The story of Mary and Martha of Bethany in Luke’s Gospel has often been interpreted as comparing the active life to the contemplative life. Many writers have suggested that the active life is good but the contemplative life is better. Those of you who have been following my blog where I have been developing the thought of René Girard and his colleagues will likely become a bit suspicious of a possible rivalry between the two sisters and a deeper suspicion of an interpretation that seems to foster rivalry between Christians who feel called to either a contemplative or active vocation, or a combination of both.
In placing this story directly after the parable of the Good Samaritan, it seems likely that Luke does not intend to put action and contemplation in conflict in any way. Instead, Luke is drawing a hidden harmony between the two. If God really is totally beyond rivalry of any kind, then God is not a rival with our neighbor for our affections and concern.
The many stories of sibling rivalry in the Bible incline us to look for it here, but in this case, we only half-find it. Martha is upset with Mary, but Mary shows no signs of being upset with Martha. Those who interpret this story as contrasting the active and contemplative lives take Jesus’ gentle reproach of Martha as indicating that she is distracted from him by her busywork. But if Jesus is not offended by Martha’s attention to work instead of him since Jesus does not put himself in rivalry with such work, then the words mean something else. I suggest that Jesus is pointing out that Martha is not distracted from Jesus by her work; she is distracted from her work by resentment of her sister. Mary, for her (better) part shows no sign of being distracted by Martha.
In his book Beneath the Veil of Strange Verses, Jeremiah Alberg suggests that Mary and Martha “represent two ways of reading the Gospel or two ways of listening to the Lord.” Martha represents us when we are offended by Jesus because he “does not help us with our projects, and that he does not command others to do the same.” In short, Martha is offended that Jesus does not “support” her. Mary, on the other hand, represents us when we sit at Jesus’ feet without offense, without asking to be “supported.” When we do that, we are held up by Jesus whether we realize it or not.
It isn’t a matter of being active or contemplative; it’s a matter of being focused on Jesus without resentment because Jesus has no resentment. In any case, the wisest commentators on this story suggest the Mary has need of Martha and Martha has need of Mary and a mixed life of action and contemplation is best. In the preceding parable, it was the Samaritan who was focused on Jesus through his focus on the victim while the priest and the Levite were focused on their standing in the community. If we are focused on Jesus, we will be attentive to our neighbor without rivalry or resentment, which will set us at Jesus’ feet.