It Isn’t a Question of “Are You Mary or Martha?”

In this post, author Rebecca Sullivan looks at the story of Mary and Martha and argues that both figures are valuable and needed for the body of Christ.

My first experience as a Vacation Bible School teacher was during the summer between my junior and senior year of college. My sister and I decided to volunteer together to lead one of the stories that the various grades would rotate through over the course of the week together. What story were two sisters tapped to portray? Mary and Martha from the Gospel of Luke, of course. I am the eldest of our family and so I portrayed Martha, showing the kids how to bake bread and be hospitable. My sister got to play Mary and she was able to focus on teaching prayer and sitting at the feet of Jesus.

From this early exposure to the story of Mary and Martha, I found myself caught in the idea that Martha had chosen the wrong thing. Despite Martha’s care and concern for Jesus and the disciples, it seemed like Mary had chosen the right way to act, that sitting at the feet of Jesus and learning was more important. As the oldest sibling with tendencies towards following the rules and caring for others, the story of Mary and Martha chafed with its focus on the “spiritual” rather than on service and hospitality. Often it felt like a quiz (Are you Mary or Martha? Answer these 10 questions to find out!) that I failed by being more like Martha than Mary.

This story continued to come up in my life periodically, but it wasn’t until I was selected to preach at the Young Clergy Women Conference in 2019 that I began to engage seriously with the story and gain a deeper appreciation for all the characters in the story: Jesus, Mary, and especially Martha.

My “aha! moment” came as I explored the passage where Jesus continues talking to Martha, saying, “There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her” (Luke 11:42). That’s the official NRSV translation, but what I believe might be a better way of translating it can be “Mary has chosen the good part, which will not be taken away from her.” The Greek word can be either “good” or “better”—which helped me see that he is naming both of these types of work as good. I realized that it would be very contrary to all of Jesus’ teachings for him to name service as being somewhat lesser. Martha’s contributions are important, but Jesus is focusing on the ways in which she is presenting herself, as anxious and frazzled, instead encouraging her to slow down and be present in the moment.

As someone who can often be found in the kitchen or taking care of others, I also want to hear Jesus’ words as being for me. When I focus all of my efforts on caring for others, I am hiding myself away. I’m emphasizing the acts of service rather than my true self. When I am busy in the kitchen or behind the scenes, my presence is missing. I began to ask myself the question: Is my presence not enough of a gift?

Jesus is telling Martha that her presence is necessary—her complete, focused, non-anxious, content presence is what is needed at this moment. When I show up as my true self, focusing on the particular moment, I am a gift to others. I am no longer hiding myself in the kitchen or behind the scenes—but rather bringing my whole being into the world, to stand fully and experience the world in all of its wholeness and brokenness. I began to believe that my presence is enough—the world needs all of me in my fullness!

Now, I also wanted to see Mary in a different light, as a full person as well, rather than just a foil to contrast with Martha. Mary brings her full self to Jesus. She is brave to sit at the feet of Jesus, a posture of learning and wanting to bring that learning to others. She and Martha are both disciples, seeking to serve Jesus in their varied ways. Mary is showing up in a way that is completely counter-cultural. She is supposed to be in the kitchen with Martha—but instead she bravely insists on learning at the feet of Jesus, the posture of a rabbi in training. She is demonstrating that women can be in both places—both at the feet of Jesus learning AND providing hospitality and care for others.

It isn’t a question of “Are you Mary or Martha?” I am not a Martha or a Mary. I can be both. Seeing this story as a choice to either be someone who does ministry through serving others OR someone who does Bible study and contemplates Jesus’ words is not what Jesus hopes for us. Jesus wants to show that both women have gifts. Mary and Martha are both valuable and needed for the body of Christ. I can be both a Mary and a Martha, someone who cares about the Bible and hearing and learning about Jesus AND someone who seeks to serve and be hospitable at the same time.

Studying this passage of the Bible in-depth for preaching at the Young Clergy Women Conference in 2019 allowed me to reclaim this scripture and to reclaim Martha as an essential part of the body of Christ, despite her flaws and desire for hospitality at all costs. Seeing Jesus’ response to Martha in a new light gave me permission and encouragement to live as both Mary and Martha, seeking space for spiritual growth and pursuit alongside service and hospitality to others. I definitely have my inclinations, but seeing both women as valuable ways to live out Jesus’ call to ministry has helped shape my understanding of this passage.