Martha and Mary: What part does quiet and reflection play in our service?

Sister Rachel Bergschneider, OSB

By Sister Rachel Bergschneider, OSB

Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time/July 21

Genesis 18:1-10a; Psalm 15:2-3,3-4,5; Colossians 1:24-28; Luke 10:38-42

So what is your better part? For Mary in today’s Gospel it is visiting with Jesus. Martha is not much pleased with that. She feels slighted because she has to fulfill the tasks at hand.

So often in Bible discussion groups when the Gospel of Luke presents the passage from today’s readings, there is an almost angry response by some people. It is as if Jesus is taking the side of those who choose conversation over serving.

I suspect that most of us could bring to mind a similar scenario from our childhood. In my case, the three girls (the six boys were exempt from kitchen duties) struggled to get all the dishes washed. One sister was the most clever. She went to another room on the pretext of doing something relevant to her task, then read a book while the other two of us did the dishes.

It seems a bit difficult to understand why this story was included in the Gospel. What did Jesus want to communicate? Is it visiting that is more important than working? Is it that the contemplative life is more important than the active life?


I doubt that Jesus had these ideas in mind when He admonished Martha. What the passage said was “Martha, burdened with much serving, came to Him and said, ”Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? Tell her to help me.” (Luke 10:40) Jesus’ response is simple: “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part.” (Luke 10:41)

Martha is burdened and anxious. Her service is not life-giving and generous. It is a cause of distress and anxiety. Jesus recognizes this and invites Martha to see the value of being present to another and listening.

We live in a world where getting things done is a priority for us. Our daily lives revolve around what we get done. Our value ends up being measured on how much we do.

Jesus is choosing the value of being present to another. It is reinforced in the first reading from Genesis where Abraham is present to the strangers he encounters. He not only greets them, he provides food for them on their journey.


The value of being present is critical to a reflective life. Stillness and quiet give us space to be present to ourselves. Then our presence to those we meet is more intentional and life-giving. We are able to get out of ourselves and forget our own preoccupations. As with Abraham in the first reading, it can create selflessness, generosity and hospitality.

To take the words from a millennial who works with spiritually diverse millennials: “As an active, and perhaps an overactive do-er, I rarely pause just to be. But I know that the question ‘What do I have to let go of in order to say “yes” to a much deeper call within me?’ would never have arisen within me if I had not taken time for silence and stillness.

The real issue is how to balance the need for quiet and reflection with the necessary action we are called to do in the name of the Lord. The following example, which was written by Nicholas Kristof, a journalist and commentator, says so much.

Kristof, who travels the world and sees the worst and the best of humanity, related a story about a visit he had to the Congo. He had interviewed a warlord who was murdering and raping people. But the person who left an even deeper impression on him was an “incredible” Polish nun who stayed behind when aid groups fled. She was running an emergency feeding center, an orphanage, a school — and also negotiating with the warlord to keep him out of town. “I came back,” he said, “and couldn’t stop thinking that when I grow up, I want to be a Polish nun!”

Odds are that this nun did not fulfill the call to serve without a deep commitment to a reflective life.

Sister Rachel Bergschneider, OSB, is a member of the Sisters of St. Benedict of St. Mary Monastery, Rock Island. She has been a teacher, campus minister and pastoral associate, and  currently offers retreats and spirituality programs in Peoria.

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