Preparing and Leading a Discussion on Mary and Martha

On a number of occasions, I have led seminars with teachers on the stories in Luke’s and John’s Gospels that feature Mary and Martha. These include Luke 10:38-42, John 11, and John 12:1-10. Luke’s story is among the iconic stories of the Scriptures. The Church has long seen Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus as a type of the contemplative religious life, and Jesus’ rebuke of Martha as His elevation of that life above that of the majority of Christians — lay, clerical and religious – marked by active service.

Those who indulge in serious reading of original texts find that interesting details are often lost when ideas and stories become iconic. In fact, vanity will rear its ugly head, leading Great Bookers to delight in correcting anyone who repeats the common wisdom about an author or text. In spite of this temptation, I have found that I usually get fresh, deeper looks when I pay close attention to the original sources of iconic stories. The Mary and Martha story intrigued me particularly the longer I lived with my wife. Was it really Our Lord’s intention to make her and many admirable women like her feel that their concerns about the details of child-rearing and family life are simply a distraction from what is really important? I felt something was missing – the glory of Martha story.

This puzzle floated in and out of my consciousness for some years, until one day, probably during the Lenten season when Catholics get to revel in John’s wonderful, lavishly detailed (at least according to Gospel standards) stories like the Woman at the Well, the Man Born Blind and the Raising of Lazarus, I was struck by Martha’s prominence in the Lazarus Martha speaks to Jesusstory. She along with Mary is said to be loved by Jesus; she left the house to meet Jesus outside the village; and amazingly, she kept her hope for Lazarus even though he was four days dead. Her act of faith in this moment – “And even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you” – is unbelievable. Who else in the Gospels had faith that Jesus could raise a man from the dead? Mary also looks different in John’s story. In fact, it almost looks as though John wanted to compare Mary and Martha in such a way that Martha looks better. Mary stayed home when Martha went to meet Jesus; Mary did not express the faith that Martha did; Mary’s weeping moved Jesus to tears, though Martha is not said to weep at all.

These considerations led me to think these two readings would make for a good seminar discussion, which I led for the first time during a workshop for teachers at a Catholic classical school in upstate New York. I did not think I fully understood the stories by any means, but I did think that what I had seen about Martha and Mary in John’s Gospel, which I continued to ponder regularly, would be new to most readers as it had been for me, and was very much worth discussing. Where it would go, how rich the conversation might be, I did not know. This kept me in a state of some trepidation, but I had enough confidence to push forward. John’s story is full of lots of other oddities that I could turn to if my main topic lagged – Jesus’s decision not to come right away, His weeping, and the story about Mary anointing Jesus’ feet that begins Chapter 12.

I have now had two discussions of these texts, most recently at the Catholic Classical Schools Conference in July. Both went very well. The CCSC group included about 18 teachers and administrators of all levels of experience. Some had Great Books backgrounds; most did not.

What did I hope would happen during this conversation? Of course, I had the general goals that I have in most conversations: To have a lively discussion with broad participation that excites wonder, to build a sense of common excitement about learning, and hopefully to provoke questions that would lead to continued thought, wonder and discussion after the end of the seminar. I don’t want lively discussion for its own sake. Someone once commented disparagingly about a discussion I enjoyed, “This shows we could talk for hours about a local telephone book.” I disagreed with him; I thought that we had such a lively discussion was prima facie evidence that it was worth talking about. Still, sometimes people are participants in discussions seem to be in it just for the excitement of the moment, leaving with no particular memory of what they talked about and not really wanting them to effect any lasting change in themselves. But usually a lively discussions come from a serious passion to understand difficult and worthwhile matters.

I also hoped that many would see in the readings what I thought I had seen. When I first led the discussion, I probably thought about it as, “Martha is pretty good, better than Mary in some ways.” Still, I didn’t want to push this too hard. Focusing too much on getting participants to see my point of view has often kept me from seeing other things that they were seeing. So I was determined not to press it too hard. I usually learn a lot myself if I pay careful attention to the conversation.

Whether the participants agreed with my point of view, or whether I would change my view through the conversation, I hoped that, by asking the right questions, participants would pay more attention to the story than they ever had before. They would notice some of the puzzling passages that I had seen, which would lead them to look at it more closely, become conscious of and wary of their own assumptions about it, and see it with new eyes, like Chesterton’s Mooreeffoc. Close attention to a text as rich as that of St. John, fostering a lingering wonder about it, could not help but produce good fruits.

With these goals in mind, I had to choose a good question to start off the conversation. I usually try to find a question that I think will quickly raise more questions as participants offer different answers. A good opening question is one we will usually return to throughout the conversation to see how we have gotten at providing satisfactory answers. On the other hand, the question can be one that I expect will lead to larger questions, the latter of which I expect to become the real locus of the conversation.

In this case, I decided to propose two questions and let the participants decide which to pursue. One was fairly general, “How do Mary and Martha compare with one another in the two stories?” This was an indeterminate version of the question which motivated me to CCSC 2015 Mary and Martha discussionchoose these readings in the first place. The second was more particular, more immediately puzzling, and also one concerning which I only suspected an answer: “Why does John (11:2) identify Mary as the one who anointed Jesus in the chapter before he tells the anointing story?” This was a strange thing I had noticed about the story in preparing for this discussion; it might have been my fourth or fifth careful reading. A riskier question, but I thought it would drive us to consider why Mary would do such a thing, and what the Lazarus’ story might reveal about her action.

No one spoke at first. After a half a minute, one participant addressed the first question by suggesting that the two sisters looked different in the two stories, and that John presented Martha in a better light than Luke. In Luke she looked like the Elder brother in the Prodigal Son story, but she was much more connected to Jesus in John. Others joined this line of thought, and developed many of my own ideas about how Martha looked better than Mary in John. They suggested that Mary almost seemed to be in despair over Lazarus. At this point, some who had not spoken reacted very strongly. Why were people thinking that Mary was in despair? Why did they think she was presented in a light inferior to that of Martha?

Up to this point, I had intervened only occasionally, and mostly with “method” comments. I frequently ask those arguing a position if they have support from the text we are discussing. I then ask them to tell us where it is, give others time to find it, read it aloud and then tell us what they think is significant about it. That way everyone keeps looking back at the precise words of the author, often seeing much they had overlooked in their own reading. I ask participants to repeat their points if I thought they were unclear, or perhaps others didn’t seem to appreciate the significance of what was said. If someone goes on at length, I might ask them to give us the short version. I interrupt more active speakers to less forceful ones get into the conversation. I also point out where I think speakers are disagreeing, something they do not always see themselves. This is not to provoke a fight, but so that each can begin to consider whether they should modify their positions, or begin to give reasons why they think they should hold their ground.

In the Mary and Martha conversation, everyone realized there was disagreement. So I asked those who thought Martha looked better in John to go over their evidence. Among that group they pointed to:

  • Martha’s expression of faith in Jesus, which culminated in a statement very like Peter’s in Matthew’s Gospel: “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, he who is coming into the world.”
  • Mary speaks to Jesus with the same words as Martha, but omits an expression of faith: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
  • These differences in faith connect with the reason Jesus gave for letting Lazarus die in the first place: “Lazarus is dead; and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe.”
  • Mary stayed at home when Martha went to meet Jesus. She didn’t come till Martha returned and told her Jesus was asking for her.
  • Mary was weeping when she spoke to Jesus, and Jesus wept when he saw her and the Jews weeping.

The other side then responded to most of the points. Some they thought were overreadings of little portions of text. Did John really intend us to connect Martha’s expression with Peter’s? Was he really trying to draw our attention to Mary’s omission? Mary stayed home because there were guests. One participant said that many of these texts could be showing us that Mary was more docile to Jesus than Martha. She didn’t go out until she was called; she didn’t make any demand on Jesus to raise Lazarus.

At one point I asked whether we thought John meant to call our attention to these differences by the details and wording of the story. I thought it would help our discussion, but it is also an important premise of most Great Bookers – great authors are very careful with their words, and so it pays us to take every word very seriously. One participant denied this strongly, suggesting that it is easy for readers to make up grand interpretations which the original author never considered. But most seemed to think John’s words at least very significant, though they disagreed on their meaning.

Mary anointing JesusThe debate continued, and more details were brought into consideration.

  • Luke refers to the house as “Martha’s house”.
  • Mary is often at the feet of Jesus – in the house, when she went weeping to him, when she anointed him.
  • When Mary anoints Jesus, Martha is again serving, but this time she does not complain about her sister, though Judas does.
  • Was this anointing a second one, unconnected with the repentant woman? Was this Mary, Mary Magdalene? Was she repenting in John’s Gospel, or simply preparing his body for death?

I finally ended the conversation. We did not reach a common agreement, but still I was very satisfied. We certainly had had a lively discussion that came from paying greater and greater attention to the details of the Gospel authors. Everyone in the group participated at some point – I thought I was going to have to call two people to express their opinion, but they finally entered of their own accord (and with some passion). I was confident that most would continue to think about the questions we raised for a long time, which was confirmed by subsequent lengthy conversations with several of the participants.

Was I disappointed that we did not come to an agreement at the end? No. I have found that most questions worth discussing are ones that need to be thought about for a long time, in different contexts, and even in different periods of our lives. I thought they were in a good position to do that. They had formed, developed and defended their own opinions, but they also knew the stories contained much more that they would need to account for before they could be sure.

Most of what I had noticed before the discussion came out, and I noticed a number of details for the first time (such as the connection between Martha and Peter, and Martha’s serving without complaining in John 12). I also began to think more deeply about Mary and Martha as types of the contemplative and active lives. Perhaps John’s story was pointing out the strengths and limitations of both types of life, so that we can see why the Church needs both. One thing I regretted – I thought but did not suggest that Mary might have been angry with Jesus for not coming rather than in despair over his powers. That idea, which I had before the conversation, did not come up. When I mentioned it to some after the discussion, they thought it very helpful.

The conversation had what was to me a beautiful epilogue. The next day was the feast of St. Mary Magdalene. The texts used in Morning and Evening Prayer and in the readings for Mass reverberated with themes from our discussion, arousing in me a greater excitement in celebrating her feast than I had ever known.


About Andrew Seeley

Executive Director, Institute for Catholic Liberal Education Tutor, Thomas Aquinas College
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2 Responses to Preparing and Leading a Discussion on Mary and Martha

  1. Unloup says:

    The practical appication of the chaos theory in corporate world is to assign a number to every dot and tittle of your corporation, put those numbers into a computor and out comes a three dimentional object that represents your corporation. In a similar way the restlessness St. Augustine talks about is fueled by what insights of faith God has given us, insight that fuels our hunger the more. We know we will never know anything in its entirity and we know of our ability to error, so we try to be as precise as we can be in the use of words, mainly because we don’t want to mislead anyone, especially ourselves. We remain open docile, humble, in anticipation of the gift of the next insight that someday, out of the computor God has created in us, out the other end will stand our Lord, the object of our restlessness.

  2. Karl says:

    Thank you for covering this. We chose the pericope of Martha’s confessionS (there are two in the pericope) in the Gospel of St John for my mother’s funeral last October because my mother was, in her over 90 years of life, a Martha: someone who advocated (especially for special needs childre – my mother was of the generation of Ethel Kennedy who began agitating in the 1950s) and did not go to God meekly but wrestled with God. These are women who say: who are you not do do your divine job?

    And, while Scripture scholars would probably NOT like the conflation of the Lucan and Johannine accounts of the family of disciples in Bethany, to my reading the Johannine pericope fits as a diptych with the Lucan, and the synergy is powerful. Imagine that the Martha of John’s account is the Martha who has received remonstration from Jesus in Luke’s acount.

    That arc is a distillation of the faith journey.

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