er I love Martha and Mary, who with their brother Lazarus we meet more in John’s gospel. It feels that their home is a place where Jesus can rest and relax. They have a mention in the church’s calendar, as ‘companions of Jesus’.
The story of Martha and Mary, responding to Jesus in their own ways, has received a lot of attention. In the Middle Ages it led to a sharp distinction between those called to ‘active’ Christian life and the (often thought superior) few called to a ‘contemplative’ life – Mary rather than Martha. Of course the passage doesn’t say that Mary never helped with the cooking and cleaning, just that on that occasion she chose instead to make the most of Jesus’ presence, laying aside all else to sit as a disciple at his feet and learn from him.
It’s surely no accident that Luke moves the story straight from the house of Mary and Martha to Jesus’ teaching on prayer. For if we don’t learn to stop our busyness and to simply enjoy being in God’s presence, then prayer will always be a struggle. Even to say the Lord’s Prayer from the heart, we need to stop for a moment to be still in God’s presence. It doesn’t always have to be ten or twenty minutes, though when we can set aside that time and use it well it will certainly be a good thing. Even a minute of prayer means stopping. Not just as in practically not doing anything else but, even more importantly, letting go of the need to be active. To stop doing, and concentrate on being in God’s presence, placing our joys and concerns into his hands, is at the heart of prayer.
Prayer itself, then, doesn’t depend on elegant words. It does depend on some confidence in the God to whom we pray – otherwise it’s just wishful thinking with and ‘Amen’ at the end.
And prayer isn’t something we offer instead of action. We pause with Mary, to listen to Jesus, to simply be in his presence, to speak with him as the one alone who can really handle all of our thoughts and needs. But then we join with Martha, turning prayer into practical service.
The choice between Martha’s way and Mary’s isn’t a once-in-a-lifetime decision. It’s a series of choices, moment by moment as we live with Jesus. For a healthy, life-giving life of discipleship and prayer, we need to choose both ways at the right times.
Most of us find ourselves more easily at home with Martha than with Mary. But how can we best balance the two?