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The Danger of Martha’s Vindication

October 9, 2013 by  
Filed under Dan Burke, Prayer, Scripture

I have noticed a troubling trend in past years when the Gospel reading about Mary and Martha’s encounter with Christ surfaces. Of course we all know the passage:

“Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, Christ at the house of Marth and Mary, Alessandro Allori“Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

What usually happens when this passage is discussed is that the speaker or writer immediately comes to the defense of Martha. Some point out that she was a saint (which she was), and others note that she was simply seeking to serve Jesus (which she was). I can’t know the individual motivations behind this tendency, but, regardless, the softening of Martha’s error in judgment runs contrary to what the Holy Spirit is working to reveal to us here.

We know that Martha is a good and holy woman, who is doing a good thing in her desire to serve Christ. Yet Jesus’ rebuke in this passage is harsh – which should not cause us to recoil, but instead inspire us to lean in and pay close attention.

Imagine yourself in Martha’s shoes, rushing around to care for Jesus with diligence and love. Christ knew the inner workings of her heart. He knew her desires, intent and concerns. He had the opportunity to honor her efforts, but he didn’t; quite the opposite.

If we were to render a modern, more sensitive scenario based on almost all the teaching I have heard, the scene would look something like this (Jesus speaking softly):

“Oh Martha, I am grateful for your desire to serve me. You are a good woman and one who obviously has my best interests at heart. I honor you for that. Please know that I greatly appreciate the love and care you are trying to show me. But please, lay down your concerns and rest a bit with me here along with Mary.”

Instead Jesus says, in effect, “Martha, your focus is wrong,” and “Mary, you are exactly on target.” Just to drive this painful interaction one level deeper, he reproves Martha in front of Mary and anyone else who may have been present. She appeals to him, and he rejects the appeal and corrects her!

Why would he do such a thing? Because the lesson he was attempting to teach was essential – too important to be missed. A subtle, gentle approach could not be risked.

So what was that lesson? What was so important for us to understand that he would wound a heart as good and beautiful as Martha’s?

It is simply this: Prayer is more important than action. There’s nothing subtle about it. Martha had it exactly wrong. Mary had it exactly right.

All of the analysis about the good of Martha is dangerous and runs exactly contrary to what Christ was teaching her (and is teaching us). We should, instead, allow Jesus to pierce the spiritually destructive facade of our excessively active and distracted culture. We should embrace his rebuke and soberly test ourselves against it.

Maybe it’s time to ask, “If I were in the physical presence of Christ right now, would Jesus give me that same rebuke, or would I hear, “You have chosen the better part”?

Maybe it’s time we all answered his call to come to the quiet.

PS: If you would like to learn more about how to navigate your way to a deeper prayer life, go to


Art for this post on the The Danger of Martha's Vindication: Christ at the house of Martha and Mary, Alessandro Allori, 1605, PD-US published in the U.S. prior to January 1, 1923, author's life plus 100 years or less, Wikimedia Commons.

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About Dan Burke

Dan is the President of the Avila Foundation, the parent organization of, the Avila Institute for Spiritual Formation, Divine Intimacy Radio and Divine Intimacy Radio - Resources Edition, Into the Deep Parish Programs, the Apostoli Viae (Apostles of the Way) Community, and the FireLight Student Leadership Formation Program, author of the award-winning book, Navigating the Interior Life - Spiritual Direction and the Journey to God, Finding God Through Meditation-St. Peter of Alcantara, 30 Days with Teresa of Avila, Into the Deep, Living the Mystery of Merciful Love: 30 Days with Thérèse of Lisieux, and his newest book The Contemplative Rosary with St. John Paul II and St. Teresa of Avila. Beyond his "contagious" love for Jesus and His Church, he is a grateful husband and father of four, the Executive Director of and writer for EWTN's National Catholic Register, a regular co-host on Register Radio, a writer and speaker who provides online spiritual formation and travels to share his conversion story and the great riches that the Church provides us through authentic Catholic spirituality. Dan has been featured on EWTN's Journey Home program and numerous radio programs.

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  • DanGoddu

    Could it be [too] that Martha did not recognize Mary’s greater need for Jesus’ presence than for her own at that moment? Instead of quietly serving the Lord without Mary’s assistance she chose to rebuke Jesus thinking, hey, wait for me! Let’s get this stuff done so both me and Mary can be at your side together?

    • Terese10

      I’ve always thought that Martha was envious of Mary as in “I have to do all all the work and Mary gets to just sit and listen to Jesus”. Martha seemed to be a sort of tattle tale (at least it seems to me) going to Jesus to get him to say something to Mary. Instead she could have either stopped her work to listen for a while or been grateful for Mary’s opportunity to talk with Jesus.

      BTW I’ve never heard this interpreted at my parish with a homily that evens out the contributions of Mary and Martha. I always heard it as Mary choosing the better part. Which is interesting, because in my parish I think the “do’ers” are far more valued than the “pray-ers”. With our human nature and tendency to judge externals, we jump to the conclusion that those who are on many committees and always at church are doing the “right” thing. Of course, we should all be both–pray-ers (first) as well as do-ers.

    • RobinJeanne

      or too, maybe if she had said nothing and served without complaint, making her actions “a prayer” Jesus would not have rebuked her… isn’t it Opus Dei, that offers they’re works as prayer to God?… everything we do, we do for the glory of God

  • John

    I think that the message is that persons who claim spiritual motivation are always preferred to those more practical people who actually do the necessary work, the household drudgery which is always unrecognized and unrewarded.

    • John – I am not quite sure what you are getting at here. Are you saying that Jesus really praised the wrong person? From my standpoint, Jesus is merely putting strong emphasis on priority. He created both Mary and Mary for a relationship with Him. Both are called to contemplation and action (and in that order of priority). Also, from my standpoint, the world puts much more value, recognition and reward on the active person. Those that spend time in prayer like the cloistered nuns, are often treated with incredulity like they are wasting their time…

      • Jeanette

        I agree with you. Many people don’t understand why there are cloistered nuns and believe they are wasting their lives…that they should be doing something! In other words, they really aren’t doing anything of importance. I believe, of course, that they intercede for the world and I would be afraid for the world if we didn’t have them doing so.

    • LizEst

      No, John, that’s not the message at all.

      If you read the beginning of the passage, you will see that it says that Martha welcomed Him. This is in stark contrast to Jesus’ rebuke of Simon when Jesus was eating at Simon’s house two chapters earlier. He says to Simon, “I entered your house; You gave me no water for my feet…You gave me no kiss…You did not anoint my head with oil.” Here Jesus is telling Simon that he did not welcome Him. Clearly, Jesus is NOT disdaining the household work of making someone feel welcome at home. He was rebuking Martha not because of her work and the need for assistance but because she was anxious and worried about many things instead of the one thing necessary: God! “Seek first the Kingdom [of God] and His righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides” (Matthew 6:33).

      • v schraa

        LizEst, I agree with you. Fulfilling God’s will for YOU is what is the most perfect. Personally, I think Martha was irritable, as women sometimes get when company is coming, tried to drag Our Lord into a snit she was having with her sister. This is what He was chastising her for — I think she’d have been better off saying “let’s take this conversation into the kitchen so I can visit too.”

  • Laura LaHaye

    Dan, you did good! For the past few months, I’ve been hearing the Holy Spirit gently pounding to me “the better portion…the better portion.”

    I want to be like Mary.

    Was soooo good meeting you. Stay the course, good brother. Come back soon.

  • Sr. Dorcee

    Thanks for this, Dan. It’s very needed in the face of our over active culture. Even active religious orders face the battle of the pull of so many needs. But, indeed, the one thing is necessary. So necessary.

  • Shelagh

    I have just returned from my 3 -5 am Holy Hours at our adoration chapel. Interestingly last week I had to do a gospel reflection on the above passage. The light I had was that both Mary and Martha were praying – Mary silently as in adoration – Martha in the not official, yet most common and familiar to us ordinary women – “complaining/comparing” form of prayer. And Jesus’ answer to Martha has been a great comfort because the reality of my life is I do both types and my best friend always answers no matter what form I use.

    • Charlie500

      You went and spent 2 hours at his feet in the middle of the night and took that treasure with you into your busy day. You understand the better part Shelagh. What Martha was missing was the recognition of that crucial time at the Lord’s feet because she was so distracted with so many things, and this is what he was trying to get across to her.

  • Mark Dohle

    Thank you Dan, well said and give me something to ponder. I knew this, but you have given me the words to ponder with.

    Mark Dohle

  • Charlie500

    Dan, you have hit on a point that has troubled me for a long time. Whenever hearing a homily or reference to this scripture, it always (without exception) is a skewed interpretation of what the Lord actually said, as if trying to make up excuses for why the Lord would say something so absurd and putting Martha and Mary’s part on equal ground. Thank you for bringing this up. This needed to be addressed.

  • I’m discerning a religious/consecrated vocation. My dad is discouraging me because he thinks my talents would be put to better use in the world than in a convent. That I would be wasting God’s gifts to me if I entered. I honestly really want to love and serve Him. Is my Dad right? I don’t know yet if want to enter a cloister. If ever, I’m more inclined to contemplatives in action.

    • Hmmm… “to contemplate and to render to others the things contemplated”? Ever considered the Dominicans? 😉 I know of a couple amazing orders out there – the Dominican Sisters of Mary Mother of the Eucharist in Michigan and the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia in Nashville, TN.

      • Thanks for the suggestions! But I’d rather serve the poor in my country, the Philippines. There are a lot of religious orders here too. I haven’t had the chance to check them out yet. My SD wants me to wait a few years anyway. I do have a friend who is planning to join the Nashville Dominicans next year. Will miss her horribly though. You joining the Nashville Dominicans? Maybe I should introduce you to her. 🙂

        • Well, I want to, but I will be waiting to see what happens for now. 🙂 How wonderful for your friend! I am so happy for her and wish that I will be in that same place some day.

          • May God Bless your vocation! I’ll be praying for you and for all vocation discerners. 🙂

          • May God Bless you vocation! 🙂 Praying for you and all vocation dsicerners!

        • Becky Ward

          Hi Mary, I have just what you are looking for….meant to send this to you some months ago and forgot!

          Blessings & hugs!

          • Thank you! I’ll check them out! 🙂
            Blessings and hugs back!

    • Camila

      Seek God’s will for you.

      St.Catherine of Siena was religious who lived in the world – we can’t say she wasn’t a contemplative. She wanted to be a hermit with all her heart – but God asked her to stay in the world. (This does not mean he heart was attached to it – she probably lived more simply than many cloistered nuns.) She is a doctor of the Church. St.Therese, left the world at a very young age to be in the cloister, that is what God wanted for her. Another doctor of the Church. St. Teresa of Avila lead a busy life (the shear amount of work she did founding the many new convents would keep anyone busy for a lifetime) – yet, can we find another contemplative par excellence? Yet, another doctor of the church.

      My guess – because I haven’t really studied this to tell you based on my studies is that the key really isn’t whether one is in a cloister per se or not. It may be God’s will for some to be in the cloister, not for others. The key it seems to me has to do with the pursuit of perfection (poverty, chastity, obedience) – amidst the vocation God wants us in.

      I struggle with this from the other side of the coin. I’m a married laywoman, mother of five. And, I’m called to be a contemplative first. This can’t mean all of us live in a cloister – history shows that God doesn’t want that. The struggle is how to forge a life that seeks 1st the kingdom of Heaven even amidst the distractions of daily life. Our hearts and minds perhaps might live in a cloister – where it belongs only to God and to His service.

      For example. St. Therese wanted to be a missionary, but she also knew her calling was to Carmel – she’s the patron saint of missionaries. How do you figure that?! Saint John Vianney had the hardest time in academics – yet he’s the patron saint of priests – another seeming paradox.

      So – pray for God’s will to be done in you MarytheDefender. Ask Him that He may reveal what His will is and that you may have eyes to see and ears to listen. This it only way to guarantee your fruitfulness and happiness.

      • Thank you! I think might be more like St. Catherine than St. Therese. I’d love to be a hermit! But God is always telling me to go down the mountain. 🙂 Funny how that works, God gives us desires but fulfills them in a seemingly contrary way. I guess the sacrifice of it helps us to love Him more ardently.

    • $1650412

      Mary, as a religious you might be called to a very active life balancing apostolates that engage the world on many levels- it will depend on the charism of your vocation.

      • Thank you! I don’t know my charism yet but I have a feeling it will be semi-active at least. I will pray about it.

        • $1650412

          MarytD- I have NO doubt the Lord will faithfully lead you, and that you will clearly discern His will, that the timing will be perfect in every aspect, and that peace will govern you in the process. You know, there is no obstacle that is too difficult for the Lord to overcome- and your heart is so open to Him- even in any area where you might be hindered or face a challenge, weakness, or difficulty, one that you are aware of or not,-either from within or without. Jesus will help you, lead you, form you. It is so clear to me, even from so far away, with just this teeny, tiny glimpse into your life through the internet window, that He has such a claim on your heart. And you know Him, He is so not inclined to lose that which He treasures, that which He possesses, that which is carved into the palms of His hands! And it is not ‘in general’ that these things are inscribed in the Lord’s plans- it is down to the smallest details that He has prepared and planned for us- His delicacy in going before us and watching over each aspect of our fulfillment in Him. In fact the nuances of the beauty of the setting can sometimes be so exquisite that it is actually lost on us when we are not as contemplative as we should be- so we miss the richness of the depth of His inestimable love for us. SO! whatever God has for you- get ready- 1 Corinthians 2:9!

          • Oh gosh! You have know idea how badly I needed to hear that! And while I was reading this, two of my friends started singing a hymn with similar message. Thank you! Thank You Lord!

  • nosidam

    Hi and thank you. Well I have a different take.
    I believe that Jesus did not say this in front of everyone to Martha. It seems that the scene is set up in the home. But it does not mean it is happening at that bery second.
    Mary is not helping Martha get the food and whatever she was planning and preparing all together. She is sitting with Jesus in conversation.
    At some point it seems perhaps Jesus got up to do something and passed Martha or encountered her in the kitchen with enough time to just say friendly like, what He said.
    I can picture Jesus noticing Martha while He was chatting with Mary thinking what He later said to her alone.
    So then to me I believe that as you said we have cloistered nuns thank God, in constant prayer.

    This story says to me, thank God for those of us who pray like this, nuns or not. Yes they get picked on for not doinh anything but Jesus says that Mary is doing the better thing.

    He says that only this one thing is needed. We all get worried and distracted by so much in life. I think this shows that when that occurs then we must go into quiet prayer with God.

    Because it is better than worrying and being distracted from focusing on Jesus.
    Reminds me of the same message of Peter walking on water. As long as he was focused on Christ and not distracted he was fine. He began to sink when he took his eyes off Christ.
    Perhaps this is just another message emphasizing that when we are worried and distracted the better action is to turn to Jesus and get into prayer.
    If we do this regularly without feeling guilty that we need to clean the house or do something that seems important at the moment, it will be the better thing to do to go to Jesus in prayer. After all Christ said so.
    God bless you all.

  • Maria

    Thank you Dan. I understand the lesson all the more since retreating to Adoration more frequently. I confess, I am a Martha, and the only way to rein in my constantly active mind and tendency to “just do” is quiet time for my spirit – even though most of it is spent on rosary, nominated prayers and reading before the Blessed Sacrament. Work in progress but visiting Jesus more frequently certainly helps!

    • Becky Ward

      “Just be” 🙂

  • Stephen Mc Elligott

    I see in Martha and Mary, both prayers, that is the prayer of action and the prayer of contemplation and the prayer of contemplation is the foundation we need to build on if our actions are ever going to be fruitful. In this passage we see Jesus therefore rebuking Mary for not discerning the better part and putting more emphasis on the action. There is a time for washing the dishes and a time for sitting in the presence of The Lord at adoration. Who here, in the Divine presence of Our Lord would speak aloud and converse about trivial matters let alone wash the dishes? The welcoming was truly over here in this passage and a discussion began after the meal. Would any of us here put on a meal for our guest and after it’s over just avoid all conversation and leave our guest to painfully sit alone whilst we worry about the cleanliness of our house? Of course not and it’s this Jesus is rebuking Martha for.

  • LT

    I was just discussing this passage in my Bible study meeting last night. I realized the importance of Mary’s intimate attention and adoration in Jesus’ presence over the business of Martha’s tasks. However, I also felt it was saying something about Martha’s interior state. As she was running around tending to the tasks, I imagine her having an inner dialog saying “woe is me that I am the only one stuck doing these things for him”. If that was her state, she was really focusing on herself and not Jesus. It reminds me of the image I teach my children: that God gave us eyes that point forward, and not back into our heads. We are meant to focus on Jesus and his body (our neighbors) first, and ourselves second. Perhaps Martha’s “eyes” were pointed the wrong way?

  • Becky Ward

    AMEN!! We cannot properly serve either God, or our neighbors, until we first know and love God….and are therefore able to DISCERN and interpret what His will for us really is.
    I am happily an EX-Martha!! Who spent years serving….serving….serving, but I had no prayer life to speak of…..and because of that, my efforts rarely bore fruit!
    Now I do less…I am constantly attacked by the evil one for it…not to mention the ingrained ‘philosophy’ of our go, go, go culture that seeks tangible results for everything. But I know in my heart it is the right thing to do because now I can see the fruit of the work I do……”By their fruits you will know them.” And I am happy!!
    Great topic Dan!

    A cross has two parts – the vertical beam, which represents our relationship with God, and the horizontal beam, which represents our relationship with our neighbor. The horizontal beam has nothing to support it without the vertical beam.

  • GHM_52

    Wow! Wisely said! Prayer, indeed, comes first, since without God we can do NOTHING! I am so happy to hear this message of truth!

  • Marg

    We have to ask ourselves why we get so caught up in our doing doing doing! our society is about making ourselves feel good, that being said the more we do the better we feel! we need to” be still and know that I am God” take time to just be quiet and enjoy our time with God! feel is love for us and open our hearts and minds to JUST Him! Listen to what He has to tell us! to many Martha’s! Thank you Dan for this well needed post! May God continue to bless you Dan! I do really enjoy your messages here on RCSD!

  • Bon Marie S

    Thanks Dan! I’ve often heard the passage explained more or less like you’ve explained it. I tend towards the feet of Jesus and sometimes put off things I should be busy about. I guess I need to have a balance, prayer in my busyness. Hmm? This was part of my meditation a few days ago : “This, therefore, is the second sense of the words, “The Kingdom of Heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away,” namely, that it is violence which will win Heaven for thee. To whom, then, is this violence to be done? To God and to thyself. To God, by means of prayer; for although He gives thee Paradise most willingly, yet He chooses for thy good to act as though thy hand had to take it by violence: “Because of his importunity He will give it to him.”3 And there is no other way in which this violence is ever said to be done to God, but the way of prayer: “Do not withstand Me, for I will not hear thee.”
    Prayer is so necessary. Thanks again!!

  • DianeVa

    Thanks Dan! I think that is the problem with society today, too many Martha’s doing and perhaps not discerning rightly what God wants them to do to build up the Kingdom.

  • debby_d_NJ

    Dan is SO RIGHT.

    several years ago in Confession, the priest advised that the root of my lack of discernment (which i was quite frustrated over) was that i had “gotten Mary and Martha mixed up.”

    i had made the comment while confessing that i have great difficulty knowing when there is a knock at my door, “is this the Lord in the disguise of a neighbor in need, does He need me to do……OR can i say ‘NO’ to the request?”

    of course, i was trying to grow and be open to whatever He brought my way, to die to my will and embrace His, hence the inner conflict.
    when the priest made that comment to me, IN MY PRIDE i told him, “oh, no, Father! i have been praying over that Gospel for a couple months. i don’t think it applies to this discernment…” (what a trial i must be to confessors)
    He wisely replied, “You asked if God needed you. God does not need you. He is God! He didn’t need you yesterday, doesn’t need you today, and won’t need you tomorrow. He doesn’t need you. He WANTS you.”
    a flood of understanding broke over me!
    our Lady KNEW He Wanted Her! She knew He didn’t Need Her (He is God and can save us in any way He chooses) but that He Wanted Her.

    and Mary, forgiven of her great sins, knew He wanted her.

    poor Martha. she thought the One Who fed 5000+ with a few fish and biscuits Needed her to make dinner. i am positive she drove Lazarus nuts running to several different “stores” to get the Master’s favorite this and favorite that….

    Martha was all about herself and Mary was all about forgetting herself.
    That Confession, the summer of 2006, was a major turning point in my knowing the Love of God.

    i hope this helped someone else here on this site.
    To be Wanted! and wanted by Love Himself!

    almost too awesome to begin to know………

  • MaryofSharon

    Thanks, Dan, for having forthrightness in speaking of Jesus’s forthrightness!

    I just discovered an incredible free resource from RCSpiritualDirection’s own Anthony Lilles that addresses the very subject of this post, the absolute necessity of a focused life of prayer. Dr. Lilles offers a twenty-talk series on Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity’s retreat called Heaven in Faith, in which he discusses the retreat that Blessed Elizabeth, in her final days, prepared for her sister. Her sister was a busy mother of two young children, and Elizabeth didn’t want to die without telling her sister about the depths of the transforming union with Christ that was accessible to her through prayer, even though she was a busy lay person.

    For those of us who would love to enroll in the Avila Institute, but find that we have neither the time nor the money, this may be the next best thing. It offers a vision of the wonder of the depths of the relationship that God wants with us such that we dare not do all that we can to surrender to Him so as to attain it.

    Just go to Discerning Hearts’ Anthony Lilles page and start listening. The talks to which I am referring are the first twenty, BLP 1 to BLP 20, and they are all entitled “Beginning to Pray with Dr. Anthony Lilles: Heaven in Faith by Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity”.

    • Mary G

      Go to………?
      I am interested.

      i was cleaning out my email files and the Holy Spirit made me stop before clearing this gem out, because I have been really busy lately and also was sick for a week and although I kept my morning prayers, I have been very slack in spending one on one time with Him and I am really feeling it now! And when In read this post I was like…ok ok, yes I have been too much Martha lately! Oooo i really let it go! Time to re group and get back to the better part! Thx, Dan!

      • MaryofSharon

        Sorry about that mgwps63. I meant go to to see Anthony Lilles’s talks on Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity.

        • Mary G

          Wooohooo! A Christmas gift! Thank you, MaryofSharon! this is really helpful to me. Merry Christmas and blessings to you in the new year! may you grow greatly in your prayer life!

          • MaryofSharon

            This series is incredibly beautiful and challenging! I think you’ll love it and be very blessed.

  • LizEst

    Test Comment.

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