St Augustine [Sermons 255.2]: Martha demonstrates generous hospitality as she receives Jesus into her home; this is a great week, for she is preparing food for the Holy of Holies and his saints. This is an important, but transitory work.
Mary [Sermon 179.5] feasts on the hustice abd truth of Christ, who is the true Bread of Life. This is the Bread we needs always, and which nourishes us always.
In his Exposition, St Ambrose reminds us that virtue does not have a single form; Martha personifies the busy devotion, and Mary the pious attention to the word of God. We should not let even the desire to serve divert us from hearing the word of God.
St Ephrem tells us that Mary came and sat at the feet of him who had forgiven the sinful woman her sins. She had put on a crown to enter the kingdom of the first born.
John Cassian tells us that to cling to God, and the things of God must always be our major effort and should be the road the heart follows unswervingly. In looking after the Lord and his disciples, Martha did a very holy service. But Mary was intent on the spiritual teaching of Jesus, and stayed by his feet which she kissed and anointed with the oil of her good faith. Jesus is not criticising Martha, but he was saying that her way was a step below that chosen by Mary. Martha’s work can last only as long s the body is there to be served, whereas the zeal of Mary can never end.
It is noticeable that none of the Fathers wish to sound as though the busy devotion of Martha is being downgraded in favour of the quiet devotion of Mary, and there were no doubt sound reasons for that. But this is another example of Christ challenging our perspectives and standards.
Rudyard Kipling, as Jess and Neo will know, had his own take on this, which I cannot forbear to quote:
The Sons of Martha
THE Sons of Mary seldom bother, for they have inherited that good part;
But the Sons of Martha favour their Mother of the careful soul and the troubled heart.
And because she lost her temper once, and because she was rude to the Lord her Guest, Her Sons must wait upon Mary’s Sons, world without end, reprieve, or rest.
It is their care in all the ages to take the buffet and cushion the shock.
It is their care that the gear engages; it is their care that the switches lock.
It is their care that the wheels run truly; it is their care to embark and entrain,
Tally, transport, and deliver duly the Sons of Mary by land and main.
They say to mountains, ” Be ye removèd” They say to the lesser floods ” Be dry.”
Under their rods are the rocks reprovèd – they are not afraid of that which is high.
Then do the hill tops shake to the summit – then is the bed of the deep laid bare,
That the Sons of Mary may overcome it, pleasantly sleeping and unaware.
They finger death at their gloves’ end where they piece and repiece the living wires.
He rears against the gates they tend: they feed him hungry behind their fires.
Early at dawn, ere men see clear, they stumble into his terrible stall,
And hale him forth like a haltered steer, and goad and turn him till evenfall.
To these from birth is Belief forbidden; from these till death is Relief afar.
They are concerned with matters hidden – under the earthline their altars are
The secret fountains to follow up, waters withdrawn to restore to the mouth,
And gather the floods as in a cup, and pour them again at a city’s drouth.
They do not preach that their God will rouse them a little before the nuts work loose.
They do not teach that His Pity allows them to leave their job when they damn-well choose.
As in the thronged and the lighted ways, so in the dark and the desert they stand,
Wary and watchful all their days that their brethren’s days may be long in the land.
Raise ye the stone or cleave the wood to make a path more fair or flat;
Lo, it is black already with blood some Son of Martha spilled for that !
Not as a ladder from earth to Heaven, not as a witness to any creed,
But simple service simply given to his own kind in their common need.
And the Sons of Mary smile and are blessèd – they know the angels are on their side.
They know in them is the Grace confessèd, and for them are the Mercies multiplied.
They sit at the Feet – they hear the Word – they see how truly the Promise runs.
They have cast their burden upon the Lord, and – the Lord He lays it on Martha’s Sons!