All About Mary and Martha: The Priority of Personal Prayer

User’s Guide to Sunday, July 17

Art depicts Christ in the house of Mary and Martha in the Church of St. Matthew in Stitar, Croatia.
Art depicts Christ in the house of Mary and Martha in the Church of St. Matthew in Stitar, Croatia. (photo: Zvonimir Atletic / Shutterstock)

Sunday, July 17, is the 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time. Mass readings: Genesis 18:1-10a; Psalm 15:2-3, 3-4, 5; Colossians 1:24-28; and Luke 10:38-42.

Some people, in reading this Gospel about Martha and Mary, say that we all need a little of Martha and Mary in us and that the Church needs both Marthas and Marys. 

But in the end, such a conclusion misses the central point of this passage. 

Jesus does not conclude by saying, “Martha, now go do your thing, and let Mary do hers.” Rather, he describes Mary as not only choosing the better part but also as doing the “one thing necessary.” 

This does not amount to a call for “proper balance,” but instead underscores the radical priority and primacy of prayer. This, it would seem, is the proper interpretation of what is being taught here. Many other passages of the Scripture do set forth the need to be rich in works of charity, but this is not one of them.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at the details of the Lord’s teaching today on the priority of personal prayer.

Promising Prelude

“Jesus entered a village where a woman whose name was Martha welcomed him.” The story begins by showing Martha in a very favorable light. She opens her door (her life, if you will) and welcomes Jesus. 

This is at the heart of faith: a welcoming of Jesus into the home of our heart and life. 

Portrait of Prayer

“She had a sister named Mary who sat beside the Lord at his feet listening to him speak.” 

This is a beautiful portrait of prayer: sitting at the Lord’s feet, listening. 

Prayer is not just telling God what we want; it is discovering what he wills. We have to sit humbly and listen. As we shall see, Jesus calls this kind of prayer “the one thing necessary.” 

Perturbed and Presumptuous

“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.’”  

A lot of people run off to do something they think is a good idea. And maybe it is a fine thing in itself. 

But often, they never asked God about it. And then when things don’t work out, they will often blame God: “Why don’t you help me more?” 

Martha first blames her sister. Then she presumes that the Lord does not care about what is (to her) an obvious injustice. 

Then she takes presumption one step further and presumes to tell the Lord what to do: “Tell her to help me.”

Prescribed Priority

“Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.” 

Anxiety about many things comes from neglect of the one thing most necessary: sitting at the feet of the Lord and listening to him. 

The Lord will surely have things for us to do in our lives, but they need to come from him. This is why prayer is the “one thing” necessary — and the better part: because work flows from it and is subordinate to it.

So, prayer has priority. Word and good deeds follow it and are subordinate to it. 

An old prayer of the Church says:

Direct, we beseech thee, O Lord, our prayers and our actions by thy holy inspirations and carry them on by thy gracious assistance, so that every work of ours may always begin with thee and through thee be happily ended.