The essence of religion is a love relationship with God. Every love relationship (or any kind of friendship) has two aspects: first, being with our beloved for the sake of being with our beloved and second, doing things to please our beloved (someone called it “being with and doing for”).
In our story of Martha and Mary, Mary is sitting at the feet of Jesus listening while Martha is busy with the tasks of hospitality. Martha wants Mary to help with tasks, and Jesus said that only one thing is required, that Mary has chosen “the better part”. It may seem that Jesus is rejecting the “doing for” as unimportant and “being with” is the better choice. However, anyone who says “all I have to do is have my prayer time and then I don’t have to act on my faith in any way” had better slow down and take a breath. The Gospels don’t let us get off that easily. We just finished reading the story of the Good Samaritan which was definitely a call to action. The Gospel of Luke is especially strong on acts of mercy toward others.
However, we remember that Christianity is not just a to-do list, but a love relationship, so it starts with paying attention to the person.
“Set me as a seal on your heart, as a seal upon your arm; For Love is strong as Death, longing is fierce as Sheol. Its arrows are arrows of fire, flames of the divine. Deep waters cannot quench love, nor rivers sweep it away. Were one to offer all the wealth of his house for love, he would be utterly despised (Song of Songs 8:6-7).”
Consider all the tasks your loved ones do for you as expressions of their love. If you had enough money, you could probably find people you could pay to do all those tasks, but it wouldn’t be the same. Someone could bake you cookies using your grandmother’s recipe, and serve them to you warm out of the oven, but it wouldn’t be the same as your grandmother doing it out of love. You could probably find people, if you paid them enough, to tell you continuously that they loved you and admired you and you were precious to them, but you know that if you stopped paying them, they would walk out the door and never look back. A love relationship is unique in all reality. That is what God is offering us. That is what God is seeking from us. He doesn’t need our love, but we need to love Him.
Martha was doing tasks, and that was good. Mary was focused on Jesus Himself. Starting with Jesus, she would never neglect tasks that really needed to be done. In fact, one of the key measures of our prayer life is how our behavior is changing. If our prayer is really opening our hearts and minds to God, we will show an increase in the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (see Galatians 5:22-23).
Let us not presume that by our own power we can become good people and make a better world. If we want a better world, we start by attending more closely to Jesus.