Martha & Mary: its not that simple

by Christopher M. Bellitto

The story of Martha and Mary is one of the most famous episodes in Christian Scripture. It resonates with every family and circle of friends. There is often the Martha who organizes, who fixes, and who does the heavy emotional lifting. And then there always seems to be the Mary who is the first to tell everyone else about their faith but rarely does the dishes or even puts the coffee on.

Looking at the Martha and Mary story with a bit more depth reveals that it’s not so easy to separate their two ways, then or now.

Curiously, this famous story appears in only one Gospel: Luke 10:38-42. Let’s recall the scene as it is recounted in the New American Bible translation, which is the text used at Mass. Martha, Mary, and their brother Lazarus host Jesus in their home. Martha is busy cooking and setting out food, filling cups, maybe moving furniture around to make room for the friends and curious neighbors who arrived unexpectedly. All the while, Mary sits at Jesus’ feet and listens to him.

Naturally, the sister doing all the chores gets annoyed and complains to Jesus.

Martha, burdened with much serving, came to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? Tell her to help me.” The Lord said to her in reply, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.” (Luke 10:40-42)

Luke’s story presents a definite contrast between Martha and Mary: Jesus says that Mary chose the better way. It’s interesting to note that the Latin Vulgate version of the Bible, which is the one used for centuries by commentators like the ones we will meet shortly, has Jesus saying that Mary had chosen the best way (Maria optimam partem elegit).

What does the story mean?

Photo by Nancy Bauer/ Shutterstock 122482222

In fact, we don’t have to choose between Martha and Mary. Lots of ancient and medieval sermons and other writings presented the sisters as two halves of a whole with a mixed life —action based on contemplation, one not possible without the other —as ideal. The early Greek fathers in today’s Middle East clearly favored Mary’s contemplative path, as seen in writers and leaders such as Origen, Evagrius, and John Cassian. For them, action did not necessarily mean an outward task but could include an inner spiritual fight against vice. Still, Origen, commenting on this passage from Luke’s Gospel, said: “Action and contemplation do not exist one without the other.”

Some female and male ascetics in the Church’s first few centuries were able to live a harsh, solitary life away from society. Larger numbers may have lived alone in a hut or cave in that first era after Jesus, but they also came together for liturgy, fellowship, and conversation. Contemplative while alone, they were active in sharing time, thoughts, and likely physical help if needed. Basil the Great, a fourth-century bishop, described the twins of action and contemplation as being in a relationship the way the sea needs the land and the land needs the sea.

Other early Churchthinkers writing in Latin described Mary’s choice not as the best way but as a better way. (Maybe they were anticipating the later translation from best to better.) As Ambrose, the fourth-century bishop of Milan, ex-plained in his homily on this passage,

It’s not so easy to separate their two ways, then or now.

Martha acted because she heard Jesus’ words, while Mary listened and then acted by anointing Jesus’ feet.

Ambrose’s protégé, Augustine of Hippo in modern-day Algeria, in two sermons described Martha as the pilgrim Church working toward perfection in the world at the moment. Mary is the heavenly Church to come. “What Martha did is what we are,” Augustine preached. “What Mary did is what we hope for.”

Gregory the Great’s interpretation was particularly influential. Pope from 590 to 604, Gregory offered his own example of a busy secular administrator escaping the world to become a monk only to be pulled into the papacy. As a former monk, Gregory longed for the earlier, tranquil asceticism that had rescued his soul from his life as a civic leader. At the same time, as pope he recognized the benefits of a mixed way (vita mixta), even to the point of criticizing an exclusively cloistered life of prayer. For Gregory, the point of contemplation was apostolic service and the sacrifice of one’s preferred way of life for the good of others.

Through the Middle Ages, the mixed way as a practical model took hold, even tipping in Martha’s favor. In the 12th century, Bruno of Segni wrote in unexpected language that Martha’s way was more fitting for parishes: “Martha is more useful than Mary in churches and congregations of many people. Martha [helps] everyone; Mary helps herself.” As more holy people from medieval cities were named saints, busy Martha became the prototype of prayer incarnated as charity. Francis and Clare of Assisi are good examples.

A few medieval commentators, in an attempt to give credit to both Mary and Martha, ran in a circle. “The best works of the active life, such as martyrdom and preaching, are better than the best works of the contemplative life,” wrote Cardinal Stephen Langton, a medieval archbishop of Canterbury who was quite active and even involved in negotiating the Magna Carta. “But the contemplative life is more excellent because it is purer.”

Pierre d’Ailly, a late medieval university professor in Paris and then bishop and cardinal, believed that ministers must live like Mary and Martha simultaneously. Sometimes, Cardinal d’Ailly preached, we ascend from the works of our hands to contemplation in our hearts. Other times we pray on our knees to fuel standing up to get to our tasks. We don’t get rid of vices just by praying, Cardinal d’Ailly said. His friend Jean Gerson agreed in his 1400 treatise, On the Mount of Contemplation: “And so it is always the same person. Martha is necessarily with Mary and Mary with Martha, more or less.”

Martha acted because she heard Jesus’ words, while Mary listened and then acted by anointing Jesus’ feet.

“What Martha did is what we are,” Augustine preached, “what Mary did is what we hope for.”

Still, some medieval writers, such as the French author Christine de Pizan, presented a sober traditional reading of Mary’s way as better: “There is truly no joy like it. Those who know it have tried to describe it. I regret that I can only talk about it in this indirect way, as a blind person might discourse upon colors.” But the German mystic Meister Eckhart believed that Martha was happier, freer, and more fulfilled than Mary because she married prayer and service. Martha was more mature because, as the older and more experienced sister, she had learned how to be prayerful as she worked.

What can we learn?

What is the lesson for today? Marthas resent what they see as sanctimony in the Marys. They stand exasperated and rely on the fact that thoughts and prayers just don’t get the job done sometimes. Meanwhile, the Marys can’t understand how prayer can be criticized.

Maybe this medieval heritage of being ambidextrous —being Martha and Mary, not Martha or Mary —can be a good lesson for modern believers. We can be both prayers and doers following good Church models.

Ignatius of Loyola, who founded the Jesuits with his companions during the 16th century, which was full of great change, offered the phrase contemplative in action. Angela Merici, who with her circle established the Ursulines, also saw the need for prayer and action. As we walk into the third millennium of Christianity, let’s not pit Martha against Mary, but instead embrace them both.

Meister Eckhart believed that “Martha was happier, freer, and more fulfilled, than Mary because she married prayer and service.” Ignatius of Loyola who founded the Jesuits with his companions during the 16th century offered the phrase “contemplative action.”






Christopher M. BellittoLove Your NeighborMartha and MarySacred Scripture
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