On Martha and Mary
(Gen.18:1-10; Col.1:24-28; Lk.10:38-42)
Life is a struggle for many people. The daily grind of domestic chores, parenting and earning a living can be so hard.
The Spanish painter Diego Velázquez tried to capture some of this feeling of drudgery in the above painting, ‘Kitchen Scene with Christ in the House of Martha and Mary’.
It depicts an unhappy servant girl who’s in tears as she does her chores. She’s grinding something with a mortar and pestle, while an older woman supervises her from behind. On the table are other ingredients, waiting to be cooked. Is she perhaps preparing a garlic aioli?
Now, there’s a painting within this painting, because through the hutch on the right we can see Jesus talking with Martha and Mary. Martha is resentful because Mary’s listening to Jesus and not helping with the chores. But Jesus raises his left hand and tells Martha that Mary ‘has chosen the better part, and it’s not to be taken from her’.
Notice how these two scenes are linked. The older woman is pointing to the biblical story and explaining to the servant girl that she’s just like Martha. Martha is only thinking of herself when she complains to Jesus, ‘Don’t you care that my sister has left me by myself? …tell her to help me.’ If the servant girl wants to be happy then she, too, must listen to Jesus.
Jo Fiore, one of our gifted parishioners, has taken another approach to this story of Martha and Mary and kindly penned this poem for us:
Martha hurried up the road, her thoughts on earthly things.
She was planning for the day ahead. Her mind was in a spin.
‘Mary! Come and lend a hand! The Master’s on His way.
I’ve invited Jesus and his friends to dine with us today!
He showed how much He loved us – He showed how much He cared
When He raised our brother Lazarus and saved us from despair.
Now we’ll have a chance to thank Him on this very special day,
But we have so many things to do. There’s no time to delay!
Now look around this house and see its total disarray!
When Jesus walks in through that door, I wonder what He’ll say….
If our housework is not finished, and the meal’s not cooked just right,
And everything’s not in its place! It fills my heart with fright!’
Mary smiled an inner smile – for she knew what He would say.
He’d say, ‘Come and listen to my words. I’m here with you today,
… For tomorrow I may not be here to teach you all I know,
My time is near at hand and to my Father I must go.’
As Mary set the table, and quietly swept the floors,
Her mind was on the Master, and not on her humble chores.
She thought of ways to honour Him, to show how much they cared.
‘I’ll anoint His feet with precious oils, and wipe them with my hair.’
When Jesus came, Mary sat – just as she had planned,
While Martha fussed and bothered; she just didn’t understand.
Martha moaned about her sister to the Master, but He said,
‘Worry not about these things, come and feed your soul instead.’
That day Martha learnt a lesson from our Saviour and our Lord,
She should focus her attention on her heavenly reward.
What He really only wanted was for her to make the choice
To hear the things He had to say, to listen to his voice.
Both this poem and this painting present a picture of what’s so common today: people struggling to make sense of their overly busy lives.
Most people think Martha’s doing the right thing: working hard and preparing for her guests. But she’s also worried and very unhappy. Many of us are the same: we run around exhausting ourselves and wonder what we’re missing.
The truth is that something is missing. As human beings we’re not just flesh and blood; we’re also spiritual beings, but many of us ignore that side of our existence. We don’t pray. We don’t reflect. We don’t tap into God’s gentle and merciful love. (Or if we do, we don’t do it enough.)
The story of Martha and Mary teaches us that Martha would be much happier if she regularly spent some quiet time in prayer, listening to Jesus – just like Mary.
To live our best lives, we must both work and pray. In this story, Martha represents work and Mary represents prayer. But they’re not in competition with each other; it’s not ‘either-or’. Martha and Mary are sisters; they belong together, just as work and prayer belong together.
When we combine a life of good work with a life of genuine prayer, we find ourselves living a life of loving service.
That’s the pathway to peace, to happiness … and to sainthood.