In the Gospel when Jesus visited Martha and Mary, Martha did all the work while Mary sat and watched. And Jesus said Mary has chosen the better portion and she shall not be deprived. Why did he not expect Mary to toil and labor like he wants Martha and the rest of the people to do—like we have been taught?
We begin by looking at the passage again. First of all, the passage is not about whether or not we have to work: because all of us have been given responsibilities. Thus, I want to reassure you that Jesus is not saying Mary chose the better part by just sitting there.
The intention of Jesus is to describe what this “better portion” is all about: having an intimate and trusting relationship with him is “better” than everything else. In the scene, Martha of course is busy with the tasks of hosting a guest, while Mary “sits at the feet of Jesus.” It is important to acknowledge that such service by Martha is good—but not the be all and end all. (For we must not forget who it is that Martha is seeking to serve: the Savior, through whom the whole world was made, including whatever food Martha might be preparing for him). Martha’s service is good; Mary’s attention to the Son of God in their midst is better. There will be plenty of time to accomplish the tasks that come as part of life. The better portion is a sign that we owe our attention above every activity and within every task to the Lord himself. The opportunity to be in the presence of the Lord is the greatest opportunity we will ever know (by the way, this “being in the presence of God” is what heaven really is, plain and simple). Thus, Mary’s “better portion” was not a matter of sitting around and watching. It was in giving her attention to Jesus.
Consider the consequences of such a message regarding prayer. The lesson to be learned from the story is that Jesus is to be valued above all other persons and things—even things that are seen as necessary like working. Thus, while we must work, more necessary and more valuable to our eternal life is prayer, not the work we do. For if we are praying, and doing so “without ceasing,” our work takes on its proper meaning, making us more human and transforming work from something done merely as a function of survival to a collaboration with God. When prayer is our priority, we too have the better portion, allowing Jesus to be present to us now and forever – and helping us to accomplish the works more properly.
Thus, Sunday Mass is truly meant as the “source” and the “goal” of our lives – for in the Mass, we are in the presence of Jesus Christ, who comes to us, offering himself for us in the Eucharist. Likewise, through this presence of Jesus Christ, we are given that which we need to be faithful in every other relationship, task, responsibility, etc., that we will ever have – as Jesus himself comes to dwell in us. Similarly, in our prayer, especially when we can take advantage of opportunities to participate in weekday Mass or to pray before the presence of Christ who is present in the tabernacle and who invites us to worship him in times of Eucharistic Adoration or Exposition, we choose that “better portion” that will sustain us in everything else.
Therefore, it is important to see Mary’s better portion not as a turning away from work, but a turning toward the Lord Jesus himself, who gives us what we truly need (salvation), and will help us to carry out every work according to this saving plan.