The story of Martha and Mary takes on a life of its own in the history of Christianity. These two sisters have come to represent two paths of life: the active life and contemplative life, in Latin the vita activa and vita contemplativa.
Mary’s example of contemplation, Jesus affirming this as the right choice, inspired many early Christians, beginning in the third century, to leave everything behind and devote their lives to silence and solitude. In the Middle Ages, even, the church didn’t seem to value the active life, or that of ordinary workers, as sacred.
Martin Luther changed that understanding when, during the Protestant Reformation, he articulated the value of ordinary vocations — like farmers, carpenters, and blacksmiths — as they shared in God’s care for their neighbors. This was not entirely new. Even Augustine used the Martha and Mary story to affirm the goodness of our work serving the needs of others.
But perhaps our society today has completely upended the relationship between action and contemplation, so much so that we’ve lost sight of what the Martha and Mary story was intended to teach us about loving God in the midst of our work.
Martha, Mary, and the Great Commandment
When we look at the example of Jesus’s life and ministry, one of the clearest characteristics is his deep familiarity with the experiences of ordinary work. His parables often include relatable portraits of working people, whether farmers, tax collectors, or builders, and Jesus describes himself as a physician and a shepherd. Because of this, Jesus presents models of discipleship rooted in ordinary work and relates even his own ministry of redemption in these familiar categories. So it should come as no surprise that Jesus was aware too of the problems people face in their work, like the tendency to be so consumed with busyness that we forget what’s most important in life.
The Great Commandment instructs us to love God with our whole being and to love our neighbors as ourselves. In the Parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus teaches the necessity of compassion and challenges his critics to love selflessly, especially those they refuse to consider their neighbors. Immediately following this parable, we encounter Martha and Mary, who remind us that in the midst of our efforts to serve others, we shouldn’t forget our belonging to God. Mary embodies this belonging by finding her home at the feet of Jesus, resting and feasting on his teaching.
Here we meet two sisters who exemplify sacrificial service in neighborly love. Martha demonstrates hospitality by welcoming Jesus into their home as a guest, and she is giving of her time and resources in preparing food. In fact, Martha is remembered in the Catholic and Orthodox church as a saint for her mercy and hospitality. But in this story, she is bothered that while she is busy preparing food, Mary is sitting at Jesus’s feet, listening to his teachings. When Martha asks Jesus to side with her and tell Mary to help her sister, Jesus replies, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has made the right choice, and it will not be taken away from her.”
But wait, what is going on here? The Great Commandment says to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself. Is Martha not loving God by serving Jesus and loving her neighbor by feeding the hungry? What is missing in this equation?
Martha has been so busy worrying about feeding others that she has forgotten to feed herself. Jesus, the Bread of Life, is sitting in her living room. Her sister, Mary, on the other hand, is feasting at the feet of Jesus.
To dwell in the house of the Lord
Consider for a moment what’s going on with Mary. Why does Jesus say she has chosen the “one thing” necessary? What is that one thing? In Psalm 27:4, David writes:
I have asked one thing from the Lord;
it is what I desire:
to dwell in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life,
gazing on the beauty of the Lord
and seeking him in his temple.
Mary is in her own home, but the house of the Lord has come for a visit. Rather than seeking the Lord in his temple, Mary sees that the temple of God has stepped inside her living room. She has found the one thing that David desired — God’s presence. And here he is, Jesus, sitting before her. Mary has chosen rest, and all that it contains: feasting on the words and presence of Jesus, gazing on the beauty of the Lord.
Yes, Martha’s tasks are ordinarily good. It’s important to care for those in need, to demonstrate hospitality. But we must not forget what those tasks are for — to extend to others the blessing and peace of God that we have received. We can’t do that if we deprive ourselves of that very gift.
It’s interesting that, with all the assumptions about early Christians dismissing the value of work, Augustine interpreted this passage quite differently than we might expect. In his Sermon 104, Augustine says Martha characterizes our present way of life, while Mary embodies our future life with God. Jesus does not condemn Martha and, in fact, speaks to her affectionately, using her name twice in his response: “Martha, Martha.” She is doing an honorable thing but has lost sight of a future in which there will be no need.
Like Martha, we should feed the hungry, we should have compassion for the hurting, but like Mary we should long for God’s resting place. Augustine suggests that even while we perform our work with dignity and serve others, we must attempt to keep the inner posture of Mary in worshiping Jesus while we work. If our actions seek to extend God’s blessing to all of creation, then might our work be directed toward eternity? Serving in a way that ushers in the eternal rest of God.
This is how we align our work and our worship.