems increasingly to elude us.
As we reflect on the development of our lives, we come to realize that we have been largely formed by the aphorisms that we learned in our youth and which our parents and larger culture have passed on to us. One of the most familiar, that has been attributed to Benjamin Franklin but was quite commonly used well before him, is “time is money.” It may be that nothing is more indicative of our sense of who we are as human beings than our view of time. If “time is money,” then time too is a commodity. It is for us to use, to manage, and from which to accrue wealth, benefit, and success. It is to be used to do all of what we must do in a day, a week, or a lifetime. Success is to use and manipulate it well. Martha’s frustration and anxiety is, at least to a certain degree, the result of time stress.
Is, however, its “usability” the deepest dimension of time? Or, is it rather, primordially a space for the practice of a hospitality that is a receiving “as the other wishes to be received, that listens.” To be in time is “to wait in joyful hope for the coming of our savior, Jesus Christ.” it is to “stand ready” to receive the gift of life and Mystery that is always coming to us, in the guise of the other. Mary hangs on each of Jesus’ words, openly receptive to the message that he offers. She receives eternal life, not in the sense of an infinite amount of hours and days, but rather in awakening to the fullness of life within her. The story of Martha and Mary illustrates the tension we all live between that which is the distinctively human in us, our capacity to receive Divine life and to live “in the light of the sacred”, and that which is the typically human, our ability to function and to control and dominate, to enact our will on, our material world.
Adrian van Kaam points out that to live our humanity to the full requires that our functional dimension needs to become the disciple of our transcendent dimension, of our spirit. This is what Jesus means when he says to Martha, that there is need for only one thing. By nature, I have always had a tendency to impulsivity. Very often as a child, I would hear an adult say to me, “Listen first and then act.” My tendency, in my anxiety, is always to rush into action, to take care of the “problem” that is making me anxious. By doing this, however, I very often fail to listen carefully and fully to what is being asked or called for. Often then, I may head in the wrong direction, or do something incompletely that then needs to be done over. Jesus says to Martha, “Let the world, the situation, the other person speak. Give the time and the space needed to know what they really want to say and to ask. Then, respond. Don’t do what they don’t really need. Wait, and do what they really most want from you.”
How much of what we do is necessary and called for? How much do our actions respond to what the world most deeply needs from us uniquely? How often in our willfulness and anxiety do we inflict harm or damage rather than gently serving God’s will and way for the other? It is of the very nature of our functional dimension to exert power over people and things. In a materialistic and commodified world, we consider our accumulation and control over things as the measure of our human potency. We mistakenly believe that we make our mark in the world through being successful and powerful on our culture’s terms. Yet, it is the weak and the poor and the powerless who, in the gospel, are the members and so the signs of the kingdom.
There may be no more difficult task for us than to, as our teachers often told us when we were children, “sit still and listen.” When we sit still, we know our own poverty and we experience all of the agitation and noise that make it so difficult to listen to and receive the other, “as the other wishes to be received.” When we take time “to do nothing,” we also experience the summons to change our relationship to time. We don’t sit, we don’t pray because we think we don’t have the time. But from that perspective, time is a commodity, not a gift. It is a limited personal resource of ours rather than the space to receive the gift of the Mystery.
To do “God’s work” requires of us that we first receive it as a call. What Theodore James Ryken called the “non-dichotomized life of Martha and Mary” is a life of “transcendent functioning.” We don’t act out of impetuousness or anxiety, but rather in response to what is being asked of us. We are not the salesperson who restricts the reality and need of the other to what we already possess and so are comfortable giving. Rather, we open a space, in our own hearts and between us, where we listen and receive what the other asks of us — and then do what we can to respond carefully and gently.
Gentleness is a special way of listening to myself and others and all that happens in my life. The gentle attitude draws me out in a whole new way. My views of life may have been colored by my need to cast the world in my own image rather than in the image of the Divine. I may have been dominated by a need to keep others at bay or to push ahead of them ruthlessly. I could not listen to the Divine Presence in my situation. Therefore, I did not let events and things speak their own meanings to me, apart from my plans for them. I could not hear or see them in the perspective of the Eternal.
Gentleness becomes possible when my surroundings are cast in a divine light. The gentle attitude, nourished by my presence to the Divine, takes me out of the world of willfulness. It turns me into a new person who sees and hears and moves in the light of the Sacred, whose Divine Gentleness bathes all in its wake.
Adrian van Kaam, Spirituality and the Gentle Life, p. 35