Mary and Martha: Lives of Prayerful Service
Each of us has only so many hours, so many waking moments to spend each day — and our time has to S-T-R-E-T-C-H to get it all done! Have you ever looked over your to-do list and wondered how much of this God really wants you to do? How can you best serve him? Is it through prayer? Is it through service? The story of Mary and Martha in Luke 10:38–42 illustrates that these two dimensions of the spiritual life are, in fact, inseparable. Both are needed, yet only one will last.
Just days before his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, Jesus stops in Bethany to enjoy a meal with his friends Lazarus, Martha, and Mary. Martha is concerned with hospitality, busily preparing a meal for her guests, while Mary is seated at the feet of Jesus, listening attentively in the position of a disciple.
Martha, upset that she is doing all the work, complains to Jesus, demanding he tell Mary to help her. Jesus gives an unexpected response: “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:41–42).
So, what is Jesus saying? Are hospitality and service to others not important? Of course, that’s not what he means — no doubt he enjoys the meals Martha prepares. Notice that Jesus does not correct Martha until she complains; her words insinuate that what she is doing is more important, and she appears to begrudge the time Mary is spending in his presence.
In this story Martha embodies the active life, giving glory to God by serving others, in particular through the corporal works of mercy. Mary, on the other hand, exemplifies the contemplative life, spending time listening and learning from Jesus. As Christians, we need to exercise both the active and contemplative aspects of our spiritual life.
If both dimensions of the spiritual life are necessary, why did Jesus say only “one thing is needful”? The active life, no matter how important, ends when we die. It is the contemplative life, sitting with Jesus, that continues into eternity.
For Further Reflection:
Reflect on the lives of Martha and Mary. Are you choosing the one thing needful each day? How can you find a balance between a life of service and a life of prayer?
For Further Reading:
Read CCC 2447 and 1 Thessalonians 5:16–18.
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