Action and Contemplation: The Story of Mary, Martha, and a Samaritan

My Friend, do you see that this whole incident concerning Jesus and the two sisters was intended as a lesson for active and contemplative persons in every age? Mary represents the contemplative life and all contemplative persons ought to model their lives on hers. Martha represents the active life and all active persons should take her as their guide.

– The Cloud of Unknowing

The story of Martha and Mary is one we are all familiar with and, like so many of Jesus’ teachings, the message is not one that is easy to accept, or perhaps even readily clear. Shouldn’t Mary have been helping her sister? Why does Jesus side with the lazy one who let’s other people do the work? What really is the take home message here?

Martha is stressed out, there is a lot of work that needs to be done and there is a lot at stake. After all Jesus has decided to visit her little household and there are many preparations to be made if she is to honour this most respected guest in the proper manner. Normally, her younger sister would be her right hand in this instance. According to all social norms, Mary should be helping Martha get dinner ready, prepare the room for Jesus to stay in, make sure the laundry is done, and clean the house. It makes perfect sense that Martha is upset with Mary for bailing on her, for leaving her to do all the work while Mary sits and visits with the guest. I’d be pretty ticked off too! It goes against so much of our common sense.

The story of Martha and Mary is part of a larger narrative which begins with the parable of the Good Samaritan. It opens with the familiar great commandment from Deuteronomy 6 to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” combined with the words from Leviticus 19 “you shall love your neighbor as yourself”.

The narrative in Luke is set up to elaborate on this dual-commandment with a parable and a story from Jesus’ life. Mary is our example of the first part of the commandment: to love God with all your heart and the Samaritan is our example of the latter, to love your neighbour as yourself. First, we must love God, we must be completely devoted to the coming Kingdom of Heaven and sit as disciples at Christ’s feet. Then, and only then, can we act with true love for our neighbours.

The parable of the Good Samaritan is about how we have a moral responsibility to act. The parable teaches us that it is not by sitting quietly near God that we are considered good, but by actively doing the work that needs to be done. In the parable of the Good Samaritan it was the social outcast, the sinner and pagan, who acted justly and was praised by Jesus. And, in contrast, it was two upright members of society, a Levite and a priest, who walked past with no regard for the injured man. Jesus is clearly saying that loving action is more important than religious ritual and tradition. That sitting in prayer, as the religious men who walked past often did, does not guarantee you to be a good person.

Luke, in writing his gospel, has set up an excellent discussion by placing these two readings side by side. Are we to assume that goodness comes from the contemplative life, sitting by God and listening, without concern for the pressing tasks of the world, or are we to assume that goodness comes from our actions, that our merit is a direct measure of how we relieve suffering in the world?

In some ways this is a precursor to the question of faith vs works that Paul and James discuss later in the New Testament as well as many theological debates between the contemplatives and the missionaries throughout Christian history. You can also find a profound discourse on the subject in the Cloud of Unknowing, in which Mary is depicted as the contemplative hero all spiritual seekers should aspire to.

The Bible is constantly calling us to wrestle with the question of what we must do in order to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. If the parable of the Good Samaritan taught us anything, it is that we have a responsibility to help whenever we can, but if Mary is to be our example God is calling us to pray and to sit in Christ’s presence. Are we to be like the Samaritan or like Mary? It’s not always easy to know what to do, or what not to do.

The Grace of God is such that sometimes conflicting answers can both be true. I think the take home message from these two stories, which in my opinion should definitely be read together, is that firstly we have a responsibility to act, our goodness is a direct measure of our love for others. Yet, we must keep in mind that to only act is not good. When Jesus enters Martha’s house Mary comes and sits at his feet right away, she has her priorities straight.

When God’s presence enters our lives, we should be ready and willing to drop everything we are doing, sit down, and listen attentively. Martha and the Samaritan were both right, we have to act and we have to be still. We have to get out there and change the world and we have to sit quietly and listen for God. The great wisdom in this is that in respecting both these prerogatives our actions are guided by the Holy Spirit.

If we want to affect change in the world we need to first turn to Christ and listen. Taking the time for stillness opens our hearts to the divine and creates a space, a lifestyle, in which our actions become divinely inspired. If we can first, like Mary, sit at Jesus’ feet and pray, then our lives become a living prayer. When we can walk in that stillness and have our priorities set on God, then we can allow ourselves to become channels for God’s peace.

Church services are one way to maintain that stillness in our lives, to set aside time to stop fiddling with the never ending stream of daily tasks and listen to what Jesus has to say to us. On Sunday mornings, and hopefully a few times throughout the week as well, we are like Mary, but as we walk around being busy we must be mindful to be like the Samaritan. We must take time out of our busy lives to help those who need it. We need both faith and works.

The one thing that both Mary and the Samaritan did was to stop whatever they were doing and respond to the needs of the moment. Mary couldn’t have cared less about the dirty dishes when she was literally sitting at the feet of God, and the Samaritan interrupted his journey to help a man in a potentially dangerous situation, in a part of the world where his kind were not appreciated. So do we, when faced with the sin of our kind, have to put down our routine concerns and pick up the cause of goodness. By following in Mary’s footsteps and also in the Samaritan’s we need to pray and act. We must maintain our inner stillness while committing to outward effort.

The Kingdom of Heaven is waiting for us to embrace it. We need only truly love God and our neighbour and goodness will follow. The laws of ancient Israel and the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth speak this to us from ancient times, and that same spirit is true today. It is from the hearts of humans that cruelty emerges and as soon as we all let go of that cruelty we will live in the Kingdom of the Prince of Peace. Something so simple can yet be so difficult but in silence we find peace, and with that peace we may heal the world.

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