Martha and Mary
(Gen.18:1-10a; Col.1:24-28; Lk.10:38-42)
In today’s Gospel, Jesus is still on his ‘Great Journey’ to Jerusalem, and he drops in to see his friends Martha and Mary at their home in the village of Bethany.
Jesus knows them well. He has often stayed in Bethany because it’s only 3 km east of Jerusalem, where he goes three times a year for the big Jewish festivals. This visit is different, however, for it’s his last.
We don’t know if the disciples are there, because they’re not mentioned. But their presence could explain why Martha is so busy. In any case, she’s a great hostess, and she warmly welcomes Jesus.
As Jesus settles in, Martha returns to the kitchen and Mary sits at his feet, like a student sitting before a rabbi. Then Martha starts complaining. She needs Mary’s help and tells Jesus to send her. But Jesus replies: ‘Martha, Martha, you fret about so many things … it’s Mary who has chosen the better part…’
Through the centuries, people have reacted to this story in many different ways.
The British author Rudyard Kipling, for instance, considered it unfair to Martha. He thought it allowed ‘spiritual’ people like Mary to be lazy and to avoid doing their fair share of work.
In his poem, The Sons of Martha, Kipling wrote: ‘They have cast their burden upon the Lord, and – the Lord he lays it on Martha’s Sons.’ [i]
Others, however, have sided with Mary, recognising that it is important to periodically sit quietly with Jesus, recharging our spiritual batteries. John Newton, the former slave trader who wrote Amazing Grace, wrote this in his hymn Martha and Mary:
How oft are we like Martha vexed,
Encumbered, hurried, and perplexed!
While trifles so engross our thought,
The one thing needful is forgot.
Others have suggested that we don’t need to take sides, because Martha and Mary symbolise two different, but equally important approaches to discipleship.
Here, Martha is the faithful and active servant, sacrificing herself for others. She is like St Peter the Apostle and St Teresa of Avila, who were both practical, action-oriented people and sometimes quite outspoken.
And Mary represents the prayerful, contemplative life. She is like St John the Apostle and St John of the Cross, who were both calm, loving and deeply reflective people. [ii]
But Ron Rolheiser offers us another approach to this story. He says that Martha and Mary could represent two distinct stages of life.
Here, busy Martha represents younger people who are actively building their careers, raising a family and creating a home. They don’t have much time for quiet reflection.
And Mary represents those of us who have more time on their hands, like empty-nesters and retirees, who have time for a more contemplative life. [iii]
And then there are those like Origen, the early Church father, who said that you don’t have to choose between Martha and Mary at all, because they represent the two sides of a faithful Christian life. As Origen used to say, ‘Action and contemplation do not exist one without the other.’ They go hand-in-hand.
If you think about it, most of us do possess both qualities. Indeed, Jesus loved these two sisters equally, so perhaps we can learn from both of them.
Martha highlights for us the importance of offering hospitality and loving service to others, and most especially to God. She also demonstrates that it’s quite OK to be honest with Jesus, to let him know what we really think, for her faith is strong.
Certainly, Jesus would have been impressed by Martha, because she is one of the few people in Scripture to clearly articulate her faith in him (Jn.11:25-27). Indeed, her confession of faith is as strong as St Peter’s (Mt.16:16).
Mary, on the other hand, reminds us of the importance of making time for regular spiritual nourishment, even in the face of difficulty. Mary knows what a blessing Jesus’ presence is, and she revels in it. That blessing fills her with a peace and contentment that will always bear much fruit.
When we nurture Jesus’ presence in us, we too are choosing the better part.
Finally, have you noticed that in Luke’s Gospel, the parable of the Good Samaritan immediately precedes this story? That parable is all about loving service. And directly afterwards, Jesus teaches his disciples how to pray.
This surely is a clue in itself. We’re all meant to be both Martha and Mary: Actively loving our neighbour and treasuring God’s presence in prayer.
All at once.
[ii] Carol Lee Flinders, Enduring Grace, HarperCollins eBooks, p.173, https://www.elcaminosantiago.com/PDF/Book/Enduring_Grace.pdf
[iii] Ron Rolheiser, Daily Meditation: Failure and the Second Half of Life, October 17, 2004. https://ronrolheiser.com/failure-and-the-second-half-of-life/#.YsAQXHZBzMY