Thursday, July 16, 2009

Mary and Martha Revisited

I blogged about the story of Mary and Martha almost 4 years ago, and at the time, I wrote about Mary and Martha representing the balance between inward and outward activity. I had a somewhat different view of that story during the recent NCYM-C bible study. If you are unfamiliar with the story, it is in Luke 10:38-42 and goes like this:

As Jesus and the disciples continued on their way to Jerusalem, they came to a certain village where a woman named Martha welcomed them into her home. Her sister, Mary, sat at the Lord’s feet, listening to what he taught. But Martha was distracted by the big dinner she was preparing. She came to Jesus and said, “Lord, doesn’t it seem unfair to you that my sister just sits here while I do all the work? Tell her to come and help me.”

  But the Lord said to her, “My dear Martha, you are worried and upset over all these details! There is only one thing worth being concerned about. Mary has discovered it, and it will not be taken away from her.” (NLTse)

The theme of the bible study was "The Bible as a Compass", since the overall theme of the yearly meeting was "Which Way Now?" and Brent Bill (author of "The Sacred Compass") was the plenary speaker on 6th-day evening. In the bible study, we looked at various passages in the bible according to 5 different categories. The first two categories were something like "Ideals, Goals, Highest Aspirations" and "Distractions, Detours, and Dead-Ends". I brought up the story of Mary and Martha as straddling those two categories - Mary was fulfilling her highest aspirations by sitting at the feet of Jesus and being taught, while Martha was distracted.

When I said "Martha was distracted", one very dear Friend turned to me and pleaded Martha's case saying "she was busy". If one looks at the story as balancing inward vs. outward action then my simple characterization of Martha as "distracted" would be rather unfair. But I think instead that Martha serves as a warning to not let our busyness get in the way of our listening to the teaching of the Inward Christ. That isn't to say that action is a bad thing, but that it should come as a result of the leadings of the Spirit - and that we shouldn't mistake "doing something" for "doing what we are meant to do".


  1. I always wondered what Jesus would have said if Martha had just plopped herself down next to Mary and listened and then later of course there would have been no dinner. All those disciples to feed.

  2. Hi Karen! It's great to get your take on this! I have thought about that myself, and it's one of those things that I would love to have an answer to. Sometimes I think maybe he might have taught for a while and then had everyone help with the dinner preparation. Or maybe Jesus would have pulled a "loaves and fishes" miracle and everyone would still be fed.

    I'd like to think that maybe the disciples wouldn't care - that they would have the same attitude of some Friends mentioned in John Burnyeat's journal who found that Meeting for Worship was "more than our appointed food". Maybe I am foolishly optimistic.
    With love,

  3. I too have thought about who would have made the dinner and have come to the conclusion that another point that the story illustrates is that there are no rules. Whether or not Martha (or Peter for that matter) should have taken responsibility to get dinner on the table depends on how the Spirit was flowing at that exact moment. Apparently the Spirit told Martha to sit at Jesus' feet but instead she listened to her socially conditioned mind and "knew" that women should prepare the food while the men talked. This is why she scolds Mary about not helping her.

    Of course people need to eat so somebody needs to fix dinner and that somebody is sometimes a woman. But there's no fixed rule here. Personally I think that the Spirit told Peter to get up and fix the dinner and he wasn't listening.