Martha & Mary: Learning Not to Worry

Do you ever worry? If so, why do you worry? Then next: when do you worry? Still more: does your worrying help you in any way you can think? Finally, what is it that can bring your worrying to a halt?

The whole reality of worrying so prevalent in these stressful times should be addressed and what is the remedy.

Martha and Mary

Jesus had three friends who were sisters with their brother: Mary, Martha, and Lazarus.  They lived not too far from the city of Jerusalem in a town called Bethany. Jesus was their friend and their guest. Jesus loved these three and found warmth and comfort to go to their home and visit. However, on one occasion there surfaces from the heart and lips of Martha an intense worry.

The reason for the worry? By nature Mary was more of a contemplative. This means that Mary thrived on silence, reflection, and contemplation. On the contrary, Martha was a ball of energy! By nature very active, Martha liked to get things done. She was a planner and an organizer. A homemaker and cook, she liked things to turn out according to her plans and schedule.

On one occasion Jesus was a guest and apparently Martha was off schedule and did not have things ready according to her preconceived plans. Somewhat nervous, moving a mile a minute, carrying and worrying for Jesus she stopped to observe a scene that really bothered her. Despite the many tasks that were incomplete, her sister Mary was simply sitting before Jesus and apparently doing nothing; or at least Mary was not doing anything very profitable!  Mary was just sitting at the feet of Jesus, even though still so much had to be done!

What do you think was undone? Well, it could be that the table was not ready. Maybe in the kitchen the food was not yet totally prepared. Maybe there was not enough water for drinking or washing.  Who knows, maybe the house was not as clean as it should have been!  In any case, things were not ready according to the criteria of Martha; and this was wrong and it had to be remedied and as soon as possible!

How To Remedy It

Martha, the pragmatist and the “doer” had a simple but, what she thought, a very efficient idea: two hands are better than one; or the other proverb: “Many hands make light work.”  Therefore, Martha goes to Jesus to complain, what Martha thought was a very justified complaint!  In any case, the complaint was directed at having things ready quicker for Jesus!  So Martha tells Jesus to tell Mary to help her!  This seems to be a fairly reasonable request, very logical, practical, well-ordered and reasonable!

Jesus gave a surprising response: a gentle rebuke! Instead of Jesus telling Mary to get up in a hurry and to help Martha so as to have the schedule run perfectly on time, according to Martha’s criteria, Jesus gently rebukes Martha. Listen to Jesus’ words: “Martha, Martha, you are worried about many things. Mary has chosen the best part and she will not be deprived of it.”

How then can we interpret these surprising words of Jesus that were honestly in favor of what Mary was doing and a gentle fraternal correction to Martha?


Jesus was not displeased at the attention, concern, hospitality, and hard work that Martha manifested toward Him. Never forget that the Church actually celebrate Martha as a saint, every year July 29th. The point that Jesus wants to highlight in this passage as well as all throughout Sacred Scripture is the importance of the prayer life, the importance of silence which fosters contemplation and union with the Lord Jesus. Martha symbolizes the active life of service to others, if you like the Corporal Works of Mercy.    “I was hungry and you gave me to eat; I was thirsty and you gave me to drink; I was a foreigner and you welcomed me…” (Mt. 25: 31-46) Indeed we will be judged by Jesus on how faithfully we have lived out these works of mercy!

Mary’s Contemplative Life

However, the life of prayer or the life of contemplation has a supremely important role. It was precisely this that Jesus is trying to teach the world through the incident in Bethany and the tension that existed between Martha and Mary—two very good and holy sisters, but very different in temperament and character.

In fact Mary symbolizes all the different gestures we should strive to implement so as to live out a more contemplative lifestyle. Let us reflect upon the contemplative gestures of Mary:

  1. a) SIT AT FEET OF JESUS.  Mary was simply sitting loving at the feet of Jesus. Contemplative souls long to sit and to be with Jesus for long periods of time!
  2. b) CONTEMPLATE JESUS. Next, Mary simply gazed into the Face and eyes of the Lord Jesus. The Psalmist expresses this: “Look to the Lord and be radiant with joy.”
  3. c) LISTEN TO JESUS.  While sitting in front of Mary we can certainly imagine Jesus speaking to Mary. Try to imagine the way Jesus spoke, the tone of His voice as well as the content of His message. Indeed there is much food for thought!
  4. d) SPOKE TO JESUS.  It was not a monologue but a dialogue that must have been carried on between Jesus and Mary in Bethany.  This is the essence of prayer to listen and to speak to Jesus—a great definition of prayer!
  5. e) However, the essence of this encounter between Mary and Jesus in the home of Bethany was love.  Mary loved Jesus totally and Jesus in turn loved Mary as well as Martha and Lazarus.
  6. f) The net result of this loving encounter was a dynamic and growing friendship between Mary and Jesus.

Why Worry?

One of the reasons why we fall into the trap of being “Worry-warts” and end up by making others worry too (Remember, worrying can be contagious!) is that we can easily neglect the contemplative dimension in our lives. We can easily fall into activism. We can fall into the proverbial modern malady that we call the workaholic. We can fall into Marthaism—a new word that I have created related to this topic!

Therefore, when you find yourself nervous, tense, emotionally drained, frenetically moving from one activity to the next, like a robot—in a word, you are all stressed out and really bent out of shape, you will know the reason why! You have become too much Martha and not enough Mary.

A grace to pray for: 

Beg the Blessed Virgin Mary for the grace to strike a harmonious blend between the Martha and the Mary in your life, the harmonious integration of a deep prayer life and zealous active life of fraternal charity. May Our Lady the contemplative in the Annunciation and Our Lady actively serving St. Elizabeth help us to strike the harmonious balance between deep prayer and apostolic zeal!

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Father Ed Broom is an Oblate of the Virgin Mary and the author of Total Consecration Through the Mysteries of the Rosary and From Humdrum to Holy. He blogs regularly at Fr. Broom's Blog.

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