To be Martha and Mary

Yesterday’s Gospel reading was from Luke 10:38-42 – the story of Jesus with Mary and Martha.

Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her,“Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.”

Much ink has been spilled exploring the many applications of this verse. Entire books fill the women’s section of Christian bookstores and lengthy bible studies focus on what it means to be “Mary in a Martha world.” When I saw the passage appear in today’s readings, I almost tuned out. I already know this story.

I’m glad I paid attention to the homily, however, because I was challenged to discover a perspective on the verses that I hadn’t yet considered. In almost every commentary of the Mary and Martha story I’ve ever studied, the two sisters’ behaviors were juxtaposed to illustrate two opposing attitudes; Mary was “good” and Martha was “bad,” so be like Mary. In reality, however, which woman chose Jesus? They both did! Mary chose to sit and listen to Jesus, to completely focus on him. Martha, following the customs of the day, focused on hospitality and making sure that Jesus was welcomed into the sisters’ home.

“The two women signify two dimensions of the spiritual life. Martha signifies the active life as she busily labors to honor Christ through her work. Mary exemplifies the contemplative life as she sits attentively to listen and learn from Christ. While both activities are essential to Christian living, the latter is greater than the former. For in heaven the active life terminates, while the contemplative life reaches its perfection.”

- Commentary from the Ignatius Catholic Study Bible

Thus, two takeaways here: 1) The “active life” of service is important and necessary. 2) The “contemplative life” is more important and more necessary.

I can almost hear the voice of Jesus speaking directly to me in this passage: Christina, Christina, you are anxious about many things… I might not be boiling water over a fire or washing my clothing in a river, but it is very true that I have a lot of “stuff” going on in my life that is causing angst (children! husband! homeschooling! bills! chores! business!). The angst leads to distraction and before I know it, the kids are in bed, the house is clean, the bills are paid, and I go to bed with the sinking realization that I’m living for… a to-do list. I could give you a very convincing explanation about how everything I do is part of my God-given vocation, and it is clear from the scriptures that hospitality and busyness around the home are virtuous and important. But my vocation does not glorify God if these things serve to distract me from Him!

This is not my sink, but its an accurate depiction. The Corona box is a nice touch.

This is not my sink, but its an accurate depiction. The Corona box is a nice touch.

I do not write this post as a woman who has conquered this problem. I am just one of many women who struggle with a solely active life which lacks ample time for a contemplative life. Being Martha isn’t bad, but I must emulate Mary, too. It is difficult for me to choose to attend daily mass while the laundry must be done. It is difficult for me to ignore a big after-breakfast mess so that I may take time to read the day’s scripture passages. At the end of a very tiring day, it feels almost impossible for me to forgo television time with my husband so that I might pray the evening prayers of the Liturgy of the Hours (a practice I’ve been wanting to commit to so badly). And why am I so tired? Because I’m too active – too Martha – and too tired to be Mary! No, this is not how things should be.

I hereby commit to a concerted effort at less activity and more contemplation. My house will be messier and I will learn to make peace with it. And I’ll probably never let myself zone out during the gospel reading again, either. I really needed to hear this.

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10 responses to “To be Martha and Mary

  1. Jennifer

    OH I am so very much a Martha. I am happy you pointed out , it’s not such a bad thing! I learned a long time ago that If I don’t take care of myself, I really can’t be a great caregiver to anyone else. It has taken me quite a while to reaize this does not just mean eating well , getting enough rest and exercise, this includes prayer. I love it that you go to daily mass, you inspire me!

    • Well, don’t be too inspired…it’s been a while since I’ve been able to go to daily mass. Shannon’s work schedule doesn’t allow it most days. Someday I hope to go every day, but I imagine it will be when the kids are grown! :D

      • Christine, you may not be physically present at daily Mass – but I know your heart is there and for now that is enough :)

        • Thanks Deacon Dale. I try to remember that life will be different once my kids aren’t so little anymore! There are some couples at our church who attend daily mass together every morning. Shannon and I look forward to doing that someday. We’d love to go to Rome someday too!

  2. Pat Brummel

    Last year I was blessed to go to the Holy Land with a pilgrimage from my church. We saw a painting about this very Bible passage and our guide pointed out that all of the people in the painting, Jesus, Mary, the apostles had halos – except for Martha. His suggestion, “don’t be a Martha”. I could not help but think that the whole group was probably tired and hungry and needed to be cared for. If not by Martha, then who would take care of these important details. If Mary, or anyone else, had gotten up to help, then the work would have been divided and Martha could have enjoyed time spent with Jesus. Just a thought.

    • There really are so many ways we can apply this story to our lives. The painting you mentioned interprets the passage in the way I’m most familiar (i.e. “don’t be like Martha”). From what I learned in our homily last Sunday, hospitality standards were actually a matter of the law. For Mary to not contribute to the hosting duties was a pretty radical thing! I wonder how the narrative would have changed had both sisters been contributing equally to find that “middle ground” I’m currently striving for.

  3. In my homily yesterday I presented defense for both sides of this coin – service to Jesus and adoration of Jesus (Mary was the first “adorer” i.e. as in Eucharistic Adoration) – both the first reading (Abraham meeting God) and the Gospel have women preparing a meal. Can you imagine Sarah’s reply when Abraham says “honey God is here quick cook a feast for Him” – wonder what her response might have been especially considering the work involved – killing the steer – preparing a select cut of meat and all the side dishes? And with Martha – one has to consider that she was not just cooking for Jesus. He traveled with his disciples and women followers. Martha more than likely was preparing for a group of maybe twenty people, so no wonder that she wanted help. I know how crazy my own wife gets when getting food and drinks ready when we have a house full of guests, so Martha had the same concern for the comfort of her guests as Arlene does for ours – that is a real challenge and act of charity. Each of us has to be Martha on ocassion and Mary at the other times. We cannot be one or the other – but in our lives we must balance our Martha time with our Mary time. Unfortunately too many people are only Martha and never Mary and that is the lesson we need to learn – the value and importance of being Mary. To allow ourselves time to place ourselves in the presence of Christ – if not at home – then in the Adoration Chapel – where we may place ourslevs at the feet of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament – to sit quietly in His presence and take in all that He offers.

    Deacon Dale

    • I’m glad you pointed out the fact that there was a pretty large gathering of people present for this event. I’ve always pictured it in my head as just Jesus with two sisters, which I suppose would have been pretty unheard of in those times! Twenty or so people is a LOT of people to serve at once. In fact, that’s about how many people I plan to have at my son’s upcoming baptism – and I opted for catering this time! ;) Love the connection between Mary in this story and Eucharistic adoration.

  4. GaryM

    I find great similarities between the stories of Mary and Martha and the prodigal son. In both you have a dutiful, hard working sibling. And both have another sibling whose reward seems given without being earned. The “good brother” who stays home does not understand why his father takes the prodigal back with such fanfare. And Martha does not understand why her sister is not rebuked for not helping serve Jesus and His companions. And in both cases, the “good” sibling objects to the unfairness of it all.

    I think the key to understanding both stories is that what is at issue is not worldly goods, or leisure time, but God’s grace. My take from both is that it is not for us to judge who is worthy of that grace, or who “deserves” it, since His grace can only be given, not earned. But since we can turn our backs on that grace once given, I think the story of Martha and Mary is also a cautionary tale. It teaches us that we should focus on our own weaknesses, to try to stay in God’s grace ourselves, rather than become complacent by comparing ourselves to someone we perceive to be weaker.

    I think Martha’s failure was not in working so hard to accommodate Jesus and His followers rather than sit and listen to Him teach. Jesus relied on others to house, clothe and feed Him and His disciples all the time. Her error, like the good son, was in complaining that the less worthy (in their eyes) sibling was being treated with such respect and, more to the point, love.

    What if Martha had served in humility, solely out of the joy of doing the Lord’s work? Does anyone think Jesus would have rebuked her in any way? What if she had not presumed to ask Jesus to rebuke her sister. Would that not have been a humble recognition that God knows better than we ever can the contents of another person’s soul? Even one we have known our whole lives?

    I like the stories of Mary and Martha and the prodigal son a lot because they tend to be really difficult for people who are otherwise such decent people. I looked forward every year to the homily on the prodigal son from my recently departed (to another parish) pastor, because it was one he always struggled with, by his own admission. It was comforting to find that such a good man had his own hurdles in following our very demanding faith.

    • I’d never noticed the sibling factor linking the two stories. Now that you mention it, the similarities are pretty remarkable! I really like what you said about the importance of avoiding complacency and comparing ourselves to those around us. I think its something a lot of people do without realizing it – myself included.

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