The Martha and Mary Balance

Artwork of Jesus surrounded by people

We are called to serve God and neighbor. Scripture guides us to accomplish both.

Lots of ordinary Catholics feel guilty stepping out of the rat race to pray. They often feel as though seeking the peace and guidance of God in prayer is somehow self-indulgent. That struggle is well illustrated by a difficult Gospel story about two sisters from Bethany:

“As they continued their journey he entered a village where a woman whose name was Martha welcomed him. She had a sister named Mary [who] sat beside the Lord at his feet listening to him speak. Martha, burdened with much serving, came to him and said, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? Tell her to help me.’ The Lord said to her in reply, ‘Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her'” (Lk 10:38‚ 42).

This story is fraught with a tension that Christians have struggled with for 2,000 years: the relationship of faith and works.

The Conflict

You and I battle with a weakened will, a darkened intellect, and disordered appetites that afflict us in various ways due to the effects of original sin. It’s what Paul lamented when he said, “What I do, I do not understand. For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate” (Rom 7:15). It’s a lament heard in a million confessionals, a million Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and a million marriage counseling sessions. We are fallen and we have a hard time keeping our balance—and that includes the balance between prayer and works. The devil loves our dilemma and enjoys tormenting us with the anxiety that we have to choose between prayer and works. He loves to whisper accusations that, whatever we are doing, we should do the opposite.

In contrast, the Catholic faith proposes to us the liberating truth that faith and works are two blades on one pair of scissors. It’s in our blood—literally. For, of course, the heart and soul of a eucharistic faith like ours is that Christ is both God and man, and that prayer becomes incarnate in works of love just as the word became flesh. As Pope Francis puts it with simple elegance: “You pray for the hungry. Then you feed them. That’s how prayer works.”

One of the reasons we get confused about the relationship between prayer and works is that there are many voices in our culture trying to pit these two against each other. For instance, many Catholics in our media-saturated culture get knocked off balance by the idea of eternal assurance of salvation. There are certain passages in Scripture that get torqued by bad teachers into the notion that nothing one does can affect salvation: if you accept Jesus as savior, you are supposedly guaranteed heaven no matter what. As proof, some point to St. John, who said, “I write these things to you so that you may know that you have eternal life, you who believe in the name of the Son of God” (1 Jn 5:13).

But, of course, John immediately follows this with, “If anyone sees his brother sinning, if the sin is not deadly, he should pray to God and he will give him life. This is only for those whose sin is not deadly. There is such a thing as deadly sin, about which I do not say that you should pray. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that is not deadly” (1 Jn 5:16‚ 17).

In short, we must remain in Jesus to be saved, and that means we have to obey him: “Anyone who does not remain in me will be thrown out like a branch and wither; people will gather them and throw them into a fire and they will be burned” (Jn 15:6).

A Call to Act

While grace is certainly necessary for our salvation, our response to that grace is a crucial part of the story. The full-orbed Catholic faith has always followed Scripture in insisting that we are saved by God the Father through God the Son by the power of the Holy Spirit who gives us grace, which we receive by faith and live out in concrete acts of love. Leave out any piece, and you are hearing something less than the fullness of the faith Jesus handed to us.

Indeed, Jesus’ preaching, again and again, bangs away at the fact that, as James puts it, “For just as a body without a spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead ” (Jas 2:26). Jesus emphasizes this connection between faith and action when he declares, “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Mt 25:40).

Christ in the House of Martha and Mary

Additionally, when Jesus tells the parable of the good Samaritan, the conclusion is “Go and do likewise.” His focus on the spiritual life portrays no interest in otherworldly navel-gazing, but rather a deep interest in doing the practical work shown by Martha of Bethany: feeding hungry people, wiping runny noses, taking care of sick people, loving people in simple acts of service. For Jesus, if you aren’t doing what the Father says, then you don’t believe what he says, and no amount of God talk or good thoughts will fix that. That’s the point of this parable:

“‘What is your opinion? A man had two sons. He came to the first and said, “Son, go out and work in the vineyard today.” He said in reply, “I will not,” but afterwards he changed his mind and went. The man came to the other son and gave the same order. He said in reply, “Yes, sir,” but did not go. Which of the two did his father’s will?’ They answered, ‘The first'” (Mt 21:28‚ 31).

This emphasis on deeds over mere words has birthed a Church full of the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, global missionary enterprises, works of art, civilization, government, science, medicine, education, culture, and other wonders that have changed the world. The Church teems with Marthas doing good works and the world is richer and more beautiful for it. The Word is still made flesh through such servants every day.

A Call to Love

And yet Mary, sitting at the feet of Jesus and apparently doing nothing, “has chosen the better part,” says Jesus to Martha. What can it mean? I think the key is found in one of the more shocking passages of Matthew, where Jesus warns:

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. Many will say to me on that day ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name? Did we not drive out demons in your name? Did we not do mighty deeds in your name?’ Then will I declare to them solemnly, ‘I never knew you. Depart from me, you evildoers'” (Mt 7:21‚ 23).

This passage used to baffle me. What’s wrong with prophesying? Paul praises it in 1 Corinthians 12. What’s wrong with casting out demons? Jesus himself told his disciples to do it! What’s wrong with doing mighty works in the name of Jesus? Jesus himself said, “Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever believes in me will do the works that I do, and will do greater ones than these, because I am going to the Father” (Jn 14:12). So what gives? I think Paul nails it when he tells the Corinthians:

“If I speak in human and angelic tongues but do not have love, I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal. And if I have the gift of prophecy and comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge; if I have all faith so as to move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away everything I own, and if I hand my body over so that I may boast but do not have love, I gain nothing” (1 Cor 13:1‚ 3).

What Mary of Bethany and Paul understand is that all action has to proceed from a heart of love for God and neighbor for it to do us any good. It is possible to let busyness, haste, and fear—in a word, anxiety—take over as the driver of our lives. We can lose (or never have) a relationship of love with God and fill the void with “good works” done with no relationship to or interest in God or neighbor.

We can forget that good works are meant to be the fruit of God’s loving grace in our lives and frantically do good things out of the fear that we have to appease an angry, impatient God who itches to condemn us if we don’t produce. And so Jesus commends Mary and the life of contemplative prayer—because a loving relationship with God is the root from which all fruit ultimately grows.

An Invitation to Holy Leisure

There is, of course, a flip side to all this. Some people are tempted, not to frantic works, but to slothful spirituality and the temptation to ignore our duty to put faith into action. The Pharisees were past masters of this: “He [Jesus] went on to say, ‘How well you have set aside the commandment of God in order to uphold your tradition! For Moses said, “Honor your father and your mother,” and, “Whoever curses father or mother shall die.” Yet you say, “If a person says to father or mother, ‘Any support you might have had from me is qorban‘” (meaning, dedicated to God), you allow him to do nothing more for his father or mother. You nullify the word of God in favor of your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many such things'” (Mk 7:9‚ 13).

Likewise, we can become too preoccupied with prayer or spirituality to love our neighbor. We can pit prayer against living the fruits of prayer. This can be cloaked, paradoxically, in an “I’m Mary, not Martha” shtick. Let others take care of the dirty work of political action or wiping children’s bottoms or interacting with the poor. I’m a prayer warrior. But with us nose-to-the-grindstone moderns, the greater danger is to be so filled with a whiffling busyness that there is no nook or cranny left for relationship with God. We are not a people in grave danger of spending too much time in contemplative prayer or its companion, the study of holy Scripture. Far more, we are filled with activities—including religious activities—that run us off our feet (followed by television and bed). Somehow, we never get around to making space in our lives to simply sit at Jesus’ feet, speak our hearts to God, and then listen to him in Scripture or the liturgy or adoration.

That’s all Mary did: sit at Jesus’ feet and listen. That is the posture of a disciple. And it was a revolutionary thing for a woman to do in Jesus’ day. For no small part of the shock of it (as Martha certainly noticed) was the announcement that those people who were expected to be worker bees while the menfolk were busy doing spiritual things could step out of the rat race, speak and listen to God, and that God was not only cool with that, but would step to their defense when somebody demanded they get back to the drudge work.

That charter of freedom is still true today. The challenge is that we ourselves can often forge our own chains by a self-imposed workaholism that leaves us no space for holy leisure. Mary was, to the culture of that time, goofing off. That’s why Martha was so upset. But in fact, holy leisure is the sacred space in time where we can go and meet God. It’s a space—and a freedom—God wants you to have. So go ahead: seek first his kingdom and his righteousness in prayerful holy leisure like Mary. All the Martha work will still be there when you are done. Only now you will have the grace and guidance to do it.

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