Finding our inner Martha or inner Mary


Scripture: Luke 10: 38-42

Our inner Martha or inner Mary are the opposites of how we instinctively behave.  In the story of Martha and Mary,  Martha’s personality focussed on providing hospitality to her guests, but she resented her sister.  Mary listened to Jesus, apparently unaware of the need to offer hospitality.  So when should I focus on loving my neighbour, and when should I take time to love myself?

This Gospel packs in a lot of ideas into just five verses. It follows on directly from the parable of the good Samaritan. I’m sure that Luke did this deliberately. He stated explicitly [Luke 1: 3] that he intended to write “an orderly account” of Jesus’ life. Therefore, he presumably chose the order of his stories about Jesus deliberately.

Who were Martha and Mary?

Martha and her sister Mary were such were important disciples that both Luke and John identify them by name. I imagine that they were among the women “who provided for Jesus out of their own resources” [Luke 8: 3]. Perhaps they were wealthy widows.  In this passage they seem to be hosting a “meet and greet” between friends and Jesus.

Martha complains to Jesus about Mary

Here’s how I imagine the scene. Jesus is chatting in the living room. In a Middle-Eastern Jewish home, it would be obligatory to provide refreshments for the guests, so Martha is in the kitchen. In today’s world, she’s cutting sandwiches and getting coffee.  As the evening goes on, Martha feels more and more resentful of Mary, who is in the living room with the guests. Eventually, she complains to Jesus about the situation. But instead of getting support, she gets what seems like a rather patronizing response. “Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things. There is need for only one thing. Mary has taken the better part.”

This is a difficult passage of Scripture for me, because I instinctively side with Martha. That is simply my personality type. I know myself well enough to realize that I feel the need to keep the show on the road. So if I were at this soirée, I would be Martha, making sure that the guests were properly and hospitably cared for. And I would be quite happy to do so, until I realized that I was doing a lot more than my fair share of the work. Then I would be resentful.

I also wonder whether there’s a bit of sibling rivalry going on here.  I remember that my own mother never forgot her rivalry with her older sister, even when they both became widows.  Actually, Elizabeth Johnson notes that Martha breaks a rule of hospitality by criticizing her sister in front of the guests.  

The context of the Martha and Mary story

Luke’s “orderly account” gives us three related pieces. First, a lawyer asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. The key commandments are to love God and to love one’s neighbour as oneself. The parable of the Good Samaritan comes next. It is about deciding whether or not to follow the rules and religious traditions. My opinion is that one must decide each situation on its own merits, rather than trying to apply a principle blindly to each and every situation.

The story about Martha and Mary is also about balance. A good Jewish hostess had to provide hospitality to guests. Against that, this was probably a unique opportunity to listen to Jesus. Martha chose the sandwiches, Mary listened to Jesus. The dilemma was to put your neighbour first or yourself first. In this case, selflessly serving your neighbour food or selfishly meeting your spiritual needs without considering anyone else.

It wasn’t black and white. Martha seems selfless, serving food to the guests. Mary seems selfish, listening to Jesus instead of helping her sister. Jesus reminded Martha that sometimes we need to put our own needs first. You can’t love your neighbour if you don’t love yourself. If we always put ourselves first, we are egotistical and selfish. But Jesus warned Martha that if we always put others first, we risk becoming self-righteous martyrs or doormats.

This section of Luke’s Gospel is all about balance: inner Martha or inner Mary

The balance is between loving our neighbour versus loving ourselves. It means knowing when to abide by the ritual purity rules and when to set them aside, or being Martha versus being Mary. Sometimes we should take one position, sometimes the other. We must consider each situation on its own merits.  Marthas need to promote their inner Mary, and Marys their inner Martha.  

Churches have a real tendency to make people feel that they ought to be Marthas. After all, we are all Christians. So we ought to be selfless and always love or serve other people. That’s why we at St. George’s (for example) provide the refreshments on Sundays on a rota. This is so that one person doesn’t get stuck week after week with preparing the goodies for the coffee hour.

Jesus told Martha, “You are distracted.”

Many of us are like Martha.  She had no time to listen to Jesus. It’s hard to find time for spiritual matters – that is, listening to Jesus. Several years ago, I heard this in the context of the nursery rhyme Old Mother Hubbard. “She went to the cupboard to get her poor doggy a bone. When she got there, the cupboard was bare, and so the poor dog had none.” Perhaps Martha’s spiritual cupboard was bare because it was a long time since she had put anything in it.

Life today is full of distractions. Like Martha, we seem to be constantly busy. Some people can’t leave their cell phone and their Facebook account alone for more than a few minutes. Our spiritual cupboards – time to listen to Jesus – are empty because we were too distracted to fill them up. Amid these distractions, I believe that a community such as a church congregation helps us to spend some time each week away from the distractions of the outside world. In the urban lifestyle, we can be surrounded by people, yet physically and emotionally lonely because we don’t know the people on our street or in our apartment building. At church, we interact with real people, not on-line avatars.

Culture pulls us away from community

It’s not just about making sandwiches versus listening to Jesus. There is a tension between community and individualism. We might equate community with loving our neighbour and individualism with loving ourselves. As Martha and Mary demonstrate, neither is a complete answer. But our culture pulls us towards individualism. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms is the centrepiece of Canada’s Constitution. We petition the courts when we perceive that someone has violated our rights. But the Charter says little about our responsibilities to wider communities, that is, to our neighbours.

Jesus brought a new perspective to the first century Judaism

The Jewish religion had become very focussed on keeping the rules. A particular view of love of God – namely carrying out the prescribed rituals – had got in the way of both love of neighbour and love of oneself. In the story of the Good Samaritan, the priest couldn’t attend to the injured man on the way to Jericho because the rules said that he would become ritually unclean. Likewise, Martha couldn’t listen to Jesus because of society’s expectations that guests had to be fed. Jesus wasn’t supposed to heal a man with a withered hand because the rules said that healing was work you shouldn’t do on the Sabbath.

This leaves us is with a couple of things to think about. First, in a given situation, what is the best course of action, rather than what is the rule? Second, I must know myself in terms of my own personality. Is my outer self instinctively more like Martha or more like Mary? And whichever it is, I have to realize that both Martha and Mary have merits. It’s really about inner Martha and inner Mary, rather than inner Martha or inner Mary. The person who is an instinctive Martha has to let their inner Mary when to set aside rules or conventions, and put their own physical and spiritual needs first. An instinctive Mary has to let their inner Martha know when its time to follow the rules, put the other person first, and think of community.