Mary and Martha: Contemplative and Active


We all remember that Jesus gave his approval to what Mary was doing (or not doing) rather than to the very active and concerned Martha. But, if an opinion poll were done in modern America concerning the value of the two sisters, no doubt Martha would come out on top—with perhaps the proviso that the man or men of the house should have been helping as well! To be active and achieving something is highly rated, while engaging in prolonged meditation or contemplation is judged to be of doubtful value.

The story of Mary and Martha is told in Luke 10:38-42.

What Martha had to offer was not the right thing for this unique moment, but it had its place at other times. Since the third century these two sisters have been seen in the church as providing a picture of two necessary sides of the mature Christ life: the active life and the contemplative life. Both are necessary, but in a certain order—first the contemplative and then the active—and they should not be separated. First we are to be united to the Lord in meditation and contemplative prayer, and then from this to go out and do his will in his strength.

We know how to be busy. But how should we meditate?

How to engage the Bible

Most of us read things to gather information. Informative reading is done as quickly as possible, with the reader in charge. Newspaper articles are published in such narrow columns to help our eyes move quickly down the text. When people think about reading the Bible, most think about the large parts they don’t know anything about.

But don’t read the Bible that way. Christian meditation is not reading for information. Instead, reading the Bible is done slowly and with the Holy Spirit in charge. It’s best to meditate on well-known texts. Think of the chosen verses of Scripture as part of a longer love letter sent from heaven to earth, to you particularly from your Beloved. Read them with the care and attention that you would read a love letter from a spouse long-deployed overseas in the Navy.

  • Read,
    • over and over and out loud, like any pop radio song
    • put yourself in the text—the emotions, details, and images; use your imagination
  • Discuss,
    • ask questions and talk it out, even if you’re talking to yourself
  • Respond.
    • pray about what you’ve read and thought
    • use the words of the text to get started praying

The important thing isn’t to complete a particular study. It’s showing up every morning.

Family devotions

Shared meditation is the number one, guaranteed way to build stronger relationships in marriage and family.

“One of us reads a few verses from the Bible. We ask the kids to share what the verses mean to them. Then all six of us say a brief prayer. It’s really brought us closer together. More importantly, it’s really brought us closer to God.”