Year C: Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Martha and Mary

Luke 10: 38-42

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.”

Discussion Questions: 

  1. Are you a Martha or a Mary? Where in your life are you like Martha, “anxious and worried about many things” that can block your personal encounter with God? What distracts you from “choosing the better part”?
  2. Is your treatment of women in community as evolved as Jesus’ was in terms of respect, equality, and inclusiveness? How does Jesus’ example affect your awareness and behavior here?
  3. How does Jesus’ response to Martha’s request help you to reflect on how God answers your prayers?
  4. In what ways do you sit at Jesus’ feet and listen to his words? What might Jesus be trying to teach you that you are too busy to hear?
  5. In order to make ourselves the Lord’s dwelling place we need to allow Jesus to correct our thinking. How is this happening for you? How has Jesus changed your thinking?

Biblical Context

Luke 10:38-42
Sr. Mary M. McGlone CSJ

We might understand the story of Martha and Mary as one of many vivid scriptural narratives about the younger sibling winning the prize, the evangelical victory of the underdog. We can also understand it as an introduction to the sacramental spirituality of real presence.

If we pay careful attention to how Luke sets the scene, we realize that Martha is in charge from the get-go. (“Martha” is the feminine form of the name “master.” Need we more evidence that she runs the house?) We know nothing of a previous relationship between the sisters and Jesus until this moment when Martha dares to “welcome Jesus” or invite him to their home. Although John’s Gospel presents Martha and Mary as Lazarus’ sisters, there is no mention of a father or brother here; the women are in charge of the house and seem to be the only ones there.     That in itself offers fodder for scandal as Jesus goes to a house of women with no chaperones from his or their side. Then the other sister, as audacious if not as domestic as her sibling, sits herself down at Jesus’ feet just like a male disciple.

The house where they lived seems a far cry from Abraham’s abode that boasted of servants, stores of wheat and flocks from which to choose a fine calf. The meal in this story is only mentioned in relation to the fact that Martha had to pull it together by herself.

As in other scriptural stories about family affairs, it’s easy to sympathize with Martha who gets stuck with the domestic work. Like Esau of old, her hands are rough from toil, and she is very aware of how much must be done before they can eat. A modern-day sister in this situation might well skip asking Jesus’ opinion and tell both him and Mary that they could help out in the kitchen so that everybody could relax together over the meal. But that scenario goes too far beyond the culture of the day and has little to do with the point Luke is making in this story.

To understand Jesus’ response to Martha we need to pay careful attention to the words used to describe her and her interactions with Jesus. Martha was burdened by much serving, literally by diakonia or ministering. Martha was overwhelmed and committed an immense faux pas by asking Jesus, the guest, to get involved in a household dispute. (In Luke 12:14, Jesus would refuse to arbitrate between brothers over their inheritance.) Martha put him on the spot with the question, “Do you not care?” and then insisting: “Tell her to help me.” Obviously, Martha felt quite comfortable with Jesus. His own ease with these women came out as he addressed her like a friend well loved in both her strengths and foibles: “Martha, Martha …”

What was he trying to teach her that she was too busy to hear? Perhaps it’s the message he’ll reiterate with variations in different circumstances: “Do not worry about how to defend yourself (Luke 12:11) … Do not worry about your life (12:22) … You will be hated, but not a hair of your head will perish (21:18-19).” When those sayings are heard in the light of the cross, we can look back with Martha and realize that Jesus was not saying that dinner would fix itself, but that concern about the details of it had the sinister power to overshadow his message.

Jesus’ reply to Martha is like the woe he addressed to the Pharisees who tithed the smallest herbs and ignored the demands of justice. Martha, like her status-seeking brother disciples, was confusing jots and tittles for the Gospel. By the time Martha received him in her home, Jesus had already been involved in two other contentious dinner parties. At the first he had broken the rules by eating with disreputable people and then claiming they were the very ones God wanted him to call. (Luke 5:27-32). At the second he turned the tables on a host who had dishonored him as a guest and harshly judged a woman who expressed great faith and love (7:36-50). For Jesus the ritual of breaking bread together was a sacrament of relationship and anything that diminished relationships was a distraction — or worse. Jesus surely knew that they all needed to eat, but more importantly, he wanted them to be nourished by their presence together.

 Choosing Like Martha and Mary

Fr. Michael K. Marsh

There have been times when I made a choice, and I knew deep within it was the only choice to be made. It was absolutely the right choice. If I could do it all again, I would make the same choice and do so with thanksgiving and gratitude. There have also been times when I made what I thought was the right choice but can now see there was a better choice to have been made. I would do things differently if I had the chance to choose again. I suspect most of us could say the same thing.

Too often we equate the choice we make, and its subsequent approval or rejection, with our goodness, our worthiness, our acceptableness, our faithfulness, our lovableness. That’s what most of history has done with Mary and Martha. Mary made the better choice, Jesus says, and we quickly conclude that we should be like Mary, not Martha. We are to sit and listen rather than be active and busy. Mary is equated with the contemplative life and Martha with the active life and much of Christian history has seen the contemplative life as the more perfect life. That’s one reading of this text but is it the only reading, the definitive reading? Is Mary necessarily better, more holy, more loved, more acceptable to Jesus?

If Jesus is saying that Mary, to the exclusion of Martha, is the way we are to be then the next time my wife asks me to run some errands or help with the house cleaning I’ll just tell her, “No babe, you go ahead. I’m going to choose the better part and sit here with Jesus.” I don’t think that is what Jesus is saying and I know my wife doesn’t. Jesus is making an observation, not a judgment.

I don’t think this text is really even about Mary and Martha but about us and the choices we make. That does not mean we are to copycat Mary. If Jesus wanted us to do that, why didn’t he tell us clearly what that “one thing” is? He could have at least given us the five easy steps to choosing the better part, but he didn’t.

Jesus is saying that choices matter. We are always making choices. I wonder how many choices we make each day. Sometimes we choose unconsciously, sometimes quickly, and easily other times with great deliberation and struggle. Some choices are insignificant. They are forgotten the next day. Other choices have great meaning and significance, and the consequences are long lasting. Our choices can shape who we are. They can establish in us patterns and habits of how we see and act, the words we speak, and the ways we relate to each other. Our choices can set a trajectory for our life. Our choices make a difference.

In this particular context Mary made the better choice but it was a choice for that time, that place, and those circumstances. Change the setting and Martha’s choice might have been the better part. We can see that in Jesus’ own life. Sometimes Jesus went off by himself to be alone, silent, still, to pray, to sit and listen, to be present to his Father. At those times he was like Mary. Other times Jesus was active, on the move, in the midst of people, and busy teaching, healing, feeding 5000. On those days he was more like Martha.

While we might distinguish between Mary and Martha there is a common theme, presence. Mary and Martha are two ways of being present. Both ways are necessary, faithful, and holy. There is not simply one choice that is to be made for ever and always. We are always to be discerning the one thing needed in this time, this place, these circumstances. What is the better part given our particular situation? How do we be present, show up, to the divine presence that is already and always before us? That’s the question. Some days Mary will be our guide and other days Martha will be our guide. Either way we must choose.

Some days that choice may mean sitting quietly and listening to the heartbeat of God within us, reading and studying, watching a sunset with our spouse, or praying for the world. Other days it may mean speaking words of hope and encouragement, offering actions of compassion and hospitality, seeking forgiveness, and making amends, or climbing a tree with our child.

What is the one thing needed right now, in this moment? Not forever or what you think will fix all your problems and let you live happy ever after. Just for now. What is the one thing needed that will keep you awake, aware, open, receptive, and present to Christ? Choose that. That is the better part but hold your choice lightly because there will be another choice to be made after that, and another after that one. We choose our way into life, love, relationships, faith, and even salvation, and the choices matter.

Reflection excerpt from Interrupting the Silence, Fr. Michael K. Marsh,

Used with permission