Be like Mary and Martha

Ervin TanFeature

Father Edward Seah explains that Mary was commended because she stopped to listen; hence listening to God must come before we serve. Photo: “Christ in the House of Martha and Mary”, painting by Henryk Siemiradzki, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Be like Mary and Martha

When Jesus visited His friends Martha and Mary, He seemed to view quiet contemplation as better than activity. Father Edward Seah delves more deeply into this story of hospitality recorded in Luke 10:38-42, and explains why both are necessary in our encounter with Jesus, so that we can offer gifts of joyful service to God and the community.

God teaches us through Scripture about the virtue of hospitality, and that it can come in various forms.

In the Book of Genesis (18:1-10), we see how Abraham and Sarah provided shelter, food and water to the strangers they saw standing under the hot sun. In turn, their hospitality was received with good wishes and the blessing of a child for Sarah who had given up hope of conceiving. This is a reminder that the blessings that we share bring about blessings for each of us as well.

In the story of Martha and Mary who welcomed Jesus to their home, we see how they practised the virtue of hospitality. We tend to compare these two sisters by their contrasting responses – action vs contemplation – though their responses actually complement each other.

Complementary gifts

Martha’s actions remind us of the parable of the Good Samaritan who unselfishly served to the best of his ability. In her generosity, she was busy with all the details of hosting a guest as she wanted to offer Jesus her best.

Some of us may identify with Martha’s frustrations. At home, some of us may have spouses who would rather spend time chatting with guests than dothe menial work of cleaning
and serving. Conversely, Mary provided hospitality very differently, by sitting at the feet of Jesus and listening to Him attentively, probably just like the disciples did when they asked Him to teach them how to pray.

In my Lasallian community, we have brothers who cook very well. They would willingly prepare everything for the guests. Other brothers would enjoy interacting with guests and seem to be merely chatting and having a good time.

Over time, we found out what each other’s strengths and weaknesses were. We gradually realised that all of us complemented each other very well. Our different gifts came together to benefit the retreatants, students and other guests.

By practising the virtue of hospitality in whatever way they were best at, Mary and Martha complemented each other and created a welcoming environment for their guest. Both had a different approach – Martha focused on doing, whilst Mary focused on listening. So why did Jesus say that Mary had chosen the better part?

When God speaks, we listen

Jesus said that Mary chose the better part only because Martha had lost focus. She was “distracted with all the serving” and fretting about too many things. She forgot her purpose in doing them, and let her many tasks affect her relationship with her sister, possibly to the point where she found she could not talk to her and instead complained to Jesus.

Mary was commended because she stopped to listen. Listening to God must come first, even before we serve.

Sometimes we think we are doing God a favour by being involved in many ministries. However, this only leads to us burning out, getting frustrated with God and everyone else, and eventually leaving the Church. This is the outcome of poor discernment; thus, it is important for us to listen to God, to seek to understand what He wants of us so that we can do His will.

True, joyful service

True service is always joyful. It may be challenging, but the fruit of serving joyfully is peace and a closer union with God. That is true service, and in our service we are responsible for living out the virtues of hospitality. Mother Teresa said, “What you can do, I cannot do, and what I can do, you cannot do. But together, we can do something beautiful for God.”

She also said, “Let no one ever come to you, without coming away better or happier.” This is the test of true service. When people are seeking your help, do they go away happier or feeling encouraged? Let us pray to give our best to God when we serve and love one another.

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