The Meaning of Martha: Catholics and Protestants on Work and Vocation 

Date Published

October 11, 2017

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Published by Lee Hardy

Adjunct Professor of Philosophical Theology

Mary and Martha. I think we all know the story as related in the tenth chapter of the gospel according to St. Luke. After telling the parable of the good Samaritan to a testy lawyer, Jesus entered a village and was invited to dinner at the house of Mary and Martha. Mary sat before Jesus and listened intently to his teaching, while Martha was busy in the back with food preparation. Overwhelmed, Martha complained to Jesus that Mary was not helping out in the kitchen. Jesus responded by saying that Martha was anxious about many things but Mary had chosen the one thing necessary. 

To this day, people who busy themselves in the kitchens of the church are often tagged as “Marthas,” the busy bees of the congregation. But what was Jesus intending to teach here? Should we all be in the sanctuary prior to the fellowship hour? 

One way to reflect on the questions this story raises is to compare the historical difference between the Catholic and Protestant attitudes towards work and vocation, as clearly revealed in the commentaries on this passage by Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin. 

Thomas stood in a long tradition of interpreting Scripture by way of allegory. He thought that even the historical passages of Scripture should be read, in effect, as parables. Their meaning would be unlocked only by discerning what each figure in the narrative stands for. In Thomas’s reading of the Mary and Martha story, Mary stands for the contemplative life, while Martha stands for the active life. In recommending Mary over Martha, therefore, Jesus was in fact recommending the contemplative life over the active life.

Thomas’s comments on the Mary and Martha story are part of a larger argument he develops in the Summa Theologiae for the superiority of the contemplative life. One part of that argument draws upon the authority of Jesus, as Thomas understood him. The other part draws from the philosophy of Aristotle.

Aristotle made a distinction between three kinds of life a human being could live: the productive life, the political life, and the contemplative life. Between the three, Aristotle considered the contemplative life to be the most excellent. The productive life of work is tied to the natural necessities imposed upon us by the body. Like the animals, we—or some of us, at least—must work to meet the body’s incessant needs for food, clothing, shelter, and the like. The political life of rule is better, but it is still conducted for the sake of ends that lie outside itself.  The contemplative life is best, because it relates to reason, the highest faculty of the human soul, and it is pursued for its own sake. Furthermore, this kind of life makes us most like the gods, which Aristotle thought of as distant minds, serenely contemplating the truth for all eternity. Work makes us like the animals; contemplation, like the gods. 

The theologians of the early and medieval church inherited much by way of Greek philosophy. And in Thomas we can see an agreement with its ranking of the contemplative life over the active. The specifically Christian element Thomas added to this philosophical tradition was the identification of God as the highest object of human thought. The contemplation of God constituted the “beatific vision,” a vision all the saints were to enjoy in the afterlife. In this life we can anticipate the final fulfillment of human life by withdrawing from the activities of the world and devoting ourselves to the contemplation of the divine. That life was lived to the fullest in the monastery. Therefore, monks, called out of the world to a life of the spirit, lived the best kind of life. They had received a vocation. The rest of us are left behind, evidently, compromised by the manifold distractions of the active life. Mary had indeed chosen the better part.

Let us now turn to Calvin’s commentary on the Mary and Martha passage. I will quote Calvin at some length in what might be considered a free and abridged translation—but close enough to deserve quotation marks. “As this passage has been basely distorted into the commendation of what is called a contemplative life, we must inquire into its true meaning, from which it will appear that nothing was farther from the intent of Christ, than to encourage his disciples to indulge in useless speculation. It is, no doubt, an old error, that those who withdraw from the active life, and devote themselves entirely to a contemplative life, lead a life of the angels. For the absurdities which the Sorbonnists [note: Aquinas taught at the Sorbonne] utter on this subject they appear to have been indebted to Aristotle, who places the highest good, and the ultimate end, of human life in contemplation, which, according to him, is the enjoyment of virtue. On the contrary, we know that we were created for the express purpose of being employed in labor of various kinds, and that no sacrifice is more pleasing to God than when each person applies diligently to their own calling, and endeavors to live in such a manner as to contribute to the common good.”

In Calvin’s view, Martha was corrected by Jesus not because she worked, but because she worked at the wrong time. When he paid a visit, bringing the words of life, one listened to what he had to say; the other did not. There is a time to work, and a time to listen.

Calvin was in many ways extending Martin Luther’s positive view of everyday work as a divine vocation. Luther set human work in the context of a doctrine of creation. God has so created the world that when human beings pursue their work they are in fact participating in God’s creational “delivery system,” through which the hungry are fed, the naked are clothed, the sick are healed, and the weak are protected. By working we participate in God’s ongoing providential care for the human race. Work has religious significance in itself. It is not a distraction.

Called out of the world to a contemplative relationship with God; called by God to serve others in the midst of the world. That was the contrast between Catholic and Protestant views of vocation at the time of the Reformation.  

500 years later, however, things have changed. The Catholic position on work and vocation now much more closely resembles the Protestant. In its 1986 statement entitled Economic Justice for All, the U.S. National Council of Bishops stated that Catholics “have much to learn from the Protestant tradition on the vocation of lay people in the world.” In the Vatican II document, Gaudium et Spes, we find an appreciation of the religious significance of earthly work: “When men and women provide for themselves and their families in such a way as to be of service to the community as well, they can rightly look upon their work as a prolongation of the work of the Creator, as service to their fellow man, and their personal contributions to the fulfillment in history of the divine plan.” This theme was picked up by Pope John Paul II in his 1981 encyclical on work and vocation, Laborem Exercens. Beginning with the creation account in the book of Genesis, and the creation mandate to exercise responsible dominion over the earth, he writes that “man, created in the image of God, shares by his work in the activity of the Creator and that, within the limits of his own capabilities, man in a sense continues to develop that activity, and perfects it as he advances further and further in the discovery of resources and values contained in the whole creation.” In our work we cooperate with God in the development of creation and the distribution of its good gifts to others. Work is not a distraction from our relationship with God. It’s an expression of it.

What we have witnessed the last fifty years is a remarkable convergence in Catholic and Protestant views of the religious meaning of work and vocation. Mary and Martha have a place in both traditions.

Work is not a distraction from our relationship with God. It’s an expression of it. 


by Lee Hardy, Adjunct Professor of Philosophical Theology 


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