At the beginning this chapter, Jesus had sent out seventy disciples two-by-two with instructions Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, “Peace to this house!” And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide,(Luke 10:4-7… the gospel for July 3)


The gospel for July 17th picks up the theme of hospitality and but this time it addresses how one should offer that hospitality.It begins: Now as they went on their way, he (Jesus) entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. Jesus followed the same rules that he had given to his disciples about relying on the hospitality of the villagers they met on the way.

Martha is the sister of Mary and Lazarus who appear in chapter 11 of John’s gospel. According to John they lived in Bethany, a few kilometers outside the walls of Jerusalem. As Passover approached there would have been many pilgrims on the road to Jerusalem. But Martha recognized something special in Jesus and welcomed him. Perhaps she had heard about his miracles and teaching from others and wanted to meet him. 

Jesus’ words in the gospel of Matthew (25:31-35) reflect the kind of hospitality that Martha showed when Jesus said, ‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory …he will separate people one from another...Then he will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom …for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,


Sunday’s gospel continues, Martha 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, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.’

Martha probably attended to Jesus and his disciples with food and drink, and perhaps basins of water and towels so her guests could wash their feet. Hosting thirteen (or perhaps more) visitors meant lots of bustling about. 

After a day of walking in the direction of Jerusalem, with little to eat or drink, Jesus and his disciples were probably hungry, thirsty, dusty and tired. It was obvious to Martha that addressing their needs would involve significant activity to make them feel welcome. Luke says she was distracted by her many tasks. The sense is that she was ‘overwhelmed’ by all that she needed to do. 

Her sister Mary, on the other hand, welcomed them by listening to Jesus: a sign of respect and a different kind of attention. Mary seemed oblivious to the work to be done. She sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. Perhaps she was enthralled by his reputation, or attracted by his presence, or possibly he had paid attention to Mary in a way that instantaneously magnetized her to him. 

A tension developed between wanting to serve this special guest but at the same time to be close to him and hear what he had to say. Martha felt duty-bound to serve food and drink: Mary chose the latter. 

Martha did not address her complaint to Mary but to Jesus. Martha may have  already gestured to Mary to come and help and Mary may have ignored her. As one commentator noted, Martha’s real concern was about me and myself.  


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.’Jesus addressed her frustration… you are worried and distracted by many things…. in his answer. He did not reject Martha for serving him and the disciples, instead he directed Martha to attend with her heart to the purpose of her work. She may have become so involved in the efficiency of serving that she had lost perspective on the reason she was serving. He said that direct contact with him is the better choice.


Many others have thought about this kind of tension between Martha’s activity and Mary’s silent listening. Benedictine monks’ motto Ora et Labora (prayer and work) see each as two sides of the same coin and each monk does both. When Benedict wrote his rule in 516 CE he was addressing the need for people to live together in community with each person being charged with both work and prayer, not one or the other. 

Jesuits on the other hand use the language of ‘contemplation in action’. Contemplation is about learning how to surrender our being to God’s grace. “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). Before acting, one needs to know that it is good simply to be oneself before God, loved as a person with both gifts and faults. Contemplation is taking a “long, loving look at the real.” 

Contemplation moves into action when one learns to find God in all things. Action proceeds from love and tends towards love, so that love is both the goal and the way. Taking time to see and to listen, prepares one to act with a love that is genuinely responsive. Contemplation in action brings together being, seeing, and loving—as people who were first made, seen, and loved by God.The fundamental challenge is how to live sufficient spiritual life in combination with absorbing external work; and to draw from the work nourishment for the interior life.


Martha’s inclination to action needed to be more thoroughly grounded in love


  • What do you think happened at the end of this gospel? Did Martha abandon serving the others and sit down to listen to Jesus? Did Mary get up and start to help? Did Martha continue to work but in a way that allowed her to pay attention to Jesus? Did some of the disciples pitch in to help serve? (OK, that last one is a stretch!)
  • Do you sympathize with Martha? Do you recognize both Martha and Mary’s inclinations within you at different times?  
  • Does the “business” of church work…meetings, counting money, doing outreach, organizing redevelopment … happen without the word?  Or are we rooted in God’s word as an integral part of our activities?