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Martha and Mary

by Brant Pitre November 06, 2019 0 Comments


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And this is what Origen has to say about Martha and Mary.

“You might reasonably take Martha to stand for action and Mary for contemplation. For, the mystery of love is lost to the active life unless one directs his teaching, and his exhortation to action, toward contemplation. For, there is no action without contemplation, or contemplation without action.”

So here, what Origen’s basically talking about is two dimensions of the spiritual life. He sees Martha and Mary as symbolic. This is the kind of allegorical exegesis of the passage, which in Ancient Egypt (and especially in Alexandria), allegorical exegesis or allegorical interpretations are very popular, to take what you see in the story and ask, “What does it symbolize? What virtues does it symbolize?” And In this case, Origen’s saying that Martha symbolizes the active life. The fact that every Christian is called to engage in service, in love of neighbor, in doing things for God and for others. So that’s why it says “the mystery of love” here is a part of the active life. On the other hand, Mary represents contemplation. So, contemplation is more focused on God and on pondering the mysteries of the truths of God. So we have activity ordered toward love of neighbor, contemplation, in a sense, ordered toward love of God, toward listening to God, toward pondering the truths of the faith, and what Origen is saying is that both of these aspects of the spiritual life are essential. You can’t have actual Christian action, in other words, that’s animated by the love of God if you don’t live a life of contemplation. And, on the other hand, all contemplation (love of God) should ultimately be ordered toward love of neighbor. It should lead us not to just love the Lord and not love our neighbor, but to love our neighbor through what we learned from how God loves us. So it’s just two dimensions of the spiritual life: contemplation and action.

And this is frequently played out in the history of tradition with the various charisms of different religious orders. So if you look at certain religious orders, like the Carmelite tradition (St. Teresa of Ávila, St. John of the Cross), they’ll be described often as a contemplative order because their emphasis is going to be focused. The time that they spend is going to be put primarily into prayer, into contemplation. Same thing, there will be other orders, like the Jesuits or the Dominicans, which are missionary orders and orders of preaching that will be described as active orders, that are going to be out in the world proclaiming the gospel, whether from the pulpit or evangelizing peoples who have not yet heard the gospel. Now in both those cases, obviously, the contemplative and the active orders are supposed to be engaged in both. So you don’t have true Christian action and missionary activity without contemplation, without prayer. And also, obviously, contemplative orders should also engage in the love of neighbor, whether the love of one another within their community, also the love of the poor, almsgiving, and care and concern for those around them. So you’ll see that manifested in authentic expressions. There could be an emphasis of either one of these aspects of the spiritual life. Some religious orders look more like Martha, some look more like Mary, but they all have to have both. That’s what Origen is saying here: that the mystery of love (love of God, love of neighbor) involves both action and contemplation. And I think that this is a really important lesson, not just for consecrated religious orders, but for all of us.

So every Christian (and if you’ve heard homilies on this passage), most people will tend to identify with either Martha or Mary (just because we all have different temperaments). Some people might be more inclined to contemplation and other people might be more inclined to action. It’s frequently the case that you’ll sometimes here people (I’ve noticed this) be a little, shall we say, put off by the fact that Jesus rebukes Martha. Because let’s say you are a person who is more inclined to action. Maybe you’re a choleric and you like to get things done and you recognize that service is important and people have to eat and houses have to get cleaned. You can sometimes be a little put off by the fact that Jesus rebukes Martha, but he doesn’t rebuke Mary who’s sitting at his feet and listening. And this why I think it’s helpful to recognize that, although Origen’s right about the symbolic application of active and contemplative, there’s a dimension to Mary’s action that Jesus is focusing on, and namely this: that her activity is animated and driven by anxiety and distraction. That’s where the problem is. It’s not in the service, it’s in the way she’s serving. She’s filled with anxiety and she’s distracted. Now what is she distracted from? If the Greek word means to be pulled away from, what is her service pulling her away from? Well it’s pulling her away from Jesus. She’s not focused on him. She’s distracted from him, and in stark contrast to Mary who has her eyes set totally on Jesus. So, at least for me, I think it’s been helpful to recognize that Jesus here isn’t critiquing the active life per se (much less is he critiquing hospitality per se). We’ve seen that hospitality is a very fundamental virtue, it’s a way of expressing love of neighbor that’s important in cultures to this day. However, let’s be honest with ourselves. Activity and service, taking care of daily and earthly duties, easily pulls us away from God. It can easily become an excuse for not engaging in contemplation. That’s just a fact.

Maybe you’re engaged in ministry at your church (I don’t know what it might be), or maybe just in your own life, maybe you’re a parent and you have lots of kids and you’re a mother or father, you have young children or older children, maybe you have teenagers, whatever it might be; it’s very easy (and I’ve heard this over and over again), “Well I’d love to pray, but I just don’t have the time. I’m too busy.” Right? “I’m too distracted with many things.” Or, “when I try to pray, all I can think about is everything I have to do. All I can think about is the bills I have to pay, or what I have to do at work, or what’s going on at the office, or what’s going on at the school, or what’s going on in my kid’s lives.” In other words, the legitimate concerns of earthly things become a distraction away from contemplation.

And so what Origen is telling us here, based on (of course) what Jesus said, is that the thing that’s necessary to live the mystery of love, to live the life of love, is contemplation. Because if you’re engaging in action and you’re not focused on Christ, then that action is not going to be animated by the love of Christ, it’s not going to be animated by the love of Jesus. So the one thing that’s absolutely necessary is prayer (in other words), prayer and discipleship, following the Lord. And when that happens, all of the action will be ordered toward Christ, and also by the way, ordered toward contemplation, so that the prayer and the contemplation becomes the source of the strength that is necessary for engaging in the service (and the many services) that our duties or our state in life call us to. So I think St. Francis de Sales was the one who said this, I might be wrong about that, but I think he said something to the effect that, “At the bare minimum, pray 30 minutes. You need 30 minutes of contemplation and meditation each day, unless you’re busy, then you need an hour.” In other words, busyness doesn’t mean you can pull back in prayer. It actually means you need to intensify it, you need to lengthen it, because you need those activities to be animated by a spirit of prayer. Otherwise, you’re going to engage in them in a way that is anxious, not trusting in God, and filled with worry and anxiety. And Jesus tells us that’s not how Christians are supposed to live. “Don’t be anxious; seek first the kingdom and all these things will be given to you as well.”

Brant Pitre
Brant Pitre


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Life after Death, a Bible study on the 7 last things

This study could also be titled: the 7 most important things to know in our earthly life, as what happens when we die, affects how we live today.
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