St. Martha, the feisty sister of Mary of Bethany, tends to get a bad rap. After all, when Jesus came to visit the two sisters, Martha complains about Mary not helping—and Jesus’s response seems to be a scolding in which He praises contemplation and disregards practical action and service.
However, the story isn't as simple as that, and I don’t believe that Martha should be remembered as “the one who wasn’t doing it right.”
Setting the Scene
As they continued their journey he entered a village where a woman whose name was Martha welcomed him. She had a sister named Mary [who] sat beside the Lord at his feet listening to him speak. 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.” (Lk 10:38-42)This is Martha’s best-known interaction with Our Lord.
She has invited Jesus over for dinner; and, in order to be a good hostess, she is running around serving meat, baking bread, refilling water cups, and making sure that everyone is comfortable and taken care of. She is definitely tired, most likely overwhelmed, and perhaps even a little anxious. Suddenly, she spots Mary at Jesus’s feet, doing nothing to help her! Her very understandable frustration pushes her over the edge, and she takes the problem to Our Lord:
“Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? Tell her to help me!”
What Exactly Was Martha’s Mistake?Now, I don’t believe that Martha’s mistake was her whole-hearted hospitality: it was a beautiful gift for Jesus.
I don’t think it was her practical nature: where would the world be without action-minded people?
I don’t think it was the fact that she tried to get her sister to stop sitting on her behind and lend a hand. Or two.
I believe the mistake was the way in which she presented her request to Our Lord.
The First Problem“Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? Tell her to help me!”
The VERY FIRST THING Martha tells the Lord is this: "I don’t believe that you care about me or my experience of frustration."
Yikes. That doesn’t sound like the greatest way to begin a diplomatic request!
On a deeper level, though, Martha allows her frustration (which is human and normal) to surpass her trust in Our Lord’s care for her. Our Lord always welcomes our cares and worries; He only asks that we present them to Him with trust in His love and mercy.
A Second ProblemAfter questioning Christ’s goodness, she then TELLS GOD how to fix the problem. (Cringe.)
When we bring God our troubles and desires, do we TRULY give them to Him, and let Him respond with His infinite Wisdom and the perfect timing of His Providence? Or do we proceed to lay them at His feet, only to snatch up the pieces a moment later and begin attempting to decipher and arrange them ourselves?
The One Thing NecessaryThere are many ways to pray with and reflect on Jesus’s response to Martha: “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing.”
What is “the one thing”?
It could be Jesus himself. For surely, as Martha spoke to Jesus, she took her eyes off Him and was pointing vigorously at Mary. Maybe His underlying meaning was simply that if she had kept her focus and gaze on Him and not her sister, she would have heard some of Jesus’s words and been able to maintain a serenity of heart amidst the busyness of serving.
The one thing could be trust. Trust in His presence, in His power, in His love.
Perhaps the one thing was a desire to love over a desire for perfection. Maybe everything was actually running fairly smoothly, and it was actually Martha's desire for perfection that made her anxious enough to publicly demand Mary's help.
The one thing could be listening over speaking. This is certainly a lesson for daily interactions, but more importantly, it's a crucial lesson to learn in prayer. If we spend the majority of our prayer time speaking verbally or internally thinking about the past or the future, we will miss Christ’s voice in the present moment.
Don’t Be Fooled: Some Final Food For ThoughtOne of the main things to NOT take away from this Gospel passage is a bashing of practical action, or a sense of guilt for needing to work hard. Prayer, contemplation and listening are essential to our spiritual life—the very breath of our souls—but we need both action and contemplation. Contemplation should always produce the fruit of action, and all of our actions should be rooted in contemplation.
If you think about it, this whole interaction took place BECAUSE Martha offered to host Our Lord. Without Martha’s invitation, and dedicated service, Mary wouldn’t have had the opportunity to sit and listen to Jesus!
Martha’s story gives us much food for thought.
I invite you to take this passage to prayer today, and to ask for St. Martha’s intercession, that her experience with Christ will draw you closer to Our Lord.
St. Martha, pray for us!