The Prescribed Priority of Personal Prayer: A Meditation at the House of Martha and Mary

Today’s Gospel at Mass is the very familiar one of Martha and Mary. Martha is the anxious worker seeking to please the Lord with a good meal and hospitality. Mary sits quietly at his feet and listens. One has come to be the image of work, the other of prayer.

Misinterpreted? In my nearly fifty years I have heard many a sermon that interpreted this Gospel passage as a call for a proper balance between work and prayer. Some have gone on to state that we all need a little of Martha and Mary in us and that the Church needs both Marthas and Marys. But in the end it seems that such a conclusion misses the central point of this passage. Jesus does not conclude by saying, “Martha, Now do your thing and let Mary do hers.” He describes Mary as not only choosing the better part but also as doing the “one thing necessary.”  This does not amount to a call for “proper balance” but instead underscores the radical priority and primacy of prayer. This, it would seem is the proper interpretive key for what is being taught here. Many other passages of the Scripture do set forth the need to be rich in works of charity but this is not one of them.

With that in mind let’s take a look at the details of the Lord’s teaching on the Priority of Personal Prayer.

1. PROMISING PRELUDE Jesus entered a village where a woman whose name was Martha welcomed him. Our story begins by showing Martha in a very favorable light. She opens her door, her life if you will,  and welcomes Jesus. This is at the heart of faith, a welcoming of Jesus into the home of our heart and life. Surely Revelation 3:20 comes to mind here: Behold I stand at the door and knock. If any one hears my voice and opens the door I will come in and eat with him and he with me. While we acknowledge this promising prelude we ought also to underscore the fact that the initiative is that of Jesus. The text says Jesus entered a village…. In the call of faith the initiative is always with God. It was not you who chose me, it was I who chose you (Jn 15:16) Hence, while we must welcome, God leads. Martha hears the Lord’s call and responds. So far so good. What happens next isn’t exactly clear but the impression is that Martha goes right to work. There is no evidence that Jesus asked for a meal from her, large or small. The text from Revelation just quoted does suggest that the Lord seeks to dine with us but implies that it is he who will provide the meal. Surely the Eucharistic context of our faith emphasizes that it is the Lord who feeds us with his Word and with his Body and Blood. At any rate, Martha seems to have had the Lord make himself comfortable and gone off to work in preparing a meal of her own.  That she later experiences it to be such a burden is evidence that her idea emerged more from her flesh than the Spirit.

 2. PORTRAIT OF PRAYER She had a sister named Mary who sat beside the Lord at his feet listening to him speak. Now here is a beautiful portrait of prayer: to sit at the Lord’s feet and listen. Many people think of prayer as something that is said. But prayer is better understood as a conversation and conversations include listening. Vocal prayer, intercessory prayer and the like are all noble and important but the prayer of listening is too often neglected. Prayer is not just telling God what we want, it is discovering what He wills. We have to sit humbly and listen. We must learn to listen,  and listen to learn. We listen by devoutly and slowing considering scripture (lectio divina), by pondering how God is speaking in the events and people in our life, how God is whispering in our conscience and soul. Jesus calls this kind of prayer “the one thing necessary” as we shall see. What Mary models and Martha forgets is that we must first come (to Jesus) then go (and do what he says)….that we must first receive before we can achieve…..that we must first be blessed before we can do our best……that we must listen before we leap into action.

3. PERTURBED and PRESUMPTUOUS –  Martha, burdened with much serving, came to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? Tell her to help me.” – And so, sure enough Martha who is laboring in the flesh, but not likely in the Spirit and in accord with the Lord’s wishes, is now experiencing the whole thing as a burden. She blames her sister for all this but the Lord’s response will make it clear that this is not Mary’s issue. One sign that we are not in God’s will is the experiencing of what we are doing as a burden. We are all limited and human and will experience ordinary fatigue. It is one thing to be weary in the work but it is another thing to be weary of the work. All lot of people run off to do something they think is a good idea. And maybe it is a fine thing in itself. But they never asked God. God might have said, “Fine.” or He might have said, “Not now but later.” Or He might have said, “Not you but some one else.”  Or he might have just plain said, “No.” But instead of asking they just go off and do it and then when things don’t work out  will often times blame God: “Why don’t you help me more!”  And so Martha is burdened. She first blames her sister. Then she presumes the Lord does not care about what is (to her) an obvious injustice. Then she takes presumption one step further and presumes to tell the Lord what to do: “Tell her to help me.”  This is what happens when we try to serve the Lord in the flesh. Instead of being true servants who listen to the Lord’s wishes and carry them out by his grace we end up as angry and mildly (or not) dictatorial. She here is Martha, with her one hand on her hip and her index finger in the air  🙂  Jesus will be kind but firm.

4. PRESCRIBED PRIORITY Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things.  There is need of only one thing.  Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.  Now don’t let the Lord have to call you by your name twice! But it is clear the Lord wants her attention and that she has stumbled on a fatal mistake that we all can too easily make. She leapt before she listened. The Lord observes that she is anxious about many things.  Anxiety about many things comes from neglect of the one thing most necessary: to sit at the feet of the Lord and listen to him. In life the Lord will surely have things for us to do but they need to come from him. This is why prayer is the one thing necessary and the better part: because work flows from it and is subordinate to it. Discernment is not easy but it is necessary. An awful lot of very noble ideas have floundered in the field of the flesh because they were never really brought before God and were not therefore a work of grace. Jesus does not surely mean that ALL we are to do is pray. There are too many other Gospels that summon us to labor in the vineyard to say that.  But what Jesus is very clear to say is that prayer and discernment have absolute priority. Otherwise expect to be anxious about many things and have little to show for it.

Ephesians 2  makes it clear that God must be the author and initiator of our works: For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so no one may boast.  For we are his handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for the good works that God has prepared in advance, that we should walk in them (Eph 2:8-10).

And old prayer from the Roman Ritual also makes this plain: Actiones nostras, quaesumus Domine, aspirando praeveni et adiuvando prosequere: ut cuncta nostra oratio et operatio a te semper incipiat, et per te coepta finiatur. Per Christum Dominum nostrum  (Direct we beseech Thee, O Lord, our prayers and our actions by Thy holy inspirations and carry them on by Thy gracious assistance, so that every work of ours may always begin with Thee, and through Thee be ended). Amen

The Audio version of this Homily is here:

This song reminds that when we really ARE working in the Lord’s will and as the fruit of prayer we love what we do and do so with joy. This song says, “I keep so busy working for the Kingdom I ain’t got time to die!”


20 Replies to “The Prescribed Priority of Personal Prayer: A Meditation at the House of Martha and Mary”

  1. This is one of my favorite stories because it is a reminder to put prayer first. I struggle with this on a daily basis, esp. in the summers, given the constant demands on my time. But my time reading the Bible and simply sitting silently with Him is a treasured time for me. But there are days when I do not take even these 20 minutes. Sad, no? Thank you for this wonderful post.

    1. Yes, it is a struggle. The word priority : from the prior meaning “first” It is a great blessing that you conisder prayer a treasured time. I am sure your treasure will grow.

  2. Well said. I think people often speak, as you said, but forget to listen. I know a lot of people who love the Rosary and I have no problem with it. It just makes it very difficult for me to listen because I’m too busy fumbling with the words to open myself up to hear God. Instead of meditating in that way, I envision myself in a room with Jesus. I ask him questions or say nothing and sit and listen. Sometimes he sits and smiles but there have been a few occasions where he speaks. It’s the best way that I can connect to the Lord. It sounds bizarre but it’s my way of being before the Holy Eucharist without having it physically in my house.

    1. Yes, I agree. I think the rosary works best for those who experience it as a quiet background to their prayer, a kind of rythmn that makes deeper prayer possible. For others who struggle with the technical execution of it, there are many problems that can emerge. The Church commends but does not command it for this reason. For many it is a “Gospel on a string” in that it is a discipline of prayer that systematically meditates on all the most basic aspects of the Biblical narrative.

      1. Undoubtedly everyone is led differently in prayer. However, among the many different forms of prayer I use throughout the day, I try to say a mystery of the Rosary each evening. Somedays after work, I also find it difficult to concentrate and seem infinitely distracted. On days like that, I have a booklet called ‘Praying the Rosary Without Distractions’ that can be obtained at It has the most beautiful full page religious art work depicting each Mystery and contains a short one sentence Scriptural meditation for each Hail Mary. You can also enroll in the Rosary Confraternity at this site. This is the booklet I like best, but there are many other similar Scriptural Rosary booklets available from many other sources that may help. It never fails to assist me on evenings I just can’t seem to get it done. I have received many great graces through daily recitation of the Rosary and encourage anyone else experiencing difficulty in it’s recitation to hang it there and take advantage of it’s many graces and promises.

  3. A little bit of Augustine:

    “But you, Martha, If I may say so, are blessed for your good service…But when you come to the heavenly homeland will you find a traveller to welcome, someone hungry to feed, or thirsty to whom you may give drink, someone ill whom you could visit, or quarrelling whom you could reconcile, or dead whom you could bury?

    No, there will be none of these tasks there. What you will find there is what Mary chose. There we shall not feed others, we ourselves shall be fed. Thus what Mary chose in this life will be realized there in all its fullness; she was gathering fragments from that rich banquet, the Word of God. Do you wish to know what we will have there? The Lord himself tells us when he says of his servants, Amen, I say to you, he will make them recline and passing he will serve them.”

      1. That is a good explanation, and I certainly cannot argue with Augustine. I would only add something that I read once. It was something to the effect of — The saints do not rest in peace. In heaven, they are hard at work serving the Lord by praying for us.

  4. Here is how my parish priest explained it.
    First, take into consideration, the cultural aspect of how Jewish women behave at time. Hence for a woman to be at Jesus feet (as perfectly depicted in the picture) would be a very rare occurrence. Therefore, the situation was she was not playing the role of a gracious host. She was at our Lords feet because He was preaching and she was making sure that she would hear everything. So, St Luke message was, Martha and Mary both tried to serve Jesus in different ways but Jesus placed more value (and will always will) with Mary’s priorities.

  5. Let’s don’t forget that we can all still sit at the feet of Jesus and listen to him in eucharistic adoration.

  6. Fantastic.
    On this Sunday I am always reminded of a sermon I heard In Kennebunk, Maine at the Franciscan Monastery over 20 years ago. The priest suggested that we were received two invitations in the mail to dinner by Martha and Mary for the same evening. If we chose Martha’s we would be certain to have a gourmet dinner but that she would be busy hustling around the kitchen and not free to talk with us. Mary, on the other hand, might even forget that she had invited us but would send out for pizza and give us all her attention. Which invitation would we accept? This was conversation for the day. About five of us took a vote and voted for dinner at Martha’s. I figured that if I refused her dinner I might never be invited to her home again. If I refused Mary’s I could always just drop in and have pizza and her full attention at any time.
    At the age of 70 I am seeing much more clearly the need and the benefits from simply sitting at the feet of Jesus. My need to serve family meals on a schedule is over. I have the freedom to sit and listen. Thinking of it now it would have been a great idea to have learned how to do this earlier is never to late to learn.
    I garner so much from all I find on line about ways to better serve Him by doing His will by listening and THEN obeying rather than thinking I am obeying and getting exhausted fromthe doing. It seems to me that the works follow the listening and then we are given strength for the journey.
    Think I will sign off and return to the Monastery and listen. I now have the privilege of living right down the street. We do not have Adoration BUT I love visiting Him while He is cooped up or locked in the Tabernacle. He waits for me and for all of you to keep Him company.

  7. Today’s Gospel reading is one of those that isn’t FAIR. [The other that comes to mind is Matthew 20:1-16 – the landowner gives the same wage to those who worked all day as to those who worked but a few hours.] Poor Martha, it isn’t FAIR that she is working to feed her guests, while her sibling (I’ll bet a YOUNGER sibling) is sitting down and doing squat. It isn’t FAIR that Mary got a pass from doing any work.

    As the elder of two sisters myself, my sympathies had always been with Martha. This time around, however, Martha sounded to me like a whiner. A tattler.

    My usual response to tattling: So?

    Christ’s response to the tattling was, perhaps, far more devastating than my snippy response. Tattlers are looking primarily for Seeing Someone Get Their Just Desserts. Christ not only failed to give Martha the satisfaction of prodding Mary to get off her duff, He told her that SHE was in the wrong, that it was HER priorities that were screwed up.

    Poor Martha.

  8. Making our work a prayer too is one of our secrets: ora et labora. Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection states in his maxims, “Men invent means and methods of coming at God’s love, they learn rules and set up devices to remind them of that love, and it seems like a world of trouble to bring oneself into the consciousness of God’s presence. Yet it might be so simple. Is it not quicker and easier just to do our common business wholly for the love of him?”

    In that sense, we bring Jesus to help us with the chores while we converse with Him. When we sit, we sit with Jesus. When we work, He works with us.

  9. I believe that yours is the most careful and thoughtful interpretation of this passage that I have yet encountered, and certainly the most helpful, especially the understanding that Martha was acting from the flesh rather than the spirit.

  10. Thank you Msgr. Pope for the very good explanation now i just discovered myself sitting at the feet of Jesus trying to know what Jesus wants from those who believes in Him. He wanted to seek first His Kingdom on earth and if we listen we must be obedient in doing what He teaches. I have been practicing that works and i am showed from my dreams of what is coming to my life, all i am waiting is an explanation and confirmation of my dreams if it is in accordance with God’s command. Living by grace everyday is what i get from Jesus and trusting in Him keeps me hang on to His words and as i face my cross in life surrendering to His will keeps my heart lighter not minding the weight of his commands. God bless us all catholics and would be follower of the faith.

  11. I consider myself a recovering Martha; really took a lot of effort to choose the best part and (sometimes) still fall back a few steps!

    Thank you for this beautiful piece. One of the articles I will read, and re-read, for my full recovery (together with the Bible passage that seem to take on newer and deeper meaning as it is read in church and in personal meditation).

  12. I have the wonderful scholar N.T. Wright to thank for this insight. We may be missing Luke’s point if we stay on the surface of this story, and do not look at it through the lens of the gospel writer’s particular inclination to portray Jesus as a preacher of “reversals.” In Luke’s gospel Jesus is the teacher who is always turning things upside down for his listeners.
    In ancient Near Eastern culture it would have been unthinkable for a woman to sit listening to a prominent male guest in the home. The woman’s job — as Martha was faithfully doing — was to prepare and serve the food. When Martha expresses her concern to Jesus about Mary’s behavior she isn’t whining about her lazy sister. Martha is anxious because Mary is engaging in unconventional behavior that might reflect adversely on the family! Jesus goes right to the heart of the issue — only one thing IS important: hearing the word of God. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her (even if she’s doing something that women in that culture were not supposed to do!).
    This approach makes a lot of sense to me in terms of what we know about themes in Luke. And I have to admit, it portrays the hard-working Martha in a more understandable and favorable light. Jesus never tells Martha that she is wrong to be concerned with hospitality. What he proposes is a new (reversed) set of priorities that highlights the importance of God’s word for everyone — including women!

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