Action versus contemplation: an eternal tension
The temptation could be to oppose the sisters Martha and Mary, in the same way as we sometimes place the "spiritual" and the "temporal" in opposition, or the "active life" and "contemplative life", or even "the word" versus "acts".
In these oppositions, the "spiritual" or "contemplative" life is valued at the expense of the "temporal" or "active" life, even if, in reality, they are rarely neglected.
These divisions can also cross several planes of our existence, especially when we feel torn between the multitude of demands to which we seek to respond, at the risk of scattering ourselves, and our aspiration to a certain unity of life imagined in our relationship with the Lord. In this way, this narrative opens the door less to a division between "the active" and "the contemplative", than to a reflection on a line of tension that runs through all human existence, even the life of the Church itself.
At the ecclesial level, Christians, including their pastors, may feel divided between the priority given to the various services rendered by the Church and the emphasis placed on meditating on Scripture so that the word of God may be lived. The tension is old (cf. Acts 6).
How are these dimensions related? What is the spirit of this link? The account of Martha and Mary opens a way to live this tension in the hospitality offered to the word of God.
Although Jesus notes that "Mary chose the best part", the vocabulary does not allow us to conclude that he would have chosen Mary against Martha, the second having chosen the wrong part. The "multiple occupations of service" are not despicable, especially when it comes to hospitality.
The vocabulary is that of caring, service and, here, the service of hospitality. At no time is Martha encouraged to give up hospitality. However, she practices hospitality in such a way that she experiences a form of loneliness, even isolation. Instead of feeling peace and joy, the fruits of the Spirit, she experiences a feeling of agitation, disorder and comes to recriminate.
Since the Lord despises not Martha's occupations of service, but her agitation, the "best part" chosen by Mary is less to be sought on the side of activity than on the side of her attitude. The "only thing" necessary is listening to the word of God, incarnated by Jesus, and mediation to discern the reality of God's presence in the life of the world.
Practicing hospitality is one thing. Practicing hospitality by listening to the word of God is another. Mary practices hospitality by including hospitality granted to the word of God.
"Do not forget hospitality: it has allowed some, without knowing it, to receive angels in their homes," says the Letter to the Hebrews in reference to the hospitality of Abraham and Sarah at Mamre (Gen 18). The hospitable listening to the word of God immediately broadens hospitality to the universal dimension of God's plan for humanity: to bring it together, without any other criteria of preference than faith in Christ who challenges all borders, including confessional ones.
Rather than opposing "spiritual" and "temporal", this episode makes temporal management the indicator of the Spirit who animates Jesus' disciples.
In recent years, studies have pointed to a hardening of hearts in the face of the duty of hospitality toward migrants or the poor.
Pope Francis knows this but encounters a form of misunderstanding, even resistance, among Christians when he calls upon Westerners to "a great responsibility from which no one can be exonerated if we want to complete the mission of salvation to which the Lord himself has called us to collaborate."
It is a responsibility that refers us to our practice of hospitality.