The Danger of Martha’s Vindication

"Christ in the House of Mary and Martha" by Johannes Vermeer

“Christ in the House of Mary and Martha”
by Johannes Vermeer

I have noticed a troubling trend in past years when the Gospel reading about Mary and Martha’s encounter with Christ surfaces. Of course we all know the passage:

“Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

What usually happens when this passage is discussed is that the speaker or writer immediately comes to the defense of Martha. Some point out that she was a saint (which she was), and others note that she was simply seeking to serve Jesus (which she was). I can’t know the individual motivations behind this tendency, but, regardless, the softening of Martha’s error in judgment runs contrary to what the Holy Spirit is working to reveal to us here.

We know that Martha is a good and holy woman, who is doing a good thing in her desire to serve Christ. Yet Jesus’ rebuke in this passage is harsh — which should not cause us to recoil, but instead inspire us to lean in and pay close attention.

Imagine yourself in Martha’s shoes, rushing around to care for Jesus with diligence and love. Christ knew the inner workings of her heart. He knew her desires, intent and concerns. He had the opportunity to honor her efforts, but he didn’t; quite the opposite.

If we were to render a modern, more sensitive scenario based on almost all the teaching I have heard, the scene would look something like this (Jesus speaking softly):

“Oh Martha, I am grateful for your desire to serve me. You are a good woman and one who obviously has my best interests at heart. I honor you for that. Please know that I greatly appreciate the love and care you are trying to show me. But please, lay down your concerns and rest a bit with me here along with Mary.”

Instead Jesus says, in effect, “Martha, your focus is wrong,” and “Mary, you are exactly on target.” Just to drive this painful interaction one level deeper, he reproves Martha in front of Mary and anyone else who may have been present. She appeals to him, and he rejects the appeal and corrects her!

Why would he do such a thing? Because the lesson he was attempting to teach was essential — too important to be missed. A subtle, gentle approach could not be risked.

So what was that lesson? What was so important for us to understand that he would wound a heart as good and beautiful as Martha’s?

It is simply this: Prayer is more important than action. There’s nothing subtle about it. Martha had it exactly wrong. Mary had it exactly right.

All of the analysis about the good of Martha is dangerous and runs exactly contrary to what Christ was teaching her (and is teaching us). We should, instead, allow Jesus to pierce the spiritually destructive facade of our excessively active and distracted culture. We should embrace his rebuke and soberly test ourselves against it.

Maybe it’s time to ask, “If I were in the physical presence of Christ right now, would Jesus give me that same rebuke, or would I hear, “You have chosen the better part”?

Maybe it’s time we all answered his call to come to the quiet.

Editor’s Note: The Memorial of St. Mary Magdalen (considered by the Latin Fathers to be Mary of Bethany) is July 22 and the Memorial of St. Martha is July 29.

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