Choosing the better part: Lessons from St. Martha
Life is full of decisions. There are small decisions, such as choosing what type of toothpaste to purchase or what shirt to wear in the morning. Then there are major decisions like purchasing a house, choosing a career, and discerning a vocation. The freedom that we have to choose between options is a gift from God – He created us with a free will, we can choose His way or our way. There may not be a gigantic moral dilemma in choosing toothpaste, but the choice is to take care of ourselves, our health, and our bodies rather than allow it to rot and decay. The decision to enter a seminary or monastery comes after much prayer and discernment, hopefully when we make the decision, we choose “The Better Part.”
St. Martha has held a special place in my prayer life and especially in my own discernment over the past six or seven years. St. Martha is noted a few times in the Gospels of Luke and John. She is the sister of Lazarus, beloved by Jesus, and truly a great teacher of how we can live our lives. St. Martha is so relatable and can teach us a lot about advancing in our spiritual lives. Her life offers an example of reprioritizing our focus, trusting in the Lord, and service.
When I was in the “thick” of my vocational discernment, my spiritual director very kindly gave me a book by Fr. John Bartunek. This book entitled, The Better Part (from which I have borrowed the title of this blog), is a wonderful prayer companion, teaching the beauty and importance of Scripture and Spirit guided meditative prayer. It truly has shaped my prayer life and taught me many things about making faith-filled choices in my life. These lessons can be applied to anyone, regardless of his or her state in life.
Service and hospitality: putting others before yourself
First and foremost, St Martha teaches us the value of service and of hospitality. In Luke’s Gospel, we see Martha selflessly serving her guests, putting their needs before her own. A disciple’s heart is one of service. We are called to serve the Lord and serve others and do so out of love. The act of service requires offering some sort of sacrifice, but the action of sacrifice is not as important as the inner disposition of the one offering. Martha’s actions came natural to her. There were guests in her home and she wanted to make them feel welcome. She did not want them to have to worry about the little things. She wanted them to be able to listen to Jesus’s words uninterrupted.
Do not focus the wrong details!
It is very easy for our focus to become one-dimensional both in life and in prayer. All too often, we become preoccupied with a certain task placed in front of us and the blinders immediately go up. When a couple gets engaged, for example, planning the wedding becomes number one on the priority list. I am guilty of this as I poured a lot of energy and time into creating the perfect day—planning the liturgy, who was involved, the reception, music, etc. I had to constantly remind myself of “the better part” – the fact that my wife and I were entering into a lifelong union, called to model the love of Christ. The same can be said about a seminarian approaching ordination. He too can be caught up in selecting vestments, sending out invitations, and overthinking his homily. These details, while important, are secondary to “the better part” of being ordained to the Priesthood of Jesus Christ – offering oneself completely to the service of God’s people through offering the Sacraments, preaching, and service.
Don’t Worry (and actually listen to Jesus’s short instructions)
When I was discerning between priesthood and married life, I was caught up on the final decision—“what if I make the wrong choice?” I worried a lot about that question. What if, like Martha, I choose to worry about the wrong things and allow that to guide my decision? Looking to St. Martha’s example, we can see that she worries about the wrong details, but allows the Lord to correct her focus; she follows His instructions.
With a simple phrase (“Martha, you worry about so much, but few things are needed. Mary has chosen the better part”) Jesus redirects Martha’s focus. In my own prayer, Jesus usually allows me to lay out my laundry list of complaints, worries, and questions. He usually responds with a simple word or sentence that completely levels me and redirects my heart to “the better part.” There is nothing wrong with laying our worries before the Lord, as long as we allow Him to respond to us and we follow His instructions.
Knowing to turn to the Lord—complete faith in who he is
In John 11, we see a dramatic trust on the part of Martha. She is greatly distressed by her brother’s death and yet she still goes to the Lord with complete trust stating, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died…even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.” Martha, still distraught and showing signs of worry, does not put Jesus to the test or complain, instead she has faith in God’s plan. Rather than asking Jesus to raise Lazarus, her heart is revealed that, in a way, says, “Lord, I know what our faith tells us about death and resurrection. I also know that you have the power to raise him from the dead.” She has faith in who Jesus is, she knows she can rely on Him for everything—even the things that seem impossible.
Jesus loved Martha
Jesus knew her heart. He knew she didn’t want her brother to be dead and He knew that she wanted Jesus to help her with this tragic point in her life. This lesson is probably most important of all. It is not because of anything Martha did right or wrong that merited her sainthood, but because of Jesus’s overwhelming love for her. He loves each of us with an unexplainable love. We must always remind ourselves that God loves us. We remind ourselves what he has done for us and hope in what He will do for us simply because we are his beloved children.
On this feast of St. Martha, let us open our eyes to what is truly important—our relationship with the Lord. May we not become distracted by the many worries the world throws our way, but instead rely on Christ’s love for us to do what He says He will do. In both small decisions and large discernment, may we choose The Better Part.