Being and Doing


As a preacher I have a periodic challenge ~ one that arises every time the Mary and Martha story is featured in the Sunday lectionary. Being married to a Martha, how do I explain why Jesus’ encounter with the two sisters does not really mean what the story seems to be saying? As if Jesus’ point was that ‘Mary’s who are busy praying’ are more noble than ‘Martha’s who are busying serving.’

To accept that common way of hearing the story overlooks several important aspects of the event. For we should remember at least two things about it ~ that Martha is mentioned first, before Mary; and, that Martha offers hospitality to the Lord. Therefore, and most appropriately, the Church has a feast day for Mary and Martha, commemorating them together with their brother Lazarus. This tells us something important – that serving and prayer are not an either/or. Both Mary and Martha surely served. And we know that Martha’s words of faith —spoken to Jesus when her brother Lazarus died— reveal a deep and prayerful spiritual perception. This insight is reflected in the painting of the two sisters by Jan Vermeer. Notice how the artist portrays both sisters attending to the Lord in an equally reverent way.

This ‘both—and’ perception of the relation between work and prayer is not unique to Mary and Martha. St Benedict’s Rule, and the Benedictine tradition in Anglicanism, teach us that prayer is holy work, and that work can be a form of prayer. Benedict tells us that the tools in the garden shed are to be treated with the same respect as the communion chalices in the sacristy. For both are made for holy work. This is significant because of our culture’s tendency to see things in parts rather than as whole. Perceiving how Martha and Mary’s roles intertwine and complement one another is to see how they are part of the wholeness of their family with Lazarus. Discerning how a monk does holy work when he is praying with his brothers in church, helps us also see how he can also be praying when he does his holy work in the monastery kitchen or garden.

This understanding provides the horizon for our spiritual maturity, especially as we come to live together as a community of disciples. Discipleship involves our being and our doing. In the moral life, we know that doing shapes being. What we do shapes who we are and who we become, just as who we are is then reflected in our doing. Too often, we assume this is practically true in our spiritual growth – as if, by pursuing certain techniques, practices or disciplines, we can shape our own spiritual progress. Yet, it is Christ Jesus who shapes our being. He re-shapes our being from its bent form to its God-intended mature, whole, and complete shape. As Paul helps us see in Colossians, when the fullness of God in Christ Jesus comes to inhabit all of our being {our hearts and minds, and souls and bodies}, the fullness of God in Christ Jesus inhabits our doing, as well. This is true for us as individuals, and it is true for us as a community.

And so we come back to the community within that house at Bethany, where Jesus loved to go for refreshment. Nurtured by his presence with them, Mary and Martha came to exemplify the unity of being and doing — and especially how changed being leads to changed doing. Centering ourselves on our new life in Christ Jesus, we become icons of his transforming presence. Through us —through what we do, but even more through how our being is changed by him— people see more and more of God.


The image above is of Jan Vermeer’s painting, Christ in the House of Martha and Mary. This post is based on my homily for Sunday, July 21, 2019, which can be accessed by clicking hereOther homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here. The Revised Common Lectionary, which specifies the readings for Sundays and other Holy Days, can be accessed by clicking here.

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