Martha & Mary- Ora Et Labora

This post is part 1 in a series, Misunderstood Women of the Bible.


The great dinner party of Luke 10 is about expectations. Martha expected Mary to help her in the hosting responsibilities. Jesus expected [and expects] all people with ears to hear to listen to Him.


This familiar passage, Luke 10:38-42, is often taught as something like this:

Mary & Martha are hosting a dinner party. Jesus is at the dinner party. Martha is running around the house/kitchen as a stressed hostess while Mary sits and listens to Jesus. When Martha asks Jesus to make Mary help her, Jesus reprimands her and says that Mary is doing a more important task by listening to Him, so leave her alone. Conclusion- Martha is a foolish woman for worrying her pretty little head over unnecessary details of housekeeping while Jesus is visiting. The end.


This typical interpretation leaves me unsatisfied, & a few points, a few details, seem to be missing.


I’m not sure that Martha is entirely to blame for her situation. Sure, she allowed herself to boil over with frustration, but maybe she had a right to that frustration. In those days & today, women were expected to tend to the home. Women often then and even today found their identity and dignity in how well they tended to the home- cooking, cleaning, rearing children. These homemaking skills are on particularly public display when hosting guests.


You can see the scene- pots boiling over, seeing across the room that last table not yet dusted, running out of flour at the last minute, answering the door- saying with a painted smile, “oh, you brought 5 friends with you, the more the merrier!” It seems reasonable that Martha would be frustrated that her sister, her hostess with the mostess partner, is not contributing to preparations and serving.


When Martha speaks up to Jesus and asks him to correct Mary, this seems a little passive aggressive, as if Mary wasn’t in earshot. “Jesus, would you please tell your disciple, Mary, to get off her keister and give me a hand?” Martha’s request was no doubt in front of other guests. She seems to be bothered or frustrated enough with the situation to approach her guest, not just a guest but a man, Jesus. Most unusual. Martha’s complaint is that Mary isn’t being a team player, but Jesus’ response is my team is most important.


Dismissing Martha as a silly anxious woman dismisses her hospitable offering to Jesus. This dismissal is the same attitude that Martha is corrected for- her dismissal of Mary’s offering. In the same chapter, Luke 10, just a few verses before this story is the story of the Good Samaritan. The Good Samaritan is exalted as a hero for the way he cares for and tends to the detailed needs of the injured man. Why then is Martha condemned for the way she cares for and tends to the detailed needs of Jesus and other guests at the dinner party?


One theory- women’s work is misunderstood and undervalued. On average, women earn about 77 cents to every dollar a man earns in the U.S. This rate is a little lower for women of color. Money communicates value. Many of the lower paid jobs are pink-collar jobs, traditionally performed by women. For example, teachers, housekeepers, secretaries. When reading the story of Martha, imbedded sexism overflows. As if of course Martha is being ridiculous with her concerns because those household tasks aren’t valued. Jesus’ correction is not about the value of Martha’s work, but a problem with Martha’s attitude.


What Martha and often times what we don’t see, is Mary and Martha are truly on the same team. Both women desire to honor Jesus and give Him their best- Martha with the best of her hands and home, Mary with the best of her ears and her mind. Both women know Jesus is Lord- Martha calls Jesus “Lord”, and Mary “sits at His feet”, an idiom for committed listening & learning, a proper response to being in the presence of her Lord.

Martha’s mistake is assuming that her offering was more important than Mary’s. More than praising Mary, Jesus’ words correct Martha’s attitude of assuming Mary’s actions are inferior. May you and I never be guilty of seeing ourselves, what we have to offer, as more important than anyone else.


I’m reminded of a Benedictine motto- ora et labora. Ora meaning prayer, and labora meaning work. The ordering of this phrase is no coincidence. Prayer and work. There is a recognition of prayer’s priority here. Like a weed eater or other 2 stroke motors- the moving parts need a gasoline & oil mixture to operate properly. Good luck getting it to start and continuing to work without 1 or the other. Both gasoline & oil are needed to maintain the engine. As followers of Jesus Christ, we need both prayer and work.


Work is good. Details are important. I imagine there would have been some hungry people that night if Martha did not tend to the meal! Work cannot be the only thing, though. Prayer cannot be the only thing, either. Ora et labora- prayer and work- fuel a spiritual life. Rather than complete abandonment of her tasks, perhaps Jesus is calling Martha to simplicity that would give her more freedom to sit and have conversation with Him. Jesus’ correction to Martha communicates His support & encouragement of Mary’s priority of pray and learning.


Some scholars interpret this passage to be an invitation to learning. Jesus says in v. 42 that Mary is doing important work. Women were not forbidden at this time from studying Torah, but it was unheard of for a rabbi, a religious teacher, to invite a woman or other marginalized groups to be a disciple, a devotee. This is precisely what Jesus did, though. Jesus made disciples among tax collectors, disabled people, and women. Jesus’ departure from the customs of his day that made religious education and spiritual connection exclusive and limiting puts actions to His words that Christianity is for any who are open and willing. Jesus’ encouragement of Mary is an invitation to anyone who is willing and open to learning and living what Jesus’ life, and words, and actions, have to teach. Jesus firmly corrects Martha’s condemnation of Mary as a way to affirm the value of Mary’s desire to learn.


May we all give and receive grace trusting other people and God. May we find joy in work, peace in prayer, and not see work and prayer at odds with each other. May we have open ears, open eyes, and open hearts, to learn from Jesus. Amen.




3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: Mary Magdalene: A Woman for All Seasons | The truth. The whole truth. Nothing but the truth.
  2. Erin
    Jul 11, 2015 @ 01:36:56

    This was great! It gave me a new way to look at this story and a few things to think over. I look forward to reading more from your blog. I also LOVE the painting at the end of the article. If you have any information about the artist or name of the painting, I would be very grateful.


  3. Erica
    Aug 24, 2015 @ 17:32:52

    Thanks, Erin. I’m sorry. I did some digging, but I can’t find more information about the art! 😦


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