Ora et Labora (Prayer and Work): A Sermon of Mary and Martha

Mary and Martha, Painting by He Qi, copyright 2014
Mary and Martha, Painting by He Qi, copyright 2014, used by permission. more at heqiart.com

The following is a sermon on Mary and Martha given at Buechel Park Baptist Church in Louisville, KY, on April 30, 2017 by Rev. Erica Lea and Rev. Erica Whitaker. Rev. Lea spoke about Martha, Rev. Whitaker about Mary. 

As they went on their way, he entered a certain village where a woman named Martha welcomed him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at Jesus’ feet listening to his message. But Martha was distracted by much ministry. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister left me to minister alone? Tell her to help me.” “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you’re worried and troubled about many things, but only one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen what’s better, and it won’t be taken away from her.” Luke 10:38–42 (DFV)

Rev. Whitaker

Mary is pretty great.

She puts aside long to-do lists and bustling about the house to sit at the feet of Jesus. She is spellbound by his words, choosing to be present in the sacred space around him.

Mary recognizes the importance of this moment. She assumes the role of the student being taught by the teacher, a female disciple challenging the gender roles of her day. She is a listener and a learner, absorbing all she can from the wise rabbi dining in her home.

She feels the tension in the kitchen, a place where she ought to be working, serving Jesus, but Mary tunes out the clatter of pots and pans to be fully attentive to her Lord. She does not acknowledge the men staring at her in disapproval. She simply looks deep into the eyes of Jesus and clings to the liberating truth he proclaims.

“To be or not to be” is the question Mary holds in her heart.

Simply being present, not physically doing any work, is harder work than you might think. Taking Sabbath in the middle of a workday, when busyness snowballs around you, is no easy task.

Mary embraces the seventh-day attitude, the day the Creator rests among the good and the beautiful. To be present is to stop and pause, to pray with open ears listening to the voice of God. This is living mindfully in tune with the Spirit, perched at the feet of Jesus.

Mary follows her heart, the leading of the Spirit pulling the reins on her soul. She slows down and sits with hot tea in her hands. Mary has chosen the goodness of God’s presence. The Son of God has come into her home. The ultimate guest has arrived.

Why spend time in the kitchen when you could just order pizza? Why worry about the dishes in the sink and the dust on the sofas when you can have holy conversations with Christ?

Some might call Mary the lazy little sister. She appears at first glance as an “underfunctioner,” a person who doesn’t take action or initiative. She appears as someone who is content to let the Marthas of the world do all the work.

But it’s more than this. Somehow the Marys of this world know instinctively how to “be still and know that I am God.” This is what makes Mary great.

Mary is not against work, especially the work that Martha so diligently embraces, the work that is Martha’s offering to Jesus. Martha is propelled by a deep desire to physically serve and contribute to the needs of those around her. Mary is driven to serve with her presence and attention.

Mary is a contemplative. Martha is an activist.

It’s unfair to read Jesus’ reprimand of Martha as dismissal, unfair to think Jesus views Martha as an anxious woman overly concerned with traditional hospitality. For Martha looks awfully like the Good Samaritan here. The Good Samaritan story actually precedes the story of Mary and Martha in Luke’s Gospel! The Good Samaritan is the hero of that story because he takes action; he exhibits holy hospitality.

Martha is no different. She embodies action, tending hospitably to the details and needs of Jesus. But traditional interpretations of this passage hold that Jesus’ words diminish the value of Martha’s work, as he scolds her for suggesting Mary should help in such a lowly task.

Perhaps this traditional interpretation says more about the people interpreting than it does about Jesus’s actual intent. The work of woman in the world has been devalued for millennia. Even today women earn less than three quarters of the pay men earn for doing the same job.

Like it or not, money clearly communicates value in society. Most jobs traditionally held by women, called pink-collar jobs—like teachers, housekeepers, and secretaries—are lower paying than jobs traditionally held by men. Martha may be driven by her desire for her work to be valued, specifically in comparison to the other woman in the room.

In a better informed, more socially just interpretation of this story, Jesus is not devaluing Martha’s work but, instead, commenting on the hardening of her attitude.

As a marginalized group, it is too easy for women to become adversarial, pitting themselves against each other, valuing or devaluing each other’s worth based on perceptions of how hard someone is working or passing judgment about how valuable another’s contribution is to the world. This is a vicious compare and contrast attitude that is perpetuated by patriarchal cultures. Women are forced to partake in ferocious competition for limited resources instead of being immersed in a faithful community where there is not only enough for all but in which all are valued.

If we take a deeper look into the scripture we understand that both Mary and Martha offer Jesus their best. They both have important roles in the community of faith; one of prayer, one of work.

There is a motto from Saint Benedict that says ora et labora. That’s Latin for prayer and work. This saying is lived out in monastic communities of faith where groups of men or women choose to live in community, as followers of Jesus, practicing both prayer and work.

Now more than ever, we need both prayer and work to fully follow the way of Jesus Christ. Prayer is good. Work is good. Mary is great. Martha is great.

Rev. Lea

There’s nothing I love more than a good chart. Color-coded is even better. Charts for organizing volunteers, charts for scheduling, charts for household chores, charts for traveling, charts for decision-making. Here a chart, there a chart, everywhere a chart chart!

This past Valentine’s Day, my sweetheart gave me a bullet journal. It’s formatted with dots on the pages, allowing you to write in it like a regular journal or hand-draw custom charts. It was a fantastic gift! One of my favorite pages in the bullet journal is the weekly meal plan chart with columns for breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks, and desserts. I pride myself in being a home chef, and with my chart I can keep an eye on nutrition and balancing food groups. It helps me shop for groceries efficiently. With this excellent planning aid, I am able to whip up everything on Mondays, label it all, and store it for later. I start the week knowing we will have great food all week. Fantastic!

I am a Martha.

I imagine Martha made charts and meal plans, too. I always liked her.

Typically, our passage this morning from Luke 10 is interpreted to be directly or indirectly chastising women and busyness, or even demeaning the very domestic work that keeps everyone clean and fed. Preachers who speak poorly of “women’s work” claim they are just echoing Jesus!

But let’s take a closer look.

Here’s the scene— Mary and Martha are hosting a dinner party. Jesus is in attendance. Martha is running around the kitchen making sure everything is taken care of—you can just imagine her as the stressed-out 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 Martha needs to just leave her alone.

In the typical interpretation, Martha is a foolish woman for worrying her pretty little head over unnecessary details of housekeeping while Jesus is visiting. But an interpretation that makes much more sense to those of us familiar with the challenge of being a good host is that Jesus’s correction is not about the value of Martha’s work, but the problem with Martha’s attitude.

What often escapes understanding, but is most important to realize, 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, Mary with the best of her ears. Both women know Jesus is Lord. Martha directly calls Jesus “Lord,” and Mary “sits at His feet,” an expression suggestive of committed listening and learning.

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 and our work as any more or less important than anyone else’s. What each of us has to offer is sacred.

Don’t be fooled by the usual, inaccurate interpretation of this story. If you are a Martha, your work is sacred, no matter how big or small.

In the Montessori education tradition, children’s play is their work. In Luke’s Gospel, he uses the Greek word diakonia. No need to adjust your hearing aid, if you are hearing the same root as diaconate or deacon; that is accurate. Diakonia means service.

I was raised to believe that if I wasn’t doing something, working on something, then I was wasting time. I don’t believe this is healthy. I’m reminded of the sign over the entrance to Auschwitz, “Work sets you Free.” Work did not set you free there, and work doesn’t set us free in our lives either. A more contemplative spirituality pulls us to affirm that resting, or silence, or reflecting, or sitting, what appears to be “doing nothing” is, indeed, important, and is very much doing something.

After hearing all this, you may be thinking, Yep! I’m a Martha!  Perhaps you serve with your hospitality; perhaps you do committee work; perhaps you are a Type A person who serves in all kinds of ways. You are a gift to this community.

After hearing all this, you may be thinking, Definitely! I’m a Mary! You may know yourself to be a teacher, or someone who experiences God in silence, or a generally contemplative person. You are, likewise, a gift to this community.

And finally, after hearing all of this, you may be thinking, I’m not a worker-bee busybody like Martha, but I’m not a studious or contemplative person like Mary, either. You may feel yourself to be somewhere in between, or both, or neither. And you know what? You are a gift to this community as well!

Marthas, Marys, and everyone else; together we make one team.

Ora et labora.

Thanks be to God.



Rev. Erica WhitakerRev. Erica Whitaker is the Senior Pastor at Buechel Park Baptist Church in Louisville, KY. She is a Texas native. She served for two years as a Pastoral Resident at Wilshire Baptist Church. Erica earned a Master of Divinity degree from Baylor University George W. Truett Theological Seminary and holds a Bachelor of Arts and Sciences from the University of North Texas where she majored in Radio, Television, and Film. Erica and her husband Josh have two furry children named Fred and Lucy. She is an avid reader of just about anything, loves hiking, watching movies, and sitting on her back porch with a cup of coffee.

Rev. Rev. Erica LeaErica Lea is a graduate of San Jacinto College, Texas A&M, and Truett Theological Seminary. She has served congregations in Wyoming, Texas, and North Carolina. She is currently serving her final year as Pastor in Residence at Calvary Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. When not at church or serving the community, Erica enjoys cooking, walking, movies, traveling, and time with her sweetheart. Connect with Erica online via Twitter (@RevEricaLea) or on her website (revericalea.org).


© 2017 by Christian Feminism Today, Rev. Erica Lea, and Rev. Erica Whitaker

The Christian Feminism Today website addresses topics of interest to Christian feminists. It features articles, opinion pieces, reviews of books and recordings (audio and video), interviews with Christian women and men who live according to Christian feminist principles and promote gender equality, love, and social justice among all people. We welcome submissions for consideration. Writer's guidelines are here.


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