Opening the Word: ‘The better part’

Americans are, generally speaking, a practical people. We know how to get things done, how to organize, how to make a plan and put it into action. Work may be “a rat race” and “a grind,” but we take satisfaction in knowing we work hard, do a good job and are productive members of society. 

But to what end? 

By “end,” I mean “ultimate end.” This question is pursued relentlessly and with sometimes unsettling results in “Leisure: The Basis of Culture” (Ignatius Press, $13.95), written in the 1950s by the German philosopher Josef Pieper. Western man overvalues work, Pieper argued, and he has lost the meaning and importance of true leisure, instead substituting shallow entertainment and empty diversions. Leisure is essential to be whole, and the soul of leisure is “divine worship” of the Creator. 

“Celebration of God in worship,” writes Pieper, “cannot be done unless it is done for its own sake.” 

Hold that thought and cut away to the dusty, first-cen-tury village of Bethany and the home of Martha and Mary. Jesus, having told his disciples of his approaching suffering and death and having performed healings and exorcisms (see Lk 9), was likely ready for a brief respite before heading into Jerusalem. Martha was an exemplary hostess. She believed, at the very least, that Jesus was a great prophet, and she took pride in treating this friend and guest of distinction to the finest care and food. And so Martha was busily preparing and serving food, even while her sister, Mary, sat at the feet of Jesus, listening to him speak.  

What happened next was not an ordinary part of Semitic culture and hospitality: Martha sought to draw Jesus into the middle of a domestic disagreement, employing the guilt trip (“Lord, do you not care …”), playing the victim card (“that my sister has left me by myself …”), and employing the exasperated demand (“Tell her to help me”). Things went from agreeable to awkward quickly! 

I’ve heard the words of Jesus interpreted sometimes as being a rebuke to Martha. But that is unfair to Martha, and it skews, or misses altogether, the essential point. The Church Fathers agreed on this point. St. Gregory the Great, for example, wrote, “For what is set forth by Mary, who sitting down gave ear to the words of our Lord, save the life of contemplation? And what by Martha, so busied with outward services, save the life of action? Now Martha’s concern is not reproved, but that of Mary is even commended.” He concluded: “For the merits of the active life are great, but of the contemplative, far better.” Everything that Martha did was good. Yet in pursuing good things she overlooked the greatest good. 

Mary, in sitting at Jesus’ feet, showed her submission to him. She literally “listened to his word.” She was completely and wholly present to the Incarnate Word; there was no practical end to this being present, for it was simply an act of love and worship. “To cling to God and to the things of God,” wrote St. John Cassian, “this must be our major effort, this must be the road that the heart follows unswervingly.” And St. Ambrose sums it up perfectly: “Do not let service divert the knowledge of the heavenly Word.” 

Mary, in choosing “the better part,” had made the right choice. She completely gave her attention and herself to the Lord, fully aware of the Word of God present in flesh and blood, and in spoken word. In so choosing, she gained what could never be taken from her. 

Carl E. Olson is the editor of