Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her (v42).
It isn't the hospitality that Martha chooses to show that is wrong, as she bustles around the kitchen getting refreshments ready for her guests. Showing hospitality is one of the most wonderful things we can do for one another, and it is deeply at the heart of the Christian faith. Eating together is what we do, to bind ourselves together in fellowship and to remember that final supper Jesus had with his friends.
The writer of the epistle to the Hebrews says, 'Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares' (Hebrews 13.2). It is a direct reference to today's Old Testament reading, where Abraham extends hospitality to some visitors who bring him news of the most remarkable blessing from God. When we serve others authentically, we are ourselves blessed.
So, no, Martha's hospitality isn't wrong. But the worries and distractions of serving her guests have prevented her from doing the one thing that matters most. Keeping her attention on Jesus. Instead, she has disappeared inside herself, caught up in her own narrative and resentment about what she is doing, and in her judgementalism towards her sister Mary who has chosen not to help, but to sit instead at Jesus' feet listening to what he has to say. Martha has failed to take up Jesus' offer of a relationship with him, one in which she is called to serve God out of her true self.
Goodness knows, there are plenty of things in life worse than having to put the kettle on that can blow us off track and prevent us from keeping our focus on Jesus.
The Dominican friar, Timothy Radcliffe, in his book Why Go To Church? says:
Most sin is pretending to be someone else, admirable or powerful or sexy, who will have value in other people's eyes and one's own. As with the prodigal son, it is a form of self-exile, taking refuge in an imaginary self.
Our culture promotes this kind of fakery. We are encouraged to style our hair to look like a particular celebrity; or furnish our homes to live like people on television or movies; to buy the latest gadgets or cars to demonstrate our status; to wear certain trainers so that everyone knows we are are part of the cool crowd.
It is all so pretend and illusionary: but the pressure to pretend to be someone else is all around us — on billboards and magazines, television and films, the Internet and peer pressure.
It is causing a spiritual crisis because people do not know who they are anymore. And then they discover that life is complicated, worrysome, full of grief and anxiety and disaster, and that no hairstyle, no matter how many pairs of shoes you own, or games you have for the PlayStation, will help to anchor or ground you.
When the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, discovered that his father was not the man who brought him up, which was the result of a newspaper investigation, he said this: 'My identity is founded on who I am in Christ.'
Martha, I think, is a people pleaser. She does what needs to be done for others so that she will have value in their eyes and in her own. She want to appear admirable. But she is brimming with resentment, because she is not acting out of who she truly is. She is playing the part of a false self, not through the vapid choices of consumerism, but through actions and service which may look terrific but are inauthentic.
Mary, on the other hand, sets aside notions of pretending to be someone she isn't, and chooses to try to be like Christ: to follow him, listen to him, to put him at the heart of her attention and aspirations. She chooses the better part, and it will not be taken away from her. In the years ahead, whatever she does to serve others, to be hospitable, or to put herself out for others in acts of loving service, will come from having Christ as the focus of all she does. Her joy will be that the way she lives her life is an expression of who she is in Christ Jesus. A servant of the kingdom of heaven. And that she will have understood and given attention to her true self.
Clothes go out of fashion. Hair turns grey and falls out (I'm told...). Gym toned bodies become flabby and arthritic. Someone else comes along who is more admirable, powerful or sexy than we could ever hope to be. The ways that we pretend to be a good person get exposed in that hot-headed moment when when we brim over with resentment and self-pity.
But Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever. When we seek to be like him, and to live our lives as an expression of our true self, then we choose the better part. And it will not be taken away from us.