This passage occurs in the RCL, Year C. It occurred most recently in summer 2016.
Summary: This passage is a powerful contrast to the previous passage of the Good Samaritan. The work of the church (or of Christian individuals) cannot be service to neighbor alone but also worship of Christ. Perhaps the two are more connected than we think though. Jesus commends the rich lawyer to show mercy. In this passage Mary is praised for attentive listening. Maybe in our culture of sound bites and tweets, active listening is one of the most powerful displays of mercy we can give someone.
Key words (and use of language):
υπεδεξατο (from υποδεξομαι, "hypodexato", meaning receive; 10:38). The Liddell-Scott offers a tremendous number of variations on the meaning of this word. It literally means, "to receive beneath the surface."
It also means, among other variants:
A) to receive into one's house, receive hospitably.
B) to give ear to, hearken to
C) to take in charge as a nurse
D) of a woman, to conceive
I commend this list (truncated) because all of these are good things. They are powerful ways to think about hospitality to strangers or ways in which we can "receive beneath the surface." Martha seems on the right track!
διακονια(ν) ("diakonia", meaning "service", 10:40). The word diakonia means originally "table service" but came in the Christian tradition to mean acts of ministry. Long-complicated development of this word that is still debated today. Regardless, to describe oneself as doing diakonia on behalf of Jesus is a very good thing, something in fact, every Christian is called to in their baptism.
So what's the problem?
επιστασα (from εφιστημι, ephistemi, meaning "stand over", 10:40) Mary gets so frustrated she goes over to Jesus and is literally looking down on him (and her sister). We can get so busy doing the work of the Lord that we lose sight of the Lord and develop an unjustified sense of our own importance.
Imperfect tense: The words to describe Martha's worries: περισπαω (40), μεριμνας (41) and θορυβαζη (41) are all imperfect/present tense verbs, suggesting an on-going action. She was consumed and continually worried. All this said, I have a lot of compassion for Martha. In my family (both of origin and current) people put a lot of effort into welcoming our guests. It is hard for me to hear Martha criticized.
παρακαθεσθεισα (from παρακαθεζομαι, meaning "sit along side of"; 10:39) Mary seats herself along side of Jesus, giving him attention. How often do we have people simply sit alongside of us, without any agenda but to focus on us?
ηκουεν (ακουω meaning "listen"; 10:39) She listens. In fact, the verb ακουεν is in the imperfect tense, showing this is an on-going action. As I wrote earlier, I think this is profound. She listened. In our culture that wants to blog, livestream and tweet, she actually took time to listen. Not for one or two sentences, but for a long time. Maybe she loved it. I am sure she did. (Most times when I actually listen and truly give someone my focus, I love it too!)
The worship of Jesus is ultimate. I am not trying to refute the basic meaning of the story. I wonder though, if here on Earth, in this time and cultural space, listening may be a profound way to love our neighbor.