Faith or Works? Mary, Martha, and the Good Samaritan

I don’t know about you, but I can never seem to find, or even get my head around, the healthy balance between contemplation and action.  

I was recently on a call with my spiritual director processing my struggle to find this balance. Finding my footing between stewarding the to-do’s of life and the act of being present with my family, friends and especially Jesus. This of course called to mind the classic story of Mary and Martha where these women find themselves choosing different paths in their experience with Jesus. Let’s look at Luke 10:38-41:

38 As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. 39 She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. 40 But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”

41 “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, 42 but few things are needed—or indeed only one.[f] Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

The truth is, I want to be like Mary but I typically wake up acting like Martha.

I know I am not alone in this universal struggle. As I processed these truths with my director, I felt the tension of faith vs. works. He called my attention back to the fact that the story of Mary and Martha isn’t meant to be read in isolation, it’s actually meant to be read alongside the story of the Good Samaritan. Never before had I heard that these stories were connected and that they were intended to be read and understood alongside each other.

My director reminded me that context is key. Context helps us understand how a story mirrors or juxtaposes another while also providing deeper insight for us as the reader. This is critical in understanding what Luke was doing and teaching. Luke set up a more compelling discussion of what it means to follow Jesus by placing these two stories together to unpack the foundational truth set up in Luke 10:25-28. This is the set up, coming right before the story of the Good Samaritan and then the story of Mary and Martha. It says:

25 On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

26 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”

27 He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’[c]; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[d]”

28 “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”

This is a pretty major set up to one of the biggest existential questions in our lives: what must we do to inherit eternal life?

And this question points to an even deeper question: what’s the point of life itself?

To answer these questions let’s continue with Jesus' response in Luke 10:29-37:

29 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

30 In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii[e] and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

I love this story. The parable of the Good Samaritan calls us to love one another with a sacrificial love. Jesus also provided a definition of who we are called to love that is so broad, it even includes our enemies. This definition also clarifies that we are called to serve others, care for their needs, and to love everyone. Period. Full stop.

Think about how amazing this dual teaching is. Luke has placed these two stories together to highlight the tension and complexity found in our call to love God and love others.

See, this goes to the very root of the motives inside our hearts. It touches on the ever-present struggle of pleasing vs. trusting God. The chicken and egg of how grace and action are connected.

And most of us have a predisposition towards either the story of Mary and Martha or the Good Samaritan. Some of us, who by nature are more contemplative, gravitate towards the heart of Mary. We desire to be present with others, to experience life as it comes, and to take the time to feel and love others fully.

For those of us who are more prone to action, we are drawn to Martha or the story of the Good Samaritan, saying, “See? Faith without works is dead. We are called to love and serve the needs of others.”

God’s grace is sufficient enough for both of these teachings to be held and stewarded together. These stories offer a fuller spectrum of understanding for our mission and they help us unpack this dual commandment of loving God and loving others.

We have a responsibility to act, to serve, and to love others. And this, in my life, is an overflow of love which is received from a loving God. My relationship with God is found through sitting at his feet and receiving his love for me, which overflows to others. Without the source of receiving God’s love, I can’t love others with much depth or for very long. I want to be quicker to slow down and be with God. To experience His love, to learn from Him, and to be with Him. Both. Stillness and action. Receiving and giving. Faith resulting in works.

Love God and love others. This is so simple and so complex that we get to spend the rest of our lives maturing into understanding and applying these commandments to our lives.

I want to leave us with a couple of questions that we can process through prayer:

  1. God, what truths about faith vs. works can you reveal to me in the connected stories of Mary and Martha as well as the Good Samaritan?
  2. God, you know my heart. What are your hopes for me today, to lean into contemplative time being with you, or to be more aware of how I can love those around me with the love you have given me?


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