“Ask a Priest: Why Didn’t Jesus Tell Martha to Stop Working?”

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Q: My 10-year-old granddaughter asked me the Gospel passage about Our Lord visiting Martha and Mary: “When Jesus told Martha that Mary had chosen the better path because she was listening to him and not working, why didn’t Jesus also tell Martha to stop working and listen to him? It sounds to me like, even though Jesus told Martha off for working, he still wanted her to make his lunch for him.” My granddaughter won’t be fobbed off with flannelly explanations. And I would very much like to provide one that makes sense to her. I would be grateful for any advice. – H.J.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: It sounds as though you have a sharp granddaughter!

This can be a puzzling scene in the Gospels, no doubt. It’s certainly a rich one — and one helped inspire the title of a colleague’s prayer resource (see The Better Part).

Perhaps a few observations might help here.

First, Martha’s statements are keys for understanding the passage: “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? Tell her to help me” (Luke 10:40). [italics mine]

Notice that Martha seems to assume the worst of Jesus here — that he doesn’t care about her. In fact, Jesus cares about everyone and died on a cross for the redemption of all of us.

Also, Martha presumes to give Our Lord a command, as though she’s wiser than he is. Some people still think they know better than God and can tell him how to run things.

The fact that Martha speaks so bluntly with Jesus indicates that this is probably not his first encounter with the sisters. He might have been a guest at their house previously.

Hospitality was and is an important part of life in the Mideast. To be so outspoken with a first-time house guest would have been unthinkable.

In other words, Martha felt comfortable complaining to Jesus because she already was familiar with him. And this leads to the next point.

Someone who was familiar with Jesus yet thought that he “didn’t care” was probably not paying enough attention to what he was actually saying. Martha should have caught on to Jesus’ message and realized how loving and caring a person he was.

Instead, Martha might have been only half-listening to Jesus and was more focused on activism. Mary, instead, had listened to Jesus attentively and learned to hang on every word he spoke. This is why she sits beside him and pays so much attention to him.

Jesus’ gentle chiding of her sister (“Martha, Martha …”) was a way to lift her sights.

Our Lord’s nudge seemed to work, because Martha eventually caught on to the depth of his message. Her dialogue with him in John 11 after the death of her brother Lazarus shows theological acumen. So she certainly made up for some of her earlier activism.

One other observation: the scene of Mary and Martha, like a lot of things in Catholicism, is not an either-or situation but, rather, and-both. Someone obviously had to prepare the meal; hence, Martha’s work was needed. Still, the main focus should have been on Jesus, not the food.

Being Catholic involves serving others and listening to Jesus.

In any case, hospitality involves more than preparing a meal. It also involves making a guest feel welcome. Martha and Mary both had something to contribute to Jesus; that’s why he didn’t tell Martha to drop everything. He did, however, want her to do her part with a bit more good will.

There are certainly other insights that could be mined from the Martha-and-Mary incident.

I hope that some of the points above will be helpful for your astute granddaughter. Count on my prayers.


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