A favorite gospel passage concerns Jesus and the hospitality of Martha and Mary, which follows the parable of the Good Samaritan, in the tenth chapter of Luke:
As they continued their journey he entered a village where a woman whose name was Martha welcomed him. She had a sister named Mary [who] sat beside the Lord at his feet listening to him speak. Martha, burdened with much serving, came to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? Tell her to help me.” The Lord said to her in reply, “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.”
Martha hopes to show Our Lord a fitting welcome, to extend the hospitality of her household and to take care that it not be seen as lacking.
But she also misses the “better part”, i.e., the opportunity that is present in the moment, to draw near to the Word. She is distracted, and has allowed her desire to be hospitable to prevent her from receiving anything that the Lord’s imminence offers us.
Consider the following painting, “Christ in the House of Mary and Martha” by Vincenzo Campi (late 16th Century):
This painting uses a glorious bounty — the type of hospitality Martha wishes to show Jesus — as an illustration of how much better is Mary’s chosen part.
It is admirable — and a most sympathetic depiction of Martha — that Campi does not trivialize Martha’s efforts (did you ever see Babette’s Feast (one of Pope Francis’ favorite films?). She isn’t being overly scrupulous about bustling around over a little bread and meat; rather, she is trying to serve Our Lord in a fitting way, in the way that a King should be attended.
We see every possible lovely thing for a feast in vast array — fresh fish (Martha holds a thick, marbled, pink salmon steak in her right hand), a beautiful ham, breads, crustaceans and seafood, poultry and fowl newly slaughtered and ready for dressing, carrots and cabbages and tomatoes and citrus and artichokes!
In other words, when Jesus says that Mary has chosen the better part, we are given a visual cue to enlighten us. Yes, better, even than all of this. Better than the most resplendent of king’s feasts. “Do not work for food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.” (John 6:27).