We often hear these days about the need for people to get their work/life balance right. This dilemma has been highlighted by the trend of working from home that was encouraged during covid lockdowns. The home became the place of paid work as well as the place of learning for many students. The home is of course also the place one lives one’s personal life. So where does work (or study) begin and end and how does this impact the rest of life?
A similar issue lies behind this week’s Gospel reading about two sisters, Martha and Mary. It appears that Martha is in charge of running the house and expects her sister Mary to help out as required when Jesus and his band of travelling disciples arrive for a meal. Providing hospitality to guests was both an honour and an expectation in Eastern culture. And the role of women was to organize the hospitality. This was considered to be women’s rightful ‘work’.
The problem is that Mary decides that she will sit and listen to Jesus’ teaching – alongside the other male disciples – while Martha prepares the meal. Martha is unimpressed and interrupts Jesus to demand that he persuade Mary to get back into the kitchen to help out. Instead, Jesus commends Mary and suggests that she has chosen what is the ‘better part’.
What’s at stake is more than a feminist rebellion against imposed gender roles. The situation asks us to consider how to balance the demands of discipleship (learning to follow Jesus) with other demands in life (e.g. work, home schooling, running a house). Jesus often invites people to follow his example which cultivates the inner life of relating to God (e.g. through prayer, worship, stillness) but is also fully involved in life in the world (e.g. work, community building, helping others). The challenge – as with the question of contemporary work/life balance – is how to balance these distinct yet overlapping spheres of our lives.