Martha and Mary

Interlude: Seek Ye First the Kingdom of God, performed by the Choir of Christ Church Lisburn

Making time for daily meditation can be a real challenge.  If I’m not busy keeping up with the things I need to do, I’m coming up with things I want to do.  The part of me that craves silence and God’s presence has to defend that meditation time, or my list of good, responsible things to do will take over my day.  For me, contemplative prayer needs lots of encouragement.

On a recent trip to South Carolina, I was blessed to hear a homily that encouraged my contemplative prayer practice. With Father Mark’s permission, I’d like to share a portion of his homily on Martha and Mary, sisters who were friends of Jesus:

…One evening while traveling, Jesus and his disciples stop at their home to rest and have a bite to eat. Martha, who must have been truly delighted to see him, springs into action, chopping up vegetables, setting the table, cooking supper. Meanwhile, Mary takes a place in the other room, with the men folk, sitting at Jesus’ feet and listening to what he was saying. Not surprisingly, Martha gets a little peeved, both at her sister and at Jesus. “Don’t you CARE that my sister won’t help me with all this work?”

The problem was, Jesus did not care, and he told Martha so.

Over the centuries, hospitality has been a cornerstone of middle-eastern culture. … In the bible, God often appears as a stranger, so it only made sense to treat every visitor as if he or she might have been sent by God.

And so in this sense, Martha was doing exactly what would have been expected of her in Jesus’ day – living fully into a ministry of radical hospitality and diaconal service. …

At the same time, tradition and custom also established that the Word of God, expressed by prophets, teachers, and scripture, was as vital to life as food. Remember how Jesus said, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God?” …

Over the centuries, this story has almost always focused on one key question: which is more important – service or prayer? Action or contemplation? Doing God’s work in the world or studying God’s word?

This is where we, from our modern perspective, tend to miss the point of the story. We fall into a common fallacy called a “false dichotomy.” We force ourselves into binary thinking, trying to decide who was right, looking for a winner and a loser. Which sister did Jesus think was following him the best, Martha or Mary. Which is more important, good works and service to others, or prayer and contemplation? …

In the story, when Martha asks Jesus to force her sister to help her in the kitchen, Jesus replies that Mary has chosen the better portion. That sounds clear enough. Surely Jesus believes that serving others isn’t as important as prayer and worship.

But time and again, Jesus teaches us that discipleship isn’t an either/or proposition. Discipleship takes both: service to others and prayer and devotion. Jesus wasn’t criticizing Martha’s hospitality; he knew that this was Martha’s greatest gift of ministry. What Jesus was concerned about was her worry and distraction. Martha was busy, yes; but she was so busy doing her chores that she missed the big picture, the “better portion.”

… Certainly, [Mary] knew the ancient rules of hospitality. But she also knew that the best place she could learn to follow Jesus was by listening to her rabbi. So she chose to step away from her traditional place in the kitchen and took a place with the men. Mary saw her opportunity to become a disciple. She saw the big picture, she seized the better portion.


… when Jesus told Martha that her sister had chosen the better portion, did he mean that Martha was any less important to him? Did he mean that diaconal service and hospitality was less important than prayer and study of scripture? Of course not. Time and again, Jesus has taught to heal the sick, feed the hungry, comfort the afflicted. None of that had changed; it still mattered. He simply meant Mary’s life, her spiritual life, matters, too.


Sitting together at Jesus’ feet will take us to surprising places. We have to avoid the busy-ness that keeps us distracted from the better part, the fuller part – the fact that in Christ we are new creations, created for new things, created for greater service, created for deeper prayer, created for new work.

Jesus walks into the hustle and bustle of our lives and asks us to focus. He walks in and says that when we discover the better portion, the fuller portion, of God’s kingdom, we will discover the peace that surpasses all understanding by living as a disciple of Christ.

And in this we will bear God’s kingdom to a world that needs it so.

It was a terrific homily — more complex than these excerpts, but the image of sitting at Jesus’ feet stuck with me.  Isn’t that what we do, with our contemplative prayer?   We sit in silence, putting our busy-ness and good works and social expectations aside for a short time, to be in God’s presence.  

What a gift to be sitting together today, with each other, and with God.  May it encourage us to continue our meditation practice, until we meet again.


Thanks to Father Mark Abdelnour, rector of St. Simon and St. Jude Episcopal Church, Irmo, South Carolina.

Delivered at Resurrection Catholic Church, Aptos, California, on September 10, 2016.