Martha and Mary
Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me." But the Lord answered her, "Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her."
Martha and Mary
Martha had the strengths and weaknesses of an active person, and Mary had those of a contemplative person. Martha was “worried and troubled”, and complaining; but she was also the first on the scene when there was an emergency, her brother’s death. Mary was quiet and reflective, but she may (at least on one occasion!) have loved her interior life more than she loved the Lord: John’s gospel says, “Mary stayed sitting in her house,” while Martha ran out to meet Jesus (John 11:29). Both were unbalanced, in that sense. (Is anyone ever fully balanced?) That is why they needed each other. Each made up for the unbalance of the other.
No one needs to have all the gifts. If I don't have a certain gift, that is all right, because my sister or my brother has it. We are members of one another, and gifts are always for the whole community, not just for the person who has them (see 1 Corinthians12).
Martha and Mary serve to remind us of the vast differences there can be between people even in the same family. Jesus loved them both. The Marys of the world can sit in contemplation, while the Marthas are busy doing everything.
Lord of all pots and pans and things,
Since I've no time to be
A saint by doing lovely things,
Or watching late with Thee
Or dreaming in the dawnlight,
Or storming heaven’s gates,
Make me a saint by getting meals
And washing up the plates.
Still, we each need to search for balance. I mustn’t expect others to carry certain gifts for me forever while I make no effort at all. If I am a Martha I am grateful that there are Marys to carry the possibility of meditation for me, but I must attempt to enter it myself. And if I am a Mary I thank God for Marthas who serve to remind me that I too must attempt to serve.
It struck me that Martha and Mary were among the few people who were asking nothing of Jesus. Everyone wanted something from him! There was hardly a person who didn't have his or her hand out begging! Gimme! gimme! His kindness seems to have had no end, but there must have been times when he wished someone were there just to give, for a change. It may be that Martha and Mary’s house was the one place where he could really get a break. They don't ask him for anything: Mary just sits there listening when he talks, and Martha is busy preparing snacks or something. Later on, they didn't ask him to raise their brother from death; such a thing was unimaginable anyway.
It’s perfectly right, of course, to pray to Jesus; strictly speaking, the word ‘pray’ means ‘ask’ (“I pray you...”). But he did say, “Ask the Father... in my name.” The expression ‘in my name’ meant ‘in my presence’. Christians have always known that it is right, sometimes, just to be in the presence of Jesus, like Martha and Mary: whether doing nothing, like Mary, or working, like Martha; but for once, not begging.
In John 12:3-8 there is a touching moment when Mary pours a jar of precious ointment over Jesus' feet and wiped them with her hair. At that point in the gospel story Jesus was a hunted man. His time was short, and all must have been aware of it, particularly Mary, Martha and Lazarus. The extravagance of her loving gesture is indeed remembered for all time, as Jesus said it would be (Matthew 26:13). The jar of perfume she poured out on his feet was worth 300 denarii. A denarius was a man’s wages for a day’s work, so the ointment was worth about a year’s wages. It was love’s extravagance, in sharpest contrast to Judas’s calculation. These are the two main roads: love and money. Love gives itself now, but money is for the future.
The Gospel is always challenging us to live now, to give now, to love now. Now is the only real time. As each future moment comes it is suddenly transformed into now; in a sense there is no future. Martha and Mary show us how to live in the now.
This is the Story of Jesus drawn from the four Evangelists
Gospel passages accompanied by a number of brief commentaries