Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.’ But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’ (Luke 10:38-42)
It’s a well-known gospel story: Jesus visits the house of three siblings: Martha, Mary and Lazarus. Jesus and his followers sit, and Jesus speaks. Mary sits at Jesus’ feet to listen to him while Martha attends to the needs of her guests until her patience runs out, and Martha calls on Jesus to direct Mary to help her. Jesus chides Martha and tells her that Mary has made the right choice, that instead of being worried and distracted by many things, ‘there is need of only one thing.’
Martha was a good friend of Jesus. Luke’s gospel says Martha was the one to welcome Jesus into her home where her two siblings also lived, so we may assume she was the oldest. She was the more hospitable one, the more social, the more responsible. In his gospel, John wrote that Jesus loved Martha, Mary and Lazarus. He was a close friend of the family. Jesus was a frequent visitor at this house with three visits mentioned in Luke 10:38-42, John 11:1-53, and John 12:1-9. They knew Jesus well, and they spoke to him intimately, as though he were a family member.
The story of Mary and Martha has become cultural shorthand about two different approaches to life. Mary is contemplative, Martha is practical. Martha is efficient and hard-working. But she also represents the anxiousness associated with being overly concerned with material things. It’s the temporary versus the transcendent.
Martha is an easy person to sympathise with. Like many of us, she is concerned with running a household and making her guests feel welcome. When her sister isn’t pulling her weight, Martha doesn’t tell her sister to help, perhaps knowing that she won’t listen. Instead, exasperated, she tells Jesus.
Jesus observes that Martha is worried and distracted about many things that take her attention from being present. The descriptors Jesus chooses for Martha might apply to any of us, especially when living in a city in lockdown, where each minute carries its own background worries and distractions.
But as Jesus reminds Martha, only one thing is truly important.
The Martha-and-Mary narrative can be read as a story about a loss of perspective; a cautionary tale against losing ourselves to frenzied activity in an endless pursuit of our goals. A story where the spiritual trumps the material. But Martha’s story offers a challenge to balance day-to-day activity with contemplation.
We need both. Instead of being driven by these material concerns, Jesus invites Martha—and us all—to sit, to listen, to be present with him, because ‘there is need of only one thing.’
It’s a well-known story. What is less widely known is how Martha responds to Jesus’ rebuke. She continues to welcome Jesus and his followers into her home. The second mention of Jesus visiting is when Lazarus has died. Hearing that Jesus is on his way, Martha is the first to run out to meet him. Jesus returns to their house and raises Lazarus.
Sometime later, he returns to Bethany later to stay with his friends. Lazarus eats with them. Mary creates a stir amongst the disciples at dinner when she anoints Jesus with expensive perfume. During dinner, the only mention of Martha is: ‘Martha served.’
Legend has it that after Pentecost, Martha, Mary and Lazarus travelled to Provence to spread the gospel. The Golden Legend even has Martha fight a dragon on the banks of the Rhone river between Avignon and Arles. According to the story, she showed the dragon a cross to subdue it. Martha is the Patroness of Provence, of the heads of households, and the hospitality industry, as well as domestic servants. Prayer
St Martha, pray for us that we might serve Jesus better.
Help us to overcome our distractions and worries to listen to his words and be present to him this day.