A Familiar Story, A New Light: Martha and Mary

My current Bible reading is the Gospel of Luke. My spiritual director has advised that I always be reading either one of the Gospels or a good biography on Jesus. So right now, the Gospel of Luke it is. It’s been interesting for me to actually sit down and read short passages, spend time reflecting on them, and praying on those passages with Jesus. None of what I read is really new. I hear it read at Mass, I’ve read various passages at times, and I’ve discussed events in the life of Jesus as described in the Gospels with others. The truly wonderful thing about the Bible is reading something you’ve read many times before and seeing it with new eyes.

What I am finding striking about my current reading of Luke’s Gospel is reading it from the beginning forward with no breaks. The Gospel as read during Mass may skip a few passages. If you don’t attend daily Mass you’ll miss those readings, too. You still get a lot of the Gospel in the course of a liturgical year by just hearing the Sunday Gospel reading, but you don’t necessarily get all of it. And it’s sometimes presented in a different order. So reading it from start to finish brings out a different flavor to Luke’s telling of Jesus’ life.

I find myself with lots of questions, more than I expected. I also find myself seeing a familiar story in a new light. And that’s the wonderful part about doing this.

By Johannes (Jan) Vermeer (1632 – 1675) (Dutch)
Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Recently I read the story of Martha and Mary (Luke 10: 38-42). We’re all familiar with the story, I’m sure: Jesus comes to visit, Mary sits at his feet while Martha does all the work serving the guests, Martha complains to Jesus, Jesus tells her that Mary has chosen “the better part.” Often when this passage is discussed it’s common to ask who you are in the story? Are you Martha, busy and anxious about many things, or are you Mary, sitting and listening to the master? As a follower of Catholic blogs for many years I can’t tell you how many blog posts I’ve read where the author contemplates why she is “a Mary” or why she is “a Martha” or why we all have a bit of both in each of us.

I’ve always been a little leery of those Martha or Mary comparisons. I remember it coming up once in discussion with my husband and he immediately pegged me as a Mary. I was instantly a little offended. (He’s a Martha, by the way.)

When I read this story again recently I came away with a different take on it. I also considered why I had found offense to my husband’s label of me as a Mary. Why should I be offended by that when Jesus Himself says, “Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.”

Martha as the “worried and anxious” one is not doing anything wrong. She’s being a servant to the master. She’s meeting a need that must be met. And like Mary, she too has chosen her own actions. I don’t see the problem with Martha as one of being too busy. The problem is that she doesn’t take the time for the important things in life: spending time with her guests, taking a moment to listen to her family and friends, letting go of the work around her, and, most importantly, spending time with Jesus.

As for Mary, I think I’ve always kind of sympathized with Martha and looked at Mary as shunning her duties, maybe even as lazy. But in contemplating the role of Martha in this short passage, I realized that Mary is doing exactly what Martha is missing out on: spending time with her guests, living in the moment.

Contemplating this scenario gave me a whole different perspective on the “Martha and Mary” story. Neither sister is wrong in what they are doing. Both are doing good. Being a servant toward our fellow man is a very noble and Christian way of life. More important, however, spending time with our Lord listening to what He has to say to us, praying to Him, and just being with Him are the most noble and worthwhile of pursuits. Prior to this new realization I felt like I was being labeled as lazy when told I was “a Mary.” But now I see the opposite is actually true.

I think I’m actually more of a Martha instead.

It’s so easy to focus on our list of tasks to do each day. Especially as mothers. Our days are filled with dishes, cooking, laundry, diapers, kid’s activities, and so much more. Finding that time to just sit and be with Christ is hard. Really hard! I know I fail at it more than I like to admit. I realized that I can actually learn something from Mary and I want to be more like her. She is my role model for how I should be approaching my time with Jesus.

I’m still trying to figure out how this looks (or should look) in my life. I’d love to see what you have done in this regard. Have you found a way to put aside your Martha tasks in order to be more like Mary and spend time with Jesus? Let me know in the comments.

  • Elizabeth WeinrichApril 19, 2013 - 1:16 pm

    I actually chose Martha as my confirmation saint. She has always seemed so human and accessible to me and I think I would have the exact same reaction to Mary in this situation. In researching her for confirmation, I also discovered the other place Martha appears in the Bible: John 11 and 12 at the raising of Lazarus. She is a great example for me to follow in terms of faith (see 11:21-27) and humility (12:2). At the end of the narrative, her brother has been raised from the dead and her sister has anointed the Lord’s feet, but she simply serves the dinner with a servant’s heart. It is the story found in Luke perfected.

    Like you said, most posts on Mary and Martha focus on comparing oneself to one or the other. But I think that makes it easy to forget that both Mary and Martha are real people, are real saints praying for us in heaven, and are great examples of how to follow Christ.ReplyCancel

  • KerriApril 19, 2013 - 2:51 pm

    Elizabeth: Thanks for the comment and I love your description of the story of Martha found in the Gospel of John as “the story found in Luke perfected.” Thanks for that perspective. I really want to embrace both these women and be able to serve as Martha does while also spending time with the Lord (even when there are other things that seem pressing to be done) as Mary does. Thanks!ReplyCancel

  • MartinaApril 20, 2013 - 11:07 am

    I loved this post! I’ve had these conversations before and I’ve always felt I was a little of both, just depending on how I prioritize my day. Great reflective piece. 🙂 And, I love the book of Luke, too!ReplyCancel

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