This short episode in the life of Christ is only mentioned within St Luke’s gospel. Two miles to the east of Jerusalem lay a town called Bethany, where two sisters – St Martha and St Mary – lived with their brother Lazarus. There was always a welcome for Christ in this home. We know from St John’s gospel that Christ was particularly close to this family (John 11:1-5).
Once, when Christ visited, St Martha busied herself with serving food and being a good hostess. St Mary (probably her younger sister) preferred to sit at Christ’s feet, listening to him talk about spiritual things. This annoyed St Martha, who complained to Christ, saying: “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.”
In response, Christ said: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” The saying has led to many reflections on the difference between the “active” and the “contemplative” life.
Commenting on the story, Pope Francis asked: “Why then was Martha scolded, even if kindly, by Jesus? Because she considered only what she was doing to be essential; she was too absorbed and worried by the things “to do”. For a Christian, works of service and charity are never detached from the principle of all our action: that is, listening to the Word of the Lord, to be — like Mary — at the feet of Jesus, with the attitude of a disciple. And that is why Martha was scolded.”
The fact that St Mary sat at Christ’s feet is also significant. This was the position taken by a disciple who was learning from a teacher (cf Acts 22:3). As such, the story may contain a wider message about the education of women. It may also be the basis for St Paul’s discussion on focusing on Christ and leaving aside worldly distractions (1 Corinthians 7:32-35).
The exact identity of St Mary, the sister of St Martha, has been a subject of debate. Often, she has been identified with St Mary Magdalene. There are some good reasons for this. For example, linking the two would explain why St Mary Magdalene was particularly close to Christ and the first person to see him after the resurrection. However, not all scholars agree on this and therefore, it’s hard to identify her with complete certainty.
This stained glass window picturing the story appears stylistically to be by the Hardmans firm and dates to 1925. Since it’s found within St Mary Magdalene’s church in Bexhill-on-Sea, the artist apparently shared the view that the story featured Mary Magdalene. The window also contains other interesting details, such as the Scripture reference for the story as well a miniature of their brother Lazarus (see below).
In the scene, St Mary is depicted listening closely to Christ, seated in a lower position. Christ clutches a book featuring his initials in Greek (IHS), as a symbol of his teaching “the Word of the Lord”. St Martha, by contrast, is clearly focused on serving the food – and not on what Christ is saying.
See the full image:
The Scripture reference:
And the detail of Lazarus:
Where to find this work of art
St Mary Magdalene’s, Bexhill-on-Sea
Read the relevant passage