The story of Martha and Mary is often used as an illustration of the superiority of the contemplative life over the life of those who live a vocation of activity in the secular world. Jesus’ own words, that the one listening to his teaching “has chosen the better part” (Luke 10:42), tend to reinforce this interpretation.
This short account of Jesus teaching in the home of Martha and Mary follows immediately after the parable of the good Samaritan and Jesus’ teaching about universal compassion. Some Scripture commentators see this story as a corrective to Jesus’ statement to the law scholar, “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:37) The corrective is seen as necessary in order not to portray the Christian life as being solely a matter of performing charitable acts.
There is sufficient reason, I think, to disregard both of these opinions above. To interpret this brief interaction between Jesus and the two sisters as being teaching about appropriate balance between contemplation and apostolic action might be more a reflection of modern religious sensibilities than a reflection of Jesus’ attitudes toward religion. A very different interpretation of this event emerges when it is seen as being a continuation of Jesus’ teaching in the parable of the good Samaritan rather than as being a corrective to it.
There are some clear parallels between the figures and events in this story and the figures and events in the parable. The two Judean religious figures in the parable made prudent choices within the bounds of the conventional ethics of the time. They avoided potential trouble by not becoming involved with someone (the robbers’ victim), who might have turned out to be an enemy. (Luke 10:31-32) Martha also made the prudent, conventional choice. She fulfilled the expected role as host by offering hospitality to her guest. (Luke 10:38)
Each story also has an example of someone who ignores conventional ethics, and does something completely unexpected. The Samaritan took the extraordinary risk of caring for a stranger (Luke 10:34-35), and Mary joined the group of men at dinner who were listening to Jesus. (Luke 10:39) Both the Samaritan and Mary violated the strict boundary rules that governed interaction between persons. The Samaritan risked defiling a Judean, and Mary defiled herself by sitting in the company of adult males to whom she was not related.
The behavior of both Martha and the two Judean religious figures would have been considered proper and appropriate. The behavior of the Samaritan and Mary would have been considered scandalous. In both cases, Jesus gave his approval to the person who ignored conventional ethics, and acted scandalously. This shouldn’t be interpreted as encouragement to act scandalously, but it should draw our attention.
Jesus routinely upended conventional expectations in order to teach about faithful religious practice. (Luke 18:9-14) In the instances of the parable of the Good Samaritan and the approval of Mary’s shocking behavior Jesus was not simply rejecting conventional ethics. Rather, he was trying to illustrate the limitations of conventional ethics. While common social and religious expectations can be good influences in one’s life, it is possible that there are occasionally better influences than the commonly recognized ones.
Avoiding conflict with potential enemies is a good choice, but showing extraordinary compassion toward someone in need is a better choice. Showing hospitality to a house guest is a good choice, but attending to the Word of God is a better choice. The parable of the good Samaritan, and the interaction between Jesus and the two sisters, teach a lesson summarized by Ignatius of Loyola in his writing about the “greater good.” There are many good choices one can make about one’s life, but not all good choices are equally good. Some good choices are better than others and, as a consequence, the faithful disciple is obliged to discern which choice will bring greater glory to God.
Among the many practical applications of Ignatius’ teaching about discerning the “greater good,” there is a direct application to the personal spirituality of each believer. Catholicism has a long and rich history of spirituality. There are so many different forms of Catholic spirituality that many of them go unknown and unpracticed simply because they get lost in the crowd of what is popular at any given moment in time. Each of those hundreds, or thousands, of different forms of spirituality has its own strength and beauty. However, some of those good spiritual practices are better than others simply because they lead to giving greater glory to God.
This brief story about Martha and Mary gives us a reliable benchmark with which to discern between the varying degrees of good we find in the various spiritual practices within Catholicism. The particular form of spirituality that brings greater glory to God in an individual’s life is the one that leads one to attend wholeheartedly to the Word of God. (Luke 10:42) Hearing the Word of God is a type of prayer not restricted only to contemplatives, clergy or the very holy. There are numerous styles of Scriptural prayer that can be performed by people of every temperament and background. While understanding the content of the Scriptures is a good thing, it is a better thing to listen to God’s voice as it speaks through the Scriptures. This can be done anywhere, by anyone who wishes to listen. There are many good prayers one can say; the better prayer is to listen.