As some of you probably know, I am a hospital chaplain. One question people ask me frequently about my hospital ministry is, “Father, how do you know what to tell patients when you visit them in the hospital?” In response, I always say, “Primarily, I don’t go to tell them anything; I rather go to listen to them and to be a non-judgmental and compassionate presence to them.”
After reading today’s gospel passage, I will not be surprised to hear people comment that Jesus was unfair to Martha when he said, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, and it will not be taken from her.” After all, Martha was preparing the meal for Jesus. Why did she not get the credit? Why did the credit go to the “lazybones,” Mary, who only sat listening to Jesus?
A fundamental question to ask at this point is, “What did Jesus really need at the point of his visit?” Remember that Jesus visited these ladies in Bethany while he was on his way to Jerusalem to die. At this point, he was going through an inner battle. Submitting to the will of his Father was not going to be a piece of cake, for he would say, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” It was more of a spiritual/emotional hunger, but Martha was busy trying to satisfy physical hunger.
At this point, the cross was before Jesus, and the crucifixion was becoming more and more inevitable. With all the tension in his heart, all he wanted was a quiet moment to reflect, and a listening ear to enable him to process his thoughts. He found in Bethany, in the house of these ladies, a place of calm away from the crowds with their demands. Mary, like a Chaplain, was able to understand this need of Jesus, but Martha, like many people, did not get it.
One of the most significant challenges in human relationships is that we sometimes want to be kind to people not based on their needs but based on our needs, and when what we offer is not needed by them, we take offense that we are not appreciated. The point is that we go out of our way to satisfy the needs of others, but in the end, it is our own needs we meet. If we are trying to be kind to someone, the first step we need to take is to listen and see into the heart of the person we desire to help, to forget our plans/agenda and to identify the person’s needs. This challenge is widespread in marriage. Most often, the wife comes home and is venting, talking to her husband about her frustration. Midway into her story, the husband cuts in to start providing solutions. Then the woman becomes angry that she was not given the chance to finish her story, then the man becomes more upset that his wife is not appreciative that he the genius is providing the solution to her problems. Men do not seem to realize that when your wife comes to tell you her story of the day, the first response she wants from you is not for you to provide practical solutions. The most important thing she wants from you is for you to listen to her and acknowledge her, to affirm her, to acknowledge that what she says is essential, to acknowledge her existence and prove to her that you listen to her, that you care and that you understand her. Even if you think what she is saying is not correct, connect with her before you correct her; connection should come before correction.
Martha sincerely wanted to be kind to Jesus, but in her own way. She was in the real sense satisfying her own need for feeding the hungry. She felt she was being kind, which was unkind to Jesus, who needed a quiet time and listening ears.
Our failure to listen also affects our prayer life and our relationship with God. Sometimes, all that we need to do in prayer is to sit quietly before God and listen to God. Shortly before this time on the Mount of Transfiguration, the voice that came from the cloud had said to Peter, James, and John, “This is my beloved Son…Listen to him” (cf. Luke 9:35 Today is a good day for us to reflect on how far we have been able to grow in our listening skills. An African adage has it that God gave us two ears but only one mouth because God wants us to spend twice as much time listening as talking and because God knows that listening is twice as hard as talking. Our biggest problem in the world is that everybody is talking and no one is listening. After receiving Jesus in the Holy Communion today, let us go home spend more time listening to God and to one another; for as scripture says in Psalm 46:10, “Be still and know that I am God.”