There’s Something About Mary (and Martha): Another Reading of Luke 10:38-42


Every time the story of Mary and Martha comes up in Relief Society, I hear women confess that they are too much of a Martha; they need to stop worrying about the housework and read their scriptures more. (If you’re not familiar with the story, you can scroll down and see a quick summary or go to http://scriptures.lds.org/luke/10 for the verses that tell the story.)

Now, I usually love anything that gets me out of housework, but this explanation has always bugged me. It seems a little simplistic, and by not going deeper, I have a hard time fully identifying with these characters. I see this story as representing two different ways of living one’s religion. Martha is embodying the culture of the Church (or any religion for that matter) as she busies herself with the details of religiosity while Mary embodies the spirituality of the Church by stepping back from daily life and listening.

The culture of the Church is easier to define than its spiritual side. It is seen in the way we talk, how we dress, and I think it is also seen in the black and white doctrine, like tithing, Word of Wisdom, chastity. I’m not trying to discount such doctrine by saying some of it is exhibited in the culture of the Church. Mastering the black and white doctrine allows me to practice obedience and submission to God’s will so that I can apply obedience to “greyer” aspects of the Gospel. It’s just that since obedience to this doctrine is more external, it can be seen in the culture, like how Mormons don’t drink coffee. As a Martha, I can pretty easily assimilate the Church culture. However, while the black and white doctrine makes it easy for me as a Martha to know what is right and wrong, it can also threaten my spiritual development if I don’t push myself beyond the external living of the Gospel.

One danger in being a Martha is that it becomes easy to start to judge others. Because the culture of the Church is largely lived externally, it is easy to tell whether or not someone is following that culture. A Martha can mistake the culture of the Church for the entire Gospel and decide that living the culture defines whether or not someone is a “good” member of the Church. As a Martha, I can become so confident in my understanding that I can even decide that some of my preferences make pretty good doctrine. Then, as a Martha I can become concerned about Lazarus’ testimony when he doesn’t wear a white shirt to church.

Another danger of being a Martha is that by only living the culture of the Church, i.e. focusing only the aspects of religion that are clearly defined, I can neglect my spiritual growth. I can become stagnant in my eternal progression if I don’t push myself to move on to the more grey aspects of the Gospel that force me to think, study, and pray for guidance.

Mary’s spirituality is evident in her ability to leave the external manifestations of religiosity and allow Christ to guide her; she stops and listens. When I try to be a Mary, I force myself to slow down. I find a more meditative approach to my worship and study to be helpful. I ponder doctrine that I’ll never fully understand in this life, like charity and repentance. I am humbled as I realize I can’t rely on my own thinking. I must listen to God in order to truly experience the spiritual side of the Church. This is can often feel futile because when I move beyond an external to a more internal approach to worship and spiritual growth, I can’t measure how well I’m doing beyond how my own very subjective judgment.

Yet, when I focus on the spiritual side of the Church, I feel more fulfilled and I’m less troubled by some of the cultural aspects. Still, it’s hard for me to get past my “Marthaness.” After all, being Martha is an easier way to live. I’ve told Jesus to make people I work with help me too. I want to be able to say more definitively that I have am living the Gospel.

Perhaps it’s just me, but I see many members of the Church becoming increasingly focused on the culture of the Church verses the spirituality of it. I wonder if others see this trend. If so, how can we as individuals be more like Mary?

A quick summary of the story: Jesus visits Mary and Martha at their house. Mary sits with Jesus and listens to his teachings while Martha is running around working. Martha tells Jesus to make Mary help her, and Jesus says, “Martha, Martha, thou are careful and troubled about many things: but one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her” (verses 41-42).

EmilyCC

EmilyCC works for a national non-profit and lives in Phoenix, Arizona with her spouse and three children. She is a former editor of Exponent II and a founding blogger at The Exponent.

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16 Responses

  1. Mary B says:

    No, actually, where I live I don’t see that trend. But places vary.

    I do think you have something in your insight about Martha’s error not so much being her busyness but her demand that Mary choose to spend her time engaged in the same service that she is engaged in and her implied judgment of her sister’s choices.

    Both sisters were doing good things. If Mary had told Jesus to tell Martha to quit fussing over the meal and come and sit and listen, would she have received a loving rebuke similar to the one that Martha did? My guess is that she would have.

    I think Jesus’s identification of the thing that Mary had chosen as “one thing [that] is needful” does support the notion that quiet concentration and focus on the word of God and the learning that comes through contact with Him is absolutely essential to our salvation and should not be overlooked as we go about the many other good things we do as servants of the Lord.

    But I think the rebuke was not because Martha never did that. Knowing Martha, I suspect that there were plenty of times when she did sit at his feet and hear his word. The rebuke was, I think, rather, due to the fact that she was judging her sister’s actions as wrong at that particular moment, instead of respecting her good choices and being at peace with the fact that they had made different good choices in their efforts to follow Jesus and serve him.

    All of us have times when we feel called upon to be up to our elbows in busy service and other times when we feel called upon to be focused in quiet listening devotion. The challenge is to avoid judging others’ good choices when they do not mirror our own.

  2. Mike says:

    You make some interesting points. I’ve always found this Mary-Martha story a really interesting one.

    You mentioned a trend, “I see many members of the Church becoming increasingly focused on the culture of the Church verses the spirituality of it.” But you also noted earlier that those inward things are harder to observe.

    Do you think the trend you observe is only because the good things are unobservable? (How would you know if there was a trend towards greater spirituality as oppossed to Martha-like compliance?) Or is it because there are other outward signs of this ill-placed focus?

  3. EmilyCC says:

    Mary, I totally agree…Martha is the one of the few in the New Testament who says that Jesus is Christ (John 11:27). She’s mentioned so often that I do think she was a great early church leader.

    Mike, good point–it is really hard to determine which way Church members are going (a cultural versus spiritual focus). I guess I see some judgement happening that I’m not sure accurately defines how spiritual a person is. “Oh, she drinks coke.” Or, one of my favorites, “oh, he affiliates with that feminist group.” Now, I’m sure that’s always gone on to some extent, and actually, I don’t know that it’s increasing, but I suspect that it might be.

  4. AmyB says:

    Emily,

    I really liked your post. I am currently really struggling with the church and deciding whether I want to stay or leave. Exponent II speaks to me in a way that no other blog so far has. You have given a thougthful, meaningful reading of a scripture that somehow doesn’t push any of my buttons. 🙂 You give me hope.

    When I lived in Utah I saw a lot of the “Martha” way of living. The women who were busy, crafty, running around taking care of things were the most visible and praised. I also felt there was a fixation on what people were wearing, drinking, and watching that fits into the more visible culture of religion and yet has nothing to do with true spirituality.

    I find the “Mary” way of living very lacking in the mormon church. To fulfil my own spiritual needs I have gone outside the church. We don’t have a contemplative tradition. It seems to me that the mormon church is much more rooted in the protestant work ethic. A good work ethic isn’t bad, but when industry is so highly valued, how does one justify merely sitting and contemplating for any significant amount of time. There is a very real paradox there, as the Mary and Martha story beautifully illustrates.

  5. Allison says:

    I love the story of Mary and Martha, but I’m not sure the Church organization is necessarily the place where Mary-like love and devotion can or should primarily take place.

    Church is an organization set up to help us help each other. All our meetings and callings keep us busy doing just that (Martha-like worship and service on behalf of others). At the same time, we’re counseled to read the scriptures, pray and find Christ’s love in our own lives, in our own homes. These are more personal, individual pursuits that aren’t going to be as visible. Our joy in the gospel and personal spirituality isn’t likely to earn us the praise and admiration of others. But it will bring us personal joy and understanding and help us to really feel Christ’s love for us as individuals.

    I love that we have such a powerful reminder in this story that if being we are disciples of Christ, we will love and serve others, but that it’s also about more than just obvious, visible service. I love that with this story, Christ is re-affirming our importance as women, and the importance of finding joy in our personal relationship with Him.

  6. Allison says:

    …which is to say, I’m not sure that it’s completely fair to say there is a lack of Mary-type behavior in the church. And as Mark pointed out, whether there is or isn’t, the trend isn’t going to be obvious. Also, while it’s sad that women judge each other on craftiness, perceived busy-ness and other things related more to appearances than to spirituality, it’s not really possible or desirable to judge others by their inward joy in the gospel.

  7. Caroline says:

    Emily, what a great post. If I ever am asked to give a talk, I might try to convince someone to let me speak about this passage.

    I do think that there might be an upward swing in judging others based on superficial externalities. I was horrified by Bednar’s BYU talk in which he talked about a friend of his breaking up with his girlfriend in part because she had two earrings. And he praised his friend for this. Agh!

    I guess what it comes down to is that these physical things like wearing the right clothes, etc. can be a way to signal to people different things. In the old days, the Mormon community was much smaller and there was probably less focus on the externalities because people knew each other better. But now, with so many members, wearing a white shirt is one way for a man to signal to leadership that he’s a company man, plays by the rules, not a rebel.

    AmyB, I’m so glad you’re finding this blog valuable. Knowing how you feel makes me so glad that we started it. If you’re ever interested in doing a guest post on a topic that you’re wrestling with, please let me know.

  8. Tigersue says:

    I have always seen this story in the sense that Martha Wanted to sit and partake of the word, and the presence of someone she loved dearly, they were friends not just acquaintances. She was filling that role of the head of household in preparing for the visit of guests, a time consuming and busy Jewish tradition. I think she really wanted help so she could finish quickly, and sit and relax. I relate to her a great deal, I stress and fret and worry about so many things, and it is nice to have help. I think what the Savior was trying to tell her that it is okay to stop and listen. We have no clue what other things she was “troubled” about, maybe he was just trying to say, take time out for yourself!

  9. Anonymous says:

    I love this story so much that I actually have a beautiful Minerva Tiechert painting in my dining room. It is a topic of coverstaion often between my kids and me. I like the painting because Minerva fixes the problem by moving the Saviors scripture lesson with Mary into the kitchen where Martha is working so she can join in. I know there is some license there. While serving as the Relief Soceity president of my ward I started worrying about this Mary and Martha phenom. I worry that we at times start worshipping the church rather than letting it be a vehicle to show us to a relationship with God. I call it a checklist activity at times. We mark off what is expected of us but forget to let it touch our soul and change us, turning us truly and wholeheartedly into a disciple.
    For example, lets take visiting teaching. I think that visiting teaching is a program to teach us to reach out to eachother, notice where we can be of help, be inspired on anothers behalf. What happens so often though is that we do it every month and don’t let it teach us to notice someone that isn’t assigned to us.
    I think that Jesus used that story to teach us just that. The wisdom of introspection and contact with deity through our experiences.

  10. AmyB says:

    Caroline,

    I was also horrified at Bendar’s story. The young woman in that story was lucky to get out of that relationship. I found it particularly bizarre that the young man said nothing to to the woman. Healthy relationships are typically built on effective and open communication. That the lack of communication was praised is strange.

    Also, I appreciate your response to my previous comment. I will probably take you up on your offer to submit a guest post.

    On the topic of Mary and Martha, I’m wondering if other people find guidance from the church in developing the “Mary” qualities. We have plenty of checklists, and the primary answers about praying and reading your scriptures. I don’t see evidence of a contemplative practice being taught or encouraged.

  11. Caroline says:

    “I don’t see evidence of a contemplative practice being taught or encouraged.”

    Yes, we don’t hear much about this, other than, as you said, prayer and scripture reading. Though there was a lesson last year in the McKay manual about meditation (cool!).

    I personally would love it if we were encouraged to feel god’s love and develop our spirituality by appreciating nature, the earth, and animals more. I think that might really help more people feel connected to the universe, humanity in general. And it might provoke a less-consumeristic outlook in members.

  12. Anonymous says:

    Very interesting topic…I was surprised at the variety of
    opinions.

    My take on Martha: She kept herself too busy with “vain” things
    (as the “Preacher” in Eccl. warns against). Martha went beyond
    what was necessary to feed and care for her very notable guest.

    Mary, on the other hand, was intent on taking advantage of the
    presence of their marvelous guest, not wishing to miss anything
    he could teach her.

    My experience with being a Mary and Martha: As a Martha, the
    dinners I used to prepare for our guests kept me in the kitchen
    while others enjoyed each other in the living rm.

    Following Jesus’ advice to Martha, I quickly caught on that
    dinners I prepared for guests could be made in advance of the
    visit, and would require no–or very little–care, once the
    company arrived.

    As a Mary, I like to focus my attention directly on what our
    Savior has to say, not what others tell me he said.

    I would love to be able to discuss Jesus’ teachings in Church, but there is such a tight structure there, it leaves no time for meaningful discussions. Instead, the same list of lesson “answers” are put on the blackboard time and again, i.e., Pray; Go to church; Go to the temple; Study the scriptures; Ask your home
    teacher; Ask the Bishop; Pay your tith. (There…your next
    lesson was just prepared for you.)

    How many times do we need to hear this same list before we can
    graduate from elementary school and take on college courses?

    Nor am I interested in doing “make busy” work, that is, being
    kept too busy to do what counts the most (according to the report
    of Jesus, in the Jesus-Mary-Martha story).

    Also, to me, it is very important to separate the gospel according to the Bible, versus the LDS interpretation of the term
    “the gospel”. LDS include every tenet the church teaches as “the
    gospel” (such as visiting teaching; the word of Wisdom; “follow the prophet”; and anything else not specifically addressed by Jesus). It is not. Instead, what church leaders mean when they say “the gospel” is but another area in need of being
    discussed.

    In my belief, flinging terms around without their being defined
    by the church contributes to confusions among members.

    For instance, at one time our (then) Bishop came to our house to
    tell us we weren’t living the gospel or obeying and “supporting”
    the Brethren, because we hadn’t contributed the asked-for annual
    dues to the Boy Scouts program. (Hummm…under what gospel
    commandment or ideology does the Boy Scout program fall?)

    Another example: The questions asked when one gets a temple
    recommend. We don’t get to see them, to contemplate if we feel
    we qualify. (How many times have you questioned one of the
    questions asked?) I have good reason to be aware of the
    seriousness of this problem— just listen to the questions
    yourself, and you will see what I mean. (Sorry to disappoint
    anyone who imagined me a truant or pervert…I have done nothing
    of which I need be ashamed.)

    Thanks for letting me spout…

    Rosetta S.

  13. Caroline says:

    Rosetta S.
    I think you are making a good point with the word “gospel.” I too think it’s often used much too broadly. Your example of the bish saying you were “not living the gospel” because you didn’t contribute to by scouts perfectly illustrates this.

    I like to make a clear distinction between the church – an institution made up of humans – and the gospel – Christ’s plan of salvation. It makes me uncomfortable when people testify that the “church is true.” How can an institution be true? But it does make more sense if you substitute in the word gospel.

    And for me, my conception of what the gospel is has gone through a major refining process. Things like Word of Wisdom I would now put under church policy, not gospel. Narrowing down the basics of what the gospel is, and being able to consider some of the rest as church policy/culture, is a great comfort to me.

  14. EmilyCC says:

    Amyb, I, too, am glad this blog speaks to you. Sometime, I worry that EXII isn’t necessary anymore. Then, when I see people find us, I’m reminded how lonely the journey can feel without friends to discuss spiritual concerns with.

    Tigersue, I like your idea that Martha also wanted to participate but felt she had to finish other duties. I think Martha often gets a bad rap when clearly she was burdened by what she had to get done.

    Caroline, the idea of developing spirituality by appreciating nature is a great one (albeit not one I’m very good at). My husband often says that he finds backpacking more spiritually fulfilling than going to a block of church.

    Rosetta, I do think people often misuse the term, “gospel.” IMHO, the Gospel is simply the love of God and experiencing that love. The rest is our attempts to feel that love (and give it).

    Caroline, I’m very interested in your idea of Church policy. I think I tend to call aspects of the Church, like WoW, doctrine, which help us to live the Gospel, but I agree with you. It doesn’t feel right to me to call it part of the Gospel

  15. Rosetta S says:

    Emily CC: You are so good at managing to keep the names of
    everyone in mind as you respond to what they wrote. I am sorry I
    don’t do much better, as there are so many good comments on which
    to comment.

    Caroline: You hit the nail on the head on dividing “the gospel”
    versus church tenets and traditions. Make a huge difference!

    FYI: I have a terrific bible to recommend which defines Hebrew
    and Greek terms, times, and word meanings. It is “The Companion
    Bible” (Kregel publications), prepared by E.W.Bullinger. Can’t
    say enough good about it.

    It has the King James version (that LDS read) on one half of the
    page, and on the other are explanations of meanings and customs.

    Bullinger always refers readers to other scriptures which clarify
    what otherwise seems unclear (so you can see for yourself).

    In the back of the book is a very informative and helpful
    appendix. Appx.140 very well clarifies what “the gospel” is, in
    for sections: The Greek word for it means “good news”; It is
    everlasting; It is the good news of the kingdom of God; and of
    God; and of the grace of God; and of the Glory of Christ, (etc.).
    No bogging down in “word of wisdom” as a part of the gospel (or
    Old Testament definitions of unclean food), as good as these may
    be.

    The Bible is rather expensive, but on the web (Best Book Buys)
    you can sometimes find a bargain. I bought a brand new, leather
    bound, finger tabbed copy for $20.00!—-but that was an
    unusually fortunate find. Good luck.

    Rossetta S.

  1. August 8, 2016

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