Martha, Mary, and the Meaning of Work

By David Baer

Jesus summarizes the Christian life for us with two commandments: love God with all your heart, body, soul, and mind; and love your neighbor as yourself.  Although he places love of God first, he also tells us the second commandment is “like unto the first,” such that on the two together hang the Law and the prophets.  Any so-called love for God that does not issue in good deeds toward the neighbor is a false love.  So, too, unless nourished by the love of God, our deeds will fall short of meeting the neighbor’s need.  The connection between the two may be mysterious and unseen, but we need not for this reason doubt the truth of invisible things.

Pieter Aertsen.2

Pieter Aertsen (1508-1575), Christ in the House of Martha and Mary / Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam

The mysterious connection between love of God and neighbor is illustrated for us in the Gospel by Luke, who relates not only the parable of the Good Samaritan, but also, and immediately afterwards, the story of Martha and Mary.  Jesus stops at the house of Martha and Mary, which fills with guests eager to hear the word of the Lord.  The work of providing for the guests, of offering them food and drink, falls to Martha.  Her sister Mary, instead of helping with the work, stays with the guests, listening to Jesus.  Martha, understandably irritated, asks Jesus if her sister ought not to help.  But Jesus responds by saying Mary has chosen the good portion.

Now as they went on their way, he entered a village; and a woman named Martha received him into her house.  And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching.  But Martha was distracted with much serving; and she went to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.”  But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful.  Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her.”  (Lk 10:38-42)

What can Jesus be telling us here?  That Mary, who chooses not work, does better than Martha, who chooses to work?

That leisure is better than work is not an idea with many supporters today.  Protestants, especially, have wanted to affirm the central place of work in the life of the Christian. “If any one will not work” says the Apostle, “let him not eat.” (2 Thess 3:10).  Working diligently in one’s vocation, teach Luther and Calvin, is an important way to love and serve the neighbor.  And yet Jesus tells Martha, who works, that Mary, who does not work, has chosen a good portion.

Many in the tradition have thought this is because Mary, sitting at the feet of the Lord, represents the contemplative life.  Mary delights in the Lord and leaves others to worry about the world and its work.  Which is not to say work is unimportant.  Unless Martha serves the guests, they will be unable to stop what they’re doing long enough to listen to Jesus.  Indeed, unless someone works, no one will eat, and no one will enjoy the leisure needed to contemplate the good life.  Jesus does not deny work is important, even as he calls its importance in question.  Nor does he rebuke Martha, but rather he directs her attention to the good portion chosen by Mary.  Still, we are left to puzzle, what is the relationship between worship and work?

I propose we reflect on this puzzle by considering two great men whose lives intersect, Johann Sebastian Bach and Albert Schweitzer.  Johann Sebastian Bach, of course, is an enormous figure in the history of music and one of the great intellectual figures in the history of Western civilization.  He was also a deeply religious man, who believed the purpose of music was “to produce an agreeable harmony to the honor of God and the proper delight of the soul” (Wolff 2000, 308-9).  To honor God is to worship him; and the worship of God is the delight of the soul.  Thus to praise God is to edify the soul.

In fact, Bach believed that the agreeable harmony expressed through counterpoint reflected the design of the universe.  A dictionary of the period defined music as “everything that creates harmony, that is, order.  And in this sense, it is used by those who assert that the whole universe is music.”  According to one of Bach’s contemporaries, “God is a harmonic being.  All harmony originates from his wise order and organization. . . .Where there is no conformity, there is also no order, no beauty, and no perfection.  For beauty and perfection consists in the conformity of diversity.” (Wolff 2000, 335, 466).  The goal of counterpoint was thus to discover a harmonious unity in the diversity of voices.  Unity in diversity, because it reflects the harmony of the universe, defines musical perfection.  Musical perfection gives expression to the harmony in nature, thereby glorifying God and lifting the soul.

Therefore, to practice the art of music was for Bach to engage in an activity of leisure.  Not leisure in the sense of doing nothing, but, to quote Albert Schweitzer, leisure “in the honorable and profound sense which this term had in times gone by when it signified the hours of life which a man used for himself and himself alone.” (Schweitzer 1994, 194).  Leisure in the profound sense is an activity directed toward cultivating the soul.  Cultivating the soul is inseparable from the worship of God.  The practice of music, because it gives praise to God, was for Bach an activity of self-cultivation.

Let us turn then to Albert Schweitzer, one of the great humanitarian figures of the twentieth century.  Born in Germany in 1875, the son of a Lutheran pastor, Schweitzer was a brilliant scholar, whose influence on theology and biblical scholarship continues to this day.  But at the age of 30, Schweitzer decided to give up his scholarly career and enter medical school, to become a doctor to move to Africa to establish a hospital in the jungle.  In his memoirs Schweitzer explains his remarkable decision this way:

It struck me as inconceivable that I should be allowed to lead such a happy life while I saw so many people around me struggling with sorrow and suffering. . . . One brilliant summer morning, as I awoke, the thought came to me that I must not accept this good fortune as a matter of course, but I must give something in return.  . . .I reflected on this thought, and before I had gotten up I came to the conclusion that until I was thirty I could consider myself justified in devoting myself to scholarship and the arts, but after that I would devote myself directly to serving humanity.  I had already tried many times to find the meaning that lay hidden in the saying of Jesus: “Whosoever would save his life shall lose it, and whosoever shall lose his life for My sake and the Gospels shall save it.”  Now I had found the answer.  (Schweitzer 1998, 82)

Schweitzer’s work in Africa earned him worldwide recognition, and in 1952 a Nobel Peace Prize.


Albert Schweitzer

Schweitzer, however, was not only a great humanitarian and scholar, he was also an accomplished organist who loved the music of Bach.  When Schweitzer left for Africa, he was given a special piano with pedal attachment by the Paris Bach Society, designed especially to withstand the tropics.  And in Africa, even while building his hospital, Schweitzer began each day with an hour of Bach.  The continued playing helped maintain his technical ability.  Occasionally, Schweitzer would return to Europe to give organ concerts, and the proceeds from those concerts helped to support his hospital in Africa.  Which means Schweitzer’s humanitarian work was financed, at least in part, through the music of J.S. Bach, music itself written for no other purpose than to give glory to God and recreation to the soul.

Herein, perhaps, lie some answers to the mystery of worship and work raised by Martha and Mary.  Meaningful work, the kind that serves others, is sustained by the worship of God and the edification of the soul.  The nature of work is to change things, and good work changes things for the better by giving something of value to others.  Yet the quality of the gift flows from the character of the soul.  Thus all who work should stop, at least once a week on the Sabbath day, to ask themselves, what do I have, really, worth giving?  And if you find you have little to give, spend more time like Mary on cultivating your soul.

Few of us are given thirty years, like Albert Schweitzer, to devote to self-cultivation.  But all of us, once a week, are given a day for Sabbath rest, a time when we may attend without apology to our own spiritual health and self-cultivation.  And if we use the time allotted to us well, we will begin discover within ourselves not only resources we need to sustain us in the stormy confusion of life, but also qualities of character that allow us to give gifts to others worth receiving.  We will discover qualities of character that help to ensure the changes we work in the world are good ones.  To be sure, Mary has chosen the good portion; but so may we all, every week, as is needed.

Works Cited:

Schweitzer, Albert. 1994. A Treasury of Albert Schweitzer. Thomas Kiernen, ed. Gramercy.

Schweitzer, Albert. 1998. Out of My Life and Thought: An Autobiography. Antje Bultmann Lemke, trans. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press.

Wolff, Christian. 2000. Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.


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