We all remember that Jesus gave his approval to what Mary was doing (or not doing) rather than to the very active and concerned Martha. But, if an opinion poll were done in modern America concerning the value of the two sisters, no doubt Martha would come out on top—with perhaps the proviso that the man or men of the house should have been helping as well! To be active and achieving something is highly rated, while engaging in prolonged meditation or contemplation is judged to be of doubtful value. Here is the story of Mary and Martha, as told by Luke in 10:38ff:
Jesus entered a village and a woman named Martha received him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving, and she went to Jesus and said, "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me". But the Lord answered her, "Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her.
Take a look at Martha. She treats Jesus as a very special, in fact an unique guest, and so she must provide for him the best hospitality and food. All must be just right and nothing wrong. She is absorbed by her domestic chores.
Take a look at Mary. She is so keen to listen to Jesus, to hang on to and digest every word he says, that her mind is far away from kitchen and stove. She is absorbed by the very presence of Jesus the teacher.
The two sisters portray very different approaches to Jesus. Martha showed her devotion by what she could practically do for him. Mary showed her devotion by sitting at his feet as his committed disciple.
To understand why Jesus took the side of Mary we need to bear in mind that the Messiah, the Hope of Israel, does not come to town every day! When he pays his visit he comes not for what the town can do for him but what he has to give to the town. He does not need special food creatively prepared but just basic refreshment. Thus everyone, man and woman alike, have as their first duty, when the Messiah comes, to pay attention to him, to listen carefully as he speaks with authority, and as he utters the words of eternal life. Mary understood this and Martha did not. What Martha had to offer was not the right thing for this unique moment, but it had its place at other times.
Since the third century these two sisters have been seen in the Church as providing a picture of two necessary aspects, dimensions or sides of the mature Christian life. And these have been called (a) the active life, and (b) the contemplative life. Both have been seen as necessary; yet in God's plan for us as being in a certain order—first the contemplative and then the active. Mary's approach to Jesus has priority over Martha's but both belong together.
What this means in practice is that we are not to turn to prayer, meditation and contemplation when we have exhausted ourselves in good deeds and fine work for the Lord inside and outside the Christian congregation. That is, we are not to use prayer as a means of charging our batteries—though it will achieve this for us if we do so use it in this manner. No! We are first to be united to the Lord in meditation and contemplative prayer and from this go out to do his will in his strength. Activism is to flow from contemplation, not activism to turn to contemplation when exhausted.
The practice of the Church over the centuries—and this is wonderfully captured and developed in The Book of Common Prayer—is to begin the day with Morning Prayer and to complement this with Evening Prayer, not at the very end of the day but at the close of the afternoon. By this method the contemplative life is maintained and in a way that does full justice to Mary; but leaving much space after and between the offices to do justice to Martha.
One of the most eloquent descriptions of the necessity of both the contemplative and the active life is provided by St Augustine of Hippo in chapter nineteen of his City of God. And one of the most moving, and in the best sense, evocative descriptions of the two lives is provided by St Bernard of Clairvaux in his eighty-six homilies on the Song of Songs, especially the last of these.
The distinguished Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple wrote: "The right relation between prayer and conduct is not that conduct is supremely important and prayer will help it—but, rather, that Prayer is supremely important and conduct tests it" ( Christus Veritas, 1924, p.45).
-- The Revd Dr Peter Toon, M.A. M.Th. D.Phil., President of the PBS 2007