Martha and Mary: Finding your inner balance during life’s busy moments
One of the most well-known, widely referenced passages in Scripture is that of sisters Martha and Mary in the Gospel of Luke (10:38-42). As a pretty intense busybody, I’ve always hated this story. I need to be Martha. God made me Martha so surely that’s okay!
But as I am learning to read more into Scripture, to really let it percolate and to delve into what isn’t being explicitly said, I found it to be an incredibly inspiring and wise anecdote for how to live your vocation. I found this insight into it extremely revealing. It isn’t saying you should never accomplish anything if it takes you from prayer, it is encouraging us to not get caught up in the little tiny details, so caught up we lose sight of what is important.
So your homemade birthday cake decorations look more like Snorlax than a teddy bear? So what the Dorothy costume you spent hours on for your daughter looks more like a 1950s housewife? So what you burned Thanksgiving turkey because you were too busy catching up with family? So what!
Even deeper than the little details and failings we struggle over, I find this lesson deeply moving in my vocation as a mother and wife and lover of Christ.
Martha was upset Mary was just lounging around enjoying herself instead of helping her serve their guests. I know this hit a little too close to home for how I often feel toward my husband. As I struggle with trying to keep the house clean and food on the table after a long day at work, he is giggling in the next room with our toddler. Who’s doing the more important work?
Martha wanted to move, move, move and get things done, while Mary wanted to be fully present in the moment and observe what was going on. How often do I want to hurry my daughter along, needing to get back home or get one more errand in or just. get. to. the. next. thing. when all she wants to do is touch the stones on the ground and see if they are wet or gritty or if they make her hands dirty. Who’s doing the more important work?
Martha thought she was doing the more important work. How often do I resent God for my current circumstances or for not answering my prayers exactly how I had wanted Him to? But who really has my best interests at heart?
Losing sight of what is most important – to know, love and serve Our Lord in this life so that we can be with him for all eternity – causes us to turn to sin, usually the sins of pride and selfishness, thinking our work is the most important and anything going against what we deem best is a personal affront.
Look at this passage from the Christian study lessons at Grace to You:
Martha’s behavior shows how subtly and sinfully human pride can corrupt even the best of our actions. What Martha was doing was by no means a bad thing. She was waiting on Christ and her other guests. In a very practical and functional sense, she was acting as servant to all, just as Christ had so often commanded. She no doubt began with the best of motives and the noblest of intentions.
But the moment she stopped listening to Christ and made something other than Him the focus of her heart and attention, her perspective became very self-centered. At that point, even her service to Christ became tainted with self-absorption and spoiled by a very uncharitable failure to assume the best of her sister. Martha was showing an attitude of sinful pride that made her susceptible to other kinds of evil as well: anger, resentment, jealousy, distrust, a critical spirit, judgmentalism, and unkindness. All of that flared up in Martha in a matter of minutes
When we stop serving out of charity and start doing it to be a martyr, to be more Christian than someone else, to lord it over others, we have lost our way. To serve others is a privilege that should never be expected to be acknowledged. I know in my own marriage, I feel the most discontent when I have been focusing more on the gap between what I’m giving and he isn’t. When I focus instead of serving with charity and joy, offering up those moments where I’m tired of serving, focusing my service on the life and lessons of Christ, that is when I feel most fulfilled, as a mother, wife and Christian.
But what about getting things done?
There seems to be a common poor interpretation of what Jesus was trying to say – that only if we are focusing on Jesus 100% of every day are we living our call as Christians. That’s really not the point. Jesus isn’t saying we need to let our house get filthy while we spend our days in a Perpetual Adoration Chapel. He has blessed us with our individual vocations and while prayer and focus on Christ should be the center of that vocation, it isn’t the vocation in its entirety.
I have to get a handle on Martha before I can be Mary.
I cannot spend quality time with my family if I have a list of tasks looming overhead. The bathroom is a mess. There’s laundry to be sorted and folded and washed. The dishes are piling up. Meals and snacks need to be prepped. Bills need to be paid. Those are things that have been placed in my responsibility and until I have taken care of them, or at least scheduled out some time to handle them in the very near future, any time I spend physically in front of my child will not be spent mentally there. It will in no way, shape or form be quality time. It will be distracted, hurried, short-tempered time.
As I work harder to reserve time for prayer each day, I’m finding this issue constantly spilling over into my prayer life. I set aside the commute to work for silent prayer and reflection time, but instead I spend it mentally going over meal plans and finances, that argument with my husband or the upcoming project at work. Until I at least get a firm plan in place, get organized and stay on-top of things, they bleed into my silent time and no matter how hard I fight them back, they poke holes in my reserve and soon prayer time is over and I haven’t even gotten past the Sign of the Cross.
I know why Jesus calls us to be Mary’s. I get it. Maybe it’s my personality or just this season of life being too busy. But in the big picture, it is impossible for me to be Mary if I haven’t given myself space to be Martha first.
Someone once described the plight of Martha as “mere busyness” and “being busy for the sake of being busy”. I think therein lies the line between managing a household and spending too much time on tasks of no consequence.
It is okay to be busy in your job, your marriage, your household.
But you should never become too busy for Christ. You should never become too busy to hear Him when He calls you to something more.
Don’t get swept up in having a perfectly clean home. Don’t sweat if you take store-bought muffins to the school party. Don’t berate yourself if you are wearing the same yoga pants as yesterday (or all week). Don’t despair if you can only manage a Hail Mary a day and one Mass per week. Just keep circling back to Christ in all things and you will find your balance between Martha and Mary.
Finding the grace to be Mary when you are actually Martha is hard
In this vocation I’ve been blessed with (most days at least!) there are some facets where if I am willing to look deeper, I know I am being called to be Mary. These are the hard moments I am learning to let go of control, let go of the details and the comfy busyness of being in charge, and sit at Jesus feet in rapt attention – listening, absorbing and joyfully just. being. present. These moments don’t come easy to me. I have to fight my thoughts of what I should be doing or of how I should be planning something out, or sometimes I even have to shut out the voices saying something isn’t feasible or financially wise.
A big part of life I have been called to be Mary is my family’s openness to life. Seriously, it feels like God is constantly pushing me to be more Mary and less Martha with this part. Whenever fears of “But how will this affect our budget” or “What will people say?” creep in, which is often, He chimes in so loudly I cannot even attempt to hold onto these fears. When it comes to our family and our fertility, God is calling us to check Martha at the door and let Him work through us and our children. Maybe we will have a whole brood. Maybe we will carry the burden of secondary infertility or pregnancy lost. Even though this is a part of life I would loooooove to be able to control and Martha the heck out of, I surrender! I am sitting there at Jesus’ feet, focusing on what He wants for my life and of my life.
Maybe the whole point of this Gospel reading is balance – in order to serve Christ, you have to balance your inner Martha and Mary, remembering to circle back to Him and His will in all things.
What do you think? Are you a Martha or a Mary or a pretty good mix? How is God calling you to be Mary? Martha?