The familiar story of the conflict between Marth and Mary (Lk 10:38-42) has often been interpreted as an account of the play between the active and the contemplative life, Jesus signaling his preference for the latter over the former. But I don’t think that reading gets to the heart of it. It is rather a narrative concerning the spiritual problem of the one and the many. Martha complains that her sister is not helping her with the numerous and time-consuming tasks of hospitality and tells Jesus to do something about it. The Lord responds, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part which will not be taken away from her” (Lk 10:41-42). Martha’s problem is not that she is busy or that she is engaging in the “active” life; her problem is that she is uncentered. Her mind, quite obviously, is divided, drifting from this concern to that, from one anxiety to another; there are many things that preoccupy her. What Mary has chosen is not so much the contemplative life, but the focused life. She is anchored in the unum necessarium, as the Vulgate renders this passage. The implication seems to be that, were Mary to help with the many household tasks, she would not be “worried and distracted” by them, since she could relate them to her center, and that, were Martha to sit at the feet of Jesus, she would still squirm with impatience, since her spirit is divided. As is so often the case in the spiritual life, the issue is not what they’re doing, but how they’re doing it. Indeed, the surest sign that something is off in Martha’s soul is that she even tells God what to do!

Father Robert Barron (passage from today’s Magnificat)