Martha, Martha

Ordinary 16C

Luke 10: 38 42


This short, but wonderful portion of the Gospel according to St Luke has been one of the most debated over the past 500 years. Sadly it is easily misinterpreted and therefore is much abused.

The writing plan and structure used in Luke indicate very clearly that this short account is connected to the parable of the "Good Samaritan", which stressed practical helpfulness, i.e. the right action, when and where it is needed. Now Luke stresses the basic necessity of faith and prayer — being open to God's inspiration (in-breathing, enlightenment) when he chooses to give it.

This little lesson has proved a stumbling block to some; but those who hear its message come to find it a beautiful healing balm.

Our short lesson makes just one single point. Those who simply will not be silent and listen so they can hear what God wants, instead of forging ahead with their own designs and intentions miss even this. This short piece of Scripture demonstrates the priority Jesus gives to seeking mature and responsible knowledge about his message.

Some Notes On Our Text

Verse 38

Our passage opens with Jesus and his band of followers (the twelve plus others) continuing on their meandering journey to Jerusalem. Recall that St Luke presents this as a spiritual journey rather than a mere geographical one. For that reason he did not name the village.

It is well known that Jesus made his way to a family home where he was always welcome to call unannounced. While his followers went off to arrange their own accommodation, our Lord relaxes among old friends, and begins to talk of spiritual things.

Verse 39

Martha, the senior woman of the household, and therefore responsible for details of proper hospitality, finds she has no time to stop and listen.

However, Mary, her younger sister, responds immediately. Our Lord, in customary Jewish posture, is reclining at the table, and Mary, thoroughly intent of catching every word, sits at his feet — in the true fashion of a disciple. Our Lord was the only rabbi at that time who was known to allow a woman to do so.

We know from rabbinic sources that our Lord's choice of a spiritual conversation was entirely appropriate and was in accord with ancient Jewish practice:

"Let thy house be a place of meeting for the Wise, and dust thyself with the dust of their feet, and drink their words with thirst."

(M.Avot 1.4)

Verse 40

Martha, however, would have none of that, and was distracted by all the preparations necessary if they were ever going to get a meal. In our reflection on this text, let us note the Greek text which St Luke wrote, stated literally that Martha "was being dragged around". This is a phrase which was used figuratively to show that her duties kept her going backwards and forwards in perpetual motion. In other words, they had taken possession and control of her. She thus became distracted and allowed her attention to wander. As a result she found she could not listen and think about the meal preparation at the same time. An unfortunate chain of cause and effect was now well in place.

Martha's impatience with the pair of them having a spiritual discussion reached a point where she judged their action to be entirely out of order. She walked up to Jesus and, under the guise of a question, gave him a "piece of her mind":

"Rabbi, don't you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself. Tell her to help me!"

In other words, "This is not the time to bury yourselves in spiritual conversation when I want to get a meal ready and make sure you are properly fed. Would you stop it right now and let her do what she is supposed to be doing!"

Verse 41

Our Lord, of course, is well aware that he has just been given a good telling-off by someone who thinks the world of him. After all, Martha had dropped everything the moment Jesus arrived, and decided he was going to have a good, solid meal. Nothing was too much trouble for her and nothing was going to get in the way of her serving up what she thought he wanted.

Jesus, deeply admiring her loving service, interrupts her little outpouring:

"Martha, Martha"

Just the way he responded shows he understands how she feels. When she has calmed down enough, Jesus continues:

"You are worried and upset about many things"

The Greek word for "worried" shows an agitated state of mind. The word "upset" indicates the outward noise and commotions she is causing. So Martha is inwardly anxious and outwardly restless. It was not that she had too much to do, but that she was making herself too busy with things, which were inappropriate in the circumstances.

Verse 42

Our Lord then adds:

"There is one thing you really need to be concerned about and that is the one thing I really came here for."

Then he completes his reply to Martha:

"Mary has chosen to be concerned about that thing"

From the way that text is presented we can discern what our Lord is saying, in effect:

"Mary has made a choice: a deliberate choice, fully aware of her options. She has chosen to listen to me because she could see that, above all, I wanted to talk of knowing, loving and serving God. And the spiritual communion which we share now will last forever."


As noted earlier, our short lesson makes a single point: remain spiritually attuned to the living Word of God — Jesus Christ. Only then will we remain in harmony with the Divine order. Martha chose to set her own order of priorities. Those in the Church today who make the same mistake as Martha can only mislead people in search of the Christian vision.

It is unfortunate if we over emphasise Martha in her activity or Mary in her contemplative frame of mind; although it is true, Christians must balance each of these dimensions in their lives as befits their circumstances.

The great lesson is that Martha, a wonderful, devout and deeply spiritual person, on this occasion, missed seeing and hearing what our Lord wanted to convey. The Church must ever be training the faithful in the skills of listening for God's guidance through the Holy Spirit who, if we will but be led, brings us constantly into a better understanding of what Jesus Christ teaches.

On the Denigration of Contemplative Silence

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