Neither One Nor the Other

This last Sunday’s gospel gave us the story of Mary and Martha, NRSV, Luke 10:38-42, which led some of us to ask, “Are you Mary, or Martha?”

Are you an active, busy, child of God, or are you a quiet, still, child, content to listen?

These questions stem from a dinner party.  Jesus is a guest at a house where two sisters, Mary and Martha, live.  Martha is in a frantic state as she prepares dinner for her famous guest – you’re familiar with the scenario, perhaps?  An important member of the community comes to your house for dinner and you spend all day cleaning the house, preparing a meal not to be rivaled, and everything, absolutely everything, must be just so, just right, just perfect so that your guests will be pleased.  While you’re in a tear putting it all together, you notice a sibling or spouse doing . . . nothing.

Well, it’s not really nothing they’re doing.  He or she is listening, maybe participating in a discussion with your guest of honor while you find yourself covered in flour, smelling like onions, and starting to break a sweat as you wait for the gravy to thicken (no lumps!), or mash the potatoes to perfection.  And you could use some help.  How many of us on a holiday have stood at the kitchen door and shouted, “I could use some help in here!” while family and friends are watching the game, or sharing a drink while listening to carols? They’re shouting at you to come and join them, and you just want to get dinner on the table so you can relax and could use an extra pair of hands to chop, peel and stir.  Have you felt left out, resentful?  Do you feel as if it’s all on your shoulders?

In the story from Luke, Martha tells Jesus-and one can imagine the tone of voice, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself?  Tell her then to help me.”

Jesus doesn’t tell Mary to quit sitting at his feet and put on an apron, he says that Mary has chosen the better part, which won’t be taken from her.


Is Jesus saying to Martha that what she’s doing isn’t as important as listening to the discussion he’s having with the other guests?


Jesus knows that Martha is worried and distracted as she tries to do what is expected of her – to be a gracious hostess – and this task has consumed her. Nothing else matters to her at the moment.  She’s got to get dinner on the table (and maybe looking, perhaps hoping, for praise for her extraordinary effort, to her activity being recognized as something right and good).

That is true for most of us, don’t you think?

Mary’s choice, to sit and listen to what was probably instruction from Jesus about the new life he was bringing about with his revolutionary way of thinking and acting, responding, was the better choice for that moment.  Perhaps Jesus was trying to get Martha to slow down and listen, and then go back to getting the dinner party started.  You have years ahead of you to prepare dinner parties and impress others; you don’t have that luxury with Jesus.  He wants Martha to understand that what he is offering, what he has to say, is  as vital to life as the food that she offers.

Is he asking you to stop and be present with God in the middle of your latest crisis at work, or when you get your priorities mixed up?  That’s when you accept the invitation to turn the burners on low and sit down in the living room to listen.

I used to think that one had to identify with either Mary or Martha.  One either was active or contemplative in faith and life.  To be active meant being industrious and therefore, important.  To sit and do nothing was lazy.


There are times when being active is necessary for our faith to grow, and it is just as necessary to be present and listen.  If all we’re doing is rushing about trying to please everyone around us and getting stuff done, when will we hear the Word?

Over the years I’ve watched people work themselves into the ground with activity because it is part of our culture to be constantly in motion, always doing something.  Anything less meant you weren’t serious about your life or work – and besides, stopping for a breath of air would give someone else an opportunity to get ahead of you and you’d lose.

Does God care who dies with the most toys?

I don’t think so.

God cares that we love one another as we are loved and when it is necessary, to work in such a way that our work is valued and it produces something beneficial to ourselves and others, and when it is necessary, to listen, so that we can share what we hear.



Maybe a little of both.  Depends on what day of the week it is and what God is calling us to do.

Image Courtesy of Adobe Stock.





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