Saint Martha will help us avoid activism in the spiritual life if we are open to receiving the correction of Christ as she did. Activism is similar to the dispositions we see in workaholics, but one is a religious malady while the other is human. Both are similar in that they cannot stand to be passive. Passivity is characteristic of death, irresponsibility, weakness, apathy, despair, etc. The activity of a workaholic is not noble in and of itself, but it creates the illusion that one’s life is full rather than empty. It is based on the presumption that the activity of work itself is always better than not working. A healthier conception recognizes that human life is more than just work and requires a balance of activity and passivity. This balance can only be established by discovering a truly human finality.
Activism results from a slightly different ideology: generous service is the goal and measure of a life lived for God. Activism prefers “actually doing something” to prayer and listening to God. Activism is corrected by Jesus’ words to Martha, “Mary has chosen the better part, and it will not be taken from her.” Quietism – the opposite ideology – actually shirks one’s duties and responsibilities; Jesus corrects with these words, “Whoever hears these words of mine and does not act on them is like a fool…” Again, the spiritual life requires a balance between prayer and action. Jesus helps us understand that prayer and the relationship we have with Him is always the most important part – but we must take what we hear from Him to heart and let it transform how we love and serve others.
Virtue does not have a single form. In the example of Martha and Mary, there is added the busy devotion of the one and the pious attention of the other to the Word of God, which, if it agrees with faith, is preferred even to the very works, as it is written: “Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her.” So let us also strive to have what no one can take away from us, so that not careless but diligent hearing may be granted to us. For even the seeds of the heavenly Word itself are likely to be taken away if they are sowed by the wayside. Let the desire for wisdom lead you as it did Mary. It is a greater and more perfect work. Do not let service divert the knowledge of the heavenly Word.… Nor is Martha rebuked in her good serving, but Mary is preferred because she has chosen the better part for herself, for Jesus abounds with many blessings and bestows many gifts. And therefore the wiser chooses what she perceives as foremost.1
EPHREM THE SYRIAN:
Mary came and sat at his feet. This was as though she were sitting on firm ground at the feet of him who had forgiven the sinful woman her sins. She had put on a crown in order to enter into the kingdom of the Firstborn. She had chosen the better portion, the Benefactor, the Messiah himself. This will never be taken away from her. Martha’s love was more fervent than Mary’s, for before he had arrived there, she was ready to serve him. “Do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone?” When he came to raise Lazarus to life, she ran and came out first.2
Moses ground the head of the golden calf into powder and cast it into water and gave it to the people to drink—for “their hearts were fat” with gross faithlessness—so that their hearts might be softened and they might embrace the keenness of faith. Finally, the woman who grinds well will be accepted, but she who grinds poorly will be rejected.3
By a threefold confession Peter blotted out his threefold denial. If Aaron committed sacrilege by fashioning molten gold into the head of a calf, his brother’s prayers made amends for his transgressions. If holy David, meekest of men, committed the double sin of murder and adultery, he atoned for it by a fast of seven days.4
- EXPOSITION OF THE GOSPEL OF LUKE 7.85–86. Just, A. A. (Ed.). (2005). Luke (pp. 182–183). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- COMMENTARY ON TATIAN’S DIATESSARON 8.15. Just, A. A. (Ed.). (2005). Luke (p. 183). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- LETTER 54(64).3. Lienhard, J. T., & Rombs, R. J. (Eds.). (2001). Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy (p. 143). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- LETTER 77.4. Lienhard, J. T., & Rombs, R. J. (Eds.). (2001). Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy (p. 144). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.