(Jesus) 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.” (Luke 10.38-42)

Christ in the House of Martha and Mary (1655), Jan Vermeer van Delft (1632-1675)

Today, according to the Episcopal Church calendar, is the feast day of Mary and Martha of Bethany. I love these two sisters and the Bible’s honest portrayal of a bit of domestic discord; a seemingly fussy Martha fuming at a seemingly indolent Mary for not lending a hand in the kitchen.

I say “seemingly”, first, in defense of both. Each, in her way, offered the sacred duty of hospitality to Jesus. Martha in her meal preparation (though perhaps in her harried state, raising a banging-pots-and-pans ruckus!). Mary in her attentive (and, in her era, as a woman sitting at the feet of a rabbi, radical) act of listening to Jesus’ teaching.

I say “seemingly”, secondly, in defense of Mary. For many years, whenever I’ve preached this text, whatever my intended point, most folk (their perceptions, I think, consciously or unconsciously influenced by a Protestant work ethic) take sides, applauding Martha’s industry whilst demeaning Mary’s lethargy; though there are a few who see in Mary a model disciple of one who sits to learn God’s word, eventually rising to do God’s will.

Whether Martha or Mary, in this choosing, championing one over the other, I observe that we humans have an affection or at least an appreciation for the seeming (ah, there’s a form of that word again!) certainty of either-or. As I read and reflect on this story, I choose both-and; Martha and Mary representing, respectively, the active and contemplative aspects of our human nature.

By application, I experience daily, no, constantly an inner tension between my human doing and my human being. To date, given my formative and engrained familial tutelage, my doing has framed my sense of my self far more than my being; though my intuition tells me it should be the other way ‘round! So, refusing to choose one or the other, what if I sought to become an active contemplative and a contemplative actor? What if, in all of my doing, I always sought to bring to conscious remembrance and guidance the teachings of Jesus? What if, in all of my study of God’s word, I always sought to envision what it would look like if, when I was doing it?

My dearest sisters, Martha and Mary, whether in the scripture or within me, I love you. Each and both. Equally. So, together let us sit to learn and rise to do, always and in all ways.


Illustration: Christ in the House of Martha and Mary (1655), Jan Vermeer van Delft  (1632-1675)

5 thoughts on “seemingly

  1. I too love this story and these two women!! You’re so right about people choosing sides ….Mary or Martha, one but not both!! As a child I wanted / needed to be the helper and that’s all it was to it!!

    But as I’ve gotten older, and have tried to practice love and forgiveness simultaneously, this story mandates that I love both women equally!! And Lord knows I’ve been both women in the space of a few hours!! I believe we all have to claim that we’ve been on both sides of the Mary & Martha story and we’ve had reasons for doing so in each case. That’s exactly why we need to embrace each of the women because we’ve “been there, done that”. God’s loved us unconditionally no matter which woman we are modeling and we must do the same. I think it’s called empathy…..

    Much love!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Loretta, your definition of empathy, verily, with one’s self rings true to me…

      And I believe we, each and all, always are both Martha and Mary at the same time, and perhaps it is the presenting circumstance that summons one or the other to appear. For example, when I am on a silent retreat to recharge my spiritual (and physical!) self, being a hustling, bustling Martha neither is helpful nor required. And when I am puttering around Clevedale attending to chores, being as Mary, in silent repose, listening to instruction (that is, other than Pontheolla’s!) is not helpful or required.

      In this, I think we’re called to nurture each within ourselves so to be available and ready to respond as occasions present themselves.

      Amen empathy


      Liked by 1 person

      • Ahhhhh love your example!! It’s excellent and makes your list even more clear for me! Have a Blessed Sunday and I look forward to reading your sermon later today!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Dear Paul and Loretta,

    I love that the two of you love the Mary/Martha story. I do too! You are right. We all have both Mary and Martha tendencies, although I have to confess I’ve always been way more of a Mary even though I’ve spent a great deal of time “Martha-ing” and feeling deprived and bitter and sorry for myself about feeling I am expected to do so because of my gender, while the boys/men sat in the living room and told fishing stories and laughing and talking. And if I had a nickle for every time my dad told me in no uncertain terms to “put down that book and go and help your mother in the kitchen,” among other commands, I would be somewhat better off financially. So, while my heart’s with Mary, and it always thrills me to read that Jesus said she “chose the better part” (although I do try to avoid my former secret “naa-naa-na-naa-naa” to Martha while being thrilled), I have to own both of these women in my soul. If Martha hadn’t “Martha’d,” the evening wouldn’t have gone nearly as well. She and Mary are both parts of me and, I know, of every human being.

    Thank you both so much for your words about this rich, sweet, human story. I am so glad to be reminded of the layers of its meaning, to be reminded that love is truly about being and about doing (even when sometimes we’d rather just BE and/or DO, whichever our God-given bent presents itself).

    Bless your busy hands and your warm hearts, both of you. I know so well that you both EXIST and DO in the name of the Great Love that contains and surrounds us every day. And I love that!

    Much love,


    Liked by 1 person

    • Karen, thank you for your vulnerable self-disclosure of a part of your formative years’ story that continues to speak, deeply, sadly to you. Your vignette, though surely I have my own, is one that I did not experience and could not know. For I was a boy and, in our era, raised in a household of boy-consciousness and boy-privileges of societal presumptions and assumptions. Again, I thank you.

      I thank you, too, for being, in our essential nature, more Marian than Martha-esque; though, in your living and working, you could bring out your Martha as required.

      All this brings to mind the genius behind the Myers-Briggs studies. I think I initially my 4-letter description as a self-definition, thus, without realizing that the recognition of my tendencies in persona, perception, processing, and deciding were meant to assist me in identifying other possibilities without and within, and to develop them. So, with Martha and Mary, I think. Though I was taught to be Martha – my parental instruction: “You’re only as good as your last good deed” echoes in my mind and heart to this day – by nature, I am a Mary (ask Pontheolla, who will tell you that I can sit for time on end on quiet, reading and reflecting, praying and pondering.

      Again, Karen, my dear sister and fellow pilgrim who sees and knows things oft as I see and know them, thank you.



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