What’s The Point Behind Mary and Martha?

What’s The Point Behind Mary and Martha? August 22, 2018
Bernardino Luini, Martha and Mary (ca. 1520), San Diego Museum of Art, California

When I lead retreats, I often offer up a disclaimer: I am not an academic theologian, or a Biblical scholar, or any other kind of scholar for that matter. Which I don’t see as a handicap, since you don’t need a college degree to do the work of silent prayer. I try to be honest that I am a layperson, writing (or speaking) for other laypersons or for anyone interested in contemplative practice.

Most of the time this is not an issue, but once in a while I get reminded of how much I don’t know. Which is good for my humility!

Recently I directed a retreat for an ecumenical group of Third Order and Ecumenical Franciscans, and during the retreat I gave what I thought was a fairly non-controversial interpretation of the Mary and Martha story (Luke 10:38-42). You know the story: Martha is bustling about in the kitchen, while her sister is hanging out with Jesus (and the disciples, whom we may assume were all or mostly men). Martha, annoyed with her sisters, asks Jesus to tell her to get into the kitchen, but instead Jesus basically tells Martha to chill out since “Mary has chosen the good (or better, or generous) part.”

Many contemplative writers over the centuries have interpreted Mary to be a symbol of the contemplative life, which historically meant consecrated religious life; while Martha represents the active life, committed to the responsibilities of marriage, family, and career. Clearly, these interpreters (who we may assume were all themselves consecrated religious) saw in this story a ringing endorsement from Jesus himself that the contemplative life was higher or “better” than the active life. One well known example of this is found in The Cloud of Unknowing, where we read this complaint: “And just as Martha complained about her sister Mary, so to this very day all actives criticize contemplatives.”

I may not be a scholar, but even I can see that this is a case of reading something into the text that wasn’t originally there. Jesus lived centuries before the first monastery was founded, so he is not endorsing monastic life or any other kind of formal, consecrated, religious life. I think, if anything, Jesus was simply trying to praise Mary for enjoying the company of her friends (and spiritual teacher) and gently encouraging Martha not to fret so much.

Sisters in Contemplation (and Action)

But still, the Mary and Martha story has carried this “contemplative” interpretation for so long, that it has become an archetype for comparing those two approaches to spirituality (active versus contemplative). Now, fast forward to the present, where consecrated religious life is not part of m0st peoples’ experience, but many Christians (and others) are looking for ways to integrate contemplative practice into otherwise very busy live

My take on Mary and Martha: that if Mary is the archetype of contemplation, and Martha the archetype of activism, then let’s not lose sight of the fact that they are sisters. In other words, they might squabble, and activist Martha might get annoyed at contemplative Mary, but at the end of the day they are sisters, and they need each other. Likewise, we all need to cultivate both an activist and contemplative dimension to our spiritual lives. This is something I’ve been saying for years now.

Like I said, I thought this was pretty non-controversial. But after the retreat, I received a thought-provoking email from one of the retreatants who is a New Testament scholar (and who also happens to be a good friend of mine), David Rensberger, who is the author of Johannine Faith and Liberating Community among other books.

David offered me this perspective on Luke 10:38-42:

In my opinion there is just no way to get “balance” out of that story… this is because we are so attached to our busyness and hoped-for results that we simply cannot accept this story for what it is. It offends us; and we manipulate it in any way we can to make it be about “balance.” … But what happens when we make this story about balance, at least in Protestant churches, is that “We must have both Mary and Martha” becomes “It’s good to be Martha,” which becomes “Let’s all be Martha,” and then Mary disappears entirely — and so once again we dispense ourselves from actually following Jesus’ teaching by turning it neatly on its head…

What I think this story is about at bottom: discipleship, rather than contemplation and action (both of which are ways of discipleship). Jesus’ call to discipleship was to a single-minded devotion to God in spite of all social pressures, conventions, and conveniences. So I think the story of Martha and Mary parallels, in the world of women as ancient society understood things, the story of James and John in the world of men, who left their father behind in the family fishing business, abandoning their work to follow Jesus. It’s not that  Jesus had nothing for Martha to do; it just wasn’t the socially acceptable work of entertaining guests and keeping house. It was the work of discipleship, just as Luke shows Mary Magdalene and other women following Jesus around a couple of chapters earlier (8:1-3); and of course they show up at the cross and are first at the empty tomb. I think the story is fundamentally about discipleship, and particularly about its equally radical claim on women as on men.

I must admit — this is much food for thought.

Discipleship First

And the more I thought about it, the more I realized I agree with David — the story is not, fundamentally, about balance. Since I spend so much of my time hanging out with monks and nuns and Jesuits and spiritual directors, I’m rather shielded from that tendency in our culture to erase Mary because we all identify much more with Martha (and I should point out, I don’t think that is just a Protestant problem!).

But it is a problem, and I do see it. I see it among many Christian activists, whose energetic engagement with ministries of social justice always seem to carry an unspoken assumption that spirituality or contemplation have no value except to help activists recharge their batteries.

And then I also see it among many rank and file Christians — those that The Cloud of Unknowing identify as living “the active life” — who simply do not get why anyone would want to pray in silence to begin with. And in its more toxic form, this anti-Mary bias results in some conservative Christians insisting that contemplation is “dangerous” — usually because they misinterpret it as a form of syncretism, since contemplative prayer is so similar to non-Christian forms of meditation.

But if we accept that the Mary and Martha story is fundamentally about discipleship especially for women, does that mean it has nothing whatsoever to tell us about contemplation?

I don’t think we have to go that far. And I think David would agree. He said that this story could be something “for contemplatives to appeal to when they are criticized for their withdrawal and seeming indolence. Defense against such criticisms shows up everywhere, from The Cloud of Unknowing to Thomas Merton’s reports of Buddhist monks facing the same thing. ‘My sister has left me to do the serving alone.’ ‘She has chosen the better part, and it will not be taken from her.’ This is the encouragement that we need to hear from Jesus when our vocation is called into question as useless and uncaring.”

Put another way: Biblical spirituality, covering both Testaments, clearly makes room for silence, for waiting, for wondering and pondering, and for stillness as essential dimensions of a mature spirituality. Discipleship, naturally, includes not only learning from Christ, but being in relationship with Christ — and, for Christians, “relationship with Christ” is virtually a synonym for “spirituality.” So if we want to be disciples, we need to cultivate a meaningful and daily spiritual practice, which at its most mature includes a contemplative dimension.

Jesus tells Martha, “don’t criticize your sister for taking her discipleship seriously.” That serious discipleship includes taking the time to learn from Jesus. But it also includes taking the time to be silent and still in adoring prayer to Christ as well.


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