Introduction: It is important to hear this story in relation to the
previous story of the Good Samaritan. As St. Luke so often does he
couples two stories, one about an ideal male disciple (Good
Samaritan) and the other about an ideal female disciple (Mary). In
this case they exemplify the previous answer: What must I do to inherit
eternal life? Love God and Love Neighbor. Jesus says: Do this and
you will live. After the emphasis on the action of the good Samaritan
this story again catches us leaning the wrong way. We expect Jesus to
praise the action and work of Martha. Listen to what he says.
From Martha’s point of view the problem is threefold: l) the demands of
hospitality or table service are too great, 2) she is alone in
fulfilling them, 3) and the Lord fails to note her plight. Her solution
is that Jesus recognize her situation and take action by ordering her
sister to help her in fulfilling her many tasks.
Jesus does not accept Martha’s solution. Indeed he does not accept her
assessment of the problem.
(A similar problem occurs in the life of the Jerusalem community, when
the Twelve find themselves unable to cope with the demands of an
expanding and increasingly diversified community. Overwhelmed by
service at tables, they must expand the community’s leadership structure
in order to devote themselves to prayer and the ministry of the word. )
This narrative contains a surprising twist. Instead of praising the
hospitality of Martha (confer the story of the woman at the Pharisee’s
house who is praised for the hospitality that she gave to Jesus 7:44-46)
Jesus praises the inactivity of Mary.
While for modern readers “sitting at his feet” may evoke only rapt
attention to Jesus, it is also a technical term for discipleship (see
Acts 22:3, where Paul sits at the feet of Gamaliel). “Listening to the
word” is also an important Lukan motif. Luke acknowledges his debt to
the “ministers of the word” who have preserved early Christian
traditions (Luke l:2); his version of the allegory of the seeds
stresses the need to hold the word fast in an honest and good heart
(8:l5; cfr. Mark 4:20); in Acts, hearing the word is a prerequisite to
conversion and faith (2:f22; 4:4); and the Seven are chosen so that the
Twelve can dedicate themselves to the ministry of the word and prayer
(Acts 6:4). Mary is thus pictured as a disciple who during Jesus’
ministry embodies that response which is to characterize the nascent
church. In contrast to Mary’s silent sitting, Martha is “distracted
with much serving”. She then “goes” to Jesus (the Greek verb has
overtones of “confront”) and says, “Do you not care that my sister has
left me to serve alone?” (v. 40). At this point, having just been given,
in the Samaritan, an example of active concern for another, readers might
expect Jesus to urge Mary to help her sister. The answer comes as a
surprise. Jesus first describes Martha as “anxious and troubled about
many things.” Anxiety is one of the things that inhibits the growth of
the word (Luke 8:l4); in other NT passages it almost always has a
negative connotation, suggesting a lack of trust in God’s power or
presence (Matt. 6:25-34: Luke 12:11,22,25). Jesus then adds that “Mary
has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her.”
Jesus thus seems to rebuke Martha’s anxiety and defends Mary’s
Fr. Richard Rohr is a very popular spiritual director. He is the founder
of the Center for Action and ‘Contemplation. Applying this Gospel to
ourselves calls us to examine our living. Is Martha’s anxiety present in me?
Is Mary’s inactivity (sitting at the feet of Jesus to hear the word) part of the
rhythm of my life?
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