Today's Gospel of Martha and Mary is always a fruitful one to meditate on. But in the light of the first reading (St. Paul telling his vocation story to the Galatians), I found it even richer than usual. In fact, today I see Martha and, not Mary, but PAUL as the kindred spirits.
Usually when this Gospel is preached on, Martha comes off looking pretty bad. It's hard to avoid. Luke depicts her in a frazzled state, (she even attempts to henpeck Jesus!), and the Lord uses that double address ("Martha, Martha") that always signals a reproach.
Is Jesus really holding up Mary as a model for Martha to imitate, so that instead of in the kitchen, Martha too should be at his feet, listening to his words? Does choosing "the better part" mean that Martha has to strip herself of her personality?
St. Paul shows us what might really be going on. Martha, that day in Bethany, could have been (in her own way, of course) in the same "place" Saul the persecutor was: driven by a kind of wild, unreflective zeal and, because of all the bustle, unable to perceive the guidance of greater grace. Remember how Jesus told Saul, "It is hard for you to kick against the goad"? That means there was some goading going on in his life: he was unable to get out of his own impulsive quest. Once the Lord got his attention, so that Saul was able to make a free choice of the better part, Saul's personality didn't change. He would still be charging around the Mediterranean world--but with a new depth, and the unexpected ability to "suffer for the sake of the Name."
Same for Martha, if we make a kind of blended story of her life from the Gospels of Luke and John. A week before the Last Supper, where do we find Jesus, Martha and Mary? At the sisters' home in Bethany. Mary is at the Lord's feet (this time with perfumed ointment) and Martha? She's on her feet, serving the meal--but this time, without the frenetic anxiety that had characterized her during Jesus' earlier visit.
There's a lot here for me to learn from. "The better part" is not a given; it's a choice. That means I need to reflect and recognize it so I can really choose it for myself. When I am driven with that unreflective zeal, that's a sign that the better part could be elsewhere--time to take stock, like Martha, like Saul on the road. Is my energy and drive an interior grace freely responded to, or am I just kicking against the goad, while the better part is waiting just to the side, if only I would stop long enough to see it?