Martha And Her Wrong Intentions

Martha And Her Wrong Intentions August 29, 2023

Fallaner: Mary And Martha Depicted At St. Lazarus Roman Catholic Church In Betany / Wikimedia Commons

Often, people misunderstand the message given in the story of Sts Mary and Martha. They think that the point of it is that it is better to resort to some sort of quietist retreat from the world, doing nothing other than sit, meditate, and pray, basking in the experience of that prayer, than it is to embrace an active life of engagement, rendering loving service to the world. Mary, it is said, followed the better path as she put herself next to Christ to listen to him while Martha was concerned about doing all that was needed to welcome Jesus and the disciples into their home. Martha wanted Mary’s help, and she wanted Jesus to tell Mary to give it to her (cf. Lk. 10:38-42). Jesus did not; instead, he said that Mary chose the better part. It is easy to misunderstand this as suggesting it is better to reject the active life. But that wasn’t Jesus’ intent. The problem was with Martha’s attitude. She was upset with her sister. She was so focused on her sister, she lost sight of Jesus and the experience she could have had with him. And why was Martha so upset with her sister? Because she thought her sister should be helping her. She was focused upon herself and her own wants and needs. She wanted Mary to be told to be just like her and do what she was doing. That is, she wanted to reduce the ways people could engage the greater good, suggesting that there ultimately is only one such way. Mary, because she did not do think like this, chose the better way.

Jesus gently chided Martha, telling her that Mary had chosen the better way, not to dismiss the potential value and importance of the work Martha did. The issue is how she did it, that is, with all kinds of pride and vainglory. She thought herself better than Mary. Jesus saw both of their hearts and saw Mary had not fallen for that error.  We should learn that there can be some who are called to the contemplative life, and if they are called for it, they need not be seen as inferior to those who were active in the world. Mary could have been chided if she had prided herself for choosing to be with Jesus instead of helping her sister.  She sat beside Jesus without thinking about herself; she had, at least in this instance, the kind of humility. Once Martha embraced humility, the love which she had in her, the good which she did, became even greater, and could and should be seen an example as to what Christians can make of their lives.

It must be made clear: Jesus did not deny the good which Martha did; rather, he denied her engagement of it, that is, the intention which guided her actions. Indeed, in other situations, Jesus reminded Christians that they should embrace the way of charity over and above personal piety (such as seen exemplified in the parable of the Good Samaritan). Christians should not simply retreat from the world doing nothing, claiming that by doing so, they are like Mary, making them superior to everyone else. If that is their attitude, they have embraced the error of Martha instead of the greatness of Mary. This was understood by the early monastic community; monastic elders warned against the temptation many monks had to go out into the desert and become a hermit away from everyone else, engaging great feats of asceticism or meditation, thinking that would make them better than everyone else. All who believed such fell for the errors of pride and vainglory and so fell away from the holy way of life asceticism was meant to show them. To warn against such a mistake, such quietism, many sayings of the desert fathers pointed out the need for monks to take care of other people and focus on their needs over and above ascetic pursuits:

A brother asked an elder: “There are two brothers; one of them live in hesychia, [fasting] six days in a row and giving himself a great deal of hard labour but the other one takes care of people in distress; whose task will God more readily accept?” The elder said to him: “Even if the one who [fasts] for six days were to hang himself up by the nostril he cannot be equal to the one who cares for people in distress.” [1]

Similarly, then, it was understood that monks, even if they are called to be hermits, are still meant to work for the benefit of all:

The brothers used to say that each one ought to assume responsibility for his neighbour’s situation; to suffer with him in everything, to rejoice and to weep with him. One should have the same sentiments as though wearing the same body and be afflicted as though one suffered affliction oneself, as it is written: “We are a single body in Christ” [Rom 12:5] and “The multitude of believers had but one heart and a single soul” [Acts 4:32]. [2]

Thus, the authentic way of the desert, and therefore, of the contemplative, is not to ignore the needs of others. Rather, it is to embrace the path of the cross, to die to the self and one’s own personal agenda. If that agenda is to glorify themselves, then their monastic labors will be for naught. This is why loving service, when engaged in the right spirit, can and should be done by the contemplative if they found themselves in a situation where it was necessary. We should learn this lesson, even if we are not meant to be contemplatives. It is easy for us to get so caught up in our own personal pursuits that we ignore what is most important.

This is what we should take from the story of Mary and Martha: Martha was not wrong to choose the path of  service, she was wrong, however, in how she pursued it, and how she wanted Mary to share that service with her. She should have embraced her path, the path of service, with love with humility; if she did, she would not have looked to Mary and complained about her. She would have felt Jesus’ presence in her life, and experience Jesus’ love for her in the middle of that service even as Mary experienced it sitting in his presence. What Martha did was a good thing, but for it to be as good as it could and should be, she needed to engage her calling with the right intention. The good she did could and would be transformed into something better when her attitude changed. This is a lesson which we need to learn as well. We can embrace all kinds of pious devotions, we can engage in all kinds of acts of charity, but if we do them for the wrong reason, with the wrong attitude, we hinder the good which we can be doing and therefore, the good  which we can  receive from our actions. And, until we have learned this lesson, it is likely many of those who already know it, who are doing things in a way different from us, in a way which we think is inferior, are following the way of Christ better than us because they have learned to follow after Mary instead of Martha.

[1] John Wortley, trans., The Anonymous Sayings Of The Desert Fathers: A Select Edition And Complete English Translation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 233 [N355/17.22].

[2] John Wortley, trans., The Anonymous Sayings Of The Desert Fathers, 249 [N389/18.44].


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