Both Essential Characters

Johannes Vermeer "Christ in the House of Martha and Mary" - public domain via Wikimedia Commons

I have a love-hate relationship with the month of August. I love the start of the new school year and the smell of fresh crayons and new books. I hate that the lazy days of summer are ending and will soon give way to ultra-scheduled days. I love the promise of cooler nights and crinkly, autumn leaves. I hate the overgrown weeds in the backyard and piles of vacation laundry in the hallway. I love the busyness of preparing for the new school year, but I don’t love that I get too busy with preparations and don’t make enough time to pray.

Every August, I feel like Martha but wish I could be Mary. After all, Jesus did say that Mary chose “the better part,” (Luke 10:42) right?

As I think about Martha and Mary, my mind wanders, and I find myself in a theater. I am an onlooker viewing the Martha and Mary scene playing out on stage. I stand sheepishly in the wings, out of sight. I don’t want Jesus to catch sight of me, because I’m embarrassed that I’ve been a stranger lately. I’m not there for even a breath, though, before Jesus notices me and taps the seat of the chair next to him.

“Come and sit, just for a bit,” he says.

I feel bad that I have interrupted this iconic scene and even worse that I haven’t prayed enough this month, but I oblige him. Sitting down next to him, I’m surprised that Jesus doesn’t seem to be judging me for not praying. In fact, all I sense is compassion and love.

As if reading my thoughts, Jesus looks me in the eyes and says, “Go easy on yourself.”

Tears flood my vision. I try to choke them back but can’t even squeak out a reply. So I simply nod.

Still processing this overwhelming compassion, I silently observe the scene. From this vantage point, it occurs to me that there are two characters: Martha and Mary. I ponder this.

I realize that the things that keep me so busy in August are things that need to be done for our family to function well in the coming months. I’ve been longing to discard my internal Martha in favor of Mary, but Martha is a critical part of my role as a parent and member of my family. Mary and Martha are both essential characters; they are both necessary for the scene to play.

I observe Jesus saying to Martha that “Mary has chosen the better part.” This comment has always confounded me. Interestingly, as I sit there next to Jesus, better thoughts emerge than my dichotomous self-judgments, and my perfectionism regarding prayer falls away. When I am near Jesus, another way of seeing emerges that reconciles my simplistic judgments of myself. It’s a way of seeing that views everything in a more compassionate, more loving, and less judgmental way. I wonder, could this be related to “the better part” of which he speaks?

This year, I think I’ll take the cue and lay down my love-hate relationship with August. I’m going to accept Jesus’ compassion and extend this compassion to others and to myself. And I’m going to embrace my inner Martha and my inner Mary. It turns out, they’re both essential characters.

Image: Christ in the House of Martha and Mary by Johannes Vermeer. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.


  1. Rebecca,
    Finally, an interpretation of this passage that is a real gift-thank you. As a grandfather to six wonderful (now grown) adults, I had an extra-ordinary experience of reading your post on the same day that my daughter was sitting with her PhD committee and defending her theological dissertation. Her dissertation topic was “The Holy Trinity and the Feminine” (my summary of a very long title.) In essence, the “Martha and Mary” parable and your lovely insight which aptly interprets the contradictory roles of Martha and Mary, can and must be applied to the personalized theological construct of the triune God which is exclusively male. Happily, my daughter successfully “defended” her PhD thesis. I joyfully believe another candle has been lit in the theological darkness for women and men in the Roman Catholic and Jesuit world. Blessings on you and on my daughter Loretta for being light in a time of apparent darkness:)

  2. Thanks Rebecca. The two sisters offer a model framework for our way of proceeding. Saint Martha and Saint Mary – Pray for us.

  3. Thank you Rebecca
    Absolutely beautiful reflection
    Helped me put things in perspective
    God is among the pots and pans
    I am Martha and Mary at different times and need to embrace both

  4. Thank you Rebecca for sharing your inspiring thoughts with us. All my life I have been Martha. Now as I have grown older and my home empty, I cannot forgive myself for neglecting Mary. You have helped me forgive myself. That was a time for Martha and now I shall concentrate on Mary and be happy that Jesus has given me a chance to live both lives and not be hard on myself.

    • Hi Florence,
      Thank you for sharing. Yes, there’s a season for everything and a need for Martha and Mary in every season. May you have peace knowing that Jesus looks upon each of us with that same love and compassion.

  5. Rebecca – what a thought and prayer provoking reflection, I agree on the dichotomy of really each one of us having a Martha and a Mary side and respecting and loving both as Jesus did. I do find it interesting that most everyone I talk to says they are a Martha and want to be more like Mary. I’ve never met anyone who has said they are a Mary and want to be more like Martha and that, maybe because these are two women, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard any of the men I know say that they are like Martha and want to be like Mary. Thanks, this just gave me a lot to ponder.

    • Hi CS,
      Thank you for sharing. Yes, it is a lot to ponder! I’m continually grateful to St. Ignatius for teaching us how to prayerfully enter into Gospel passages because it really opens them up and opens us up to the whispers of the Spirit as well.

  6. Thank you for sharing you gift of insight with us.
    I know I struggle with the Martha and Mary within me. With all the real needs around us how can we not be Martha?
    Yet, when we’re almost overwhelmed by it all we hear Mary’s call to remind us that we need to sit at Jesus’ feet to drink in his love and the energy it gives us. Only then can the Martha within us continue being an instrument of HIS love without complaining that the Mary is “just” sitting.

  7. Hello,
    This was so thought provoking. I am a Martha and strive to be a Mary. Then I realized that I need to be both. I’m really good at Martha, now I need to add the Mary in!
    Thank you!

  8. Thank you Rebecca, I am more naturally like Martha and this piece helps me to allow myself to be more like Mary too. Definitely need both in balance.

  9. Rebecca
    This was so thoughtful and uplifting. I think we women always judge ourselves too harshly. Your prayer reminds me of how compassionate and loving Jesus is. Reading it was a wonderful way to start my day. Thank you.


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