The Mary & Martha Continuum

By Joe Caruso Stories

What best describes you? Are you the type of person who likes to stop and smell the roses, or do you prefer to put your nose to the grindstone and get things done? In all likelihood, you’re a combination of both, but you probably lean one way or the other.

The two options represent different ways of walking through life. To a large extent, our tendency to lean towards one side or the other is baked into our personality. We naturally interact with the world around us in a certain way. Still not sure which one you are? Here’s a description of each.

  1. Stopping to Smell the Roses: This person likes to live in the moment and enjoys the simple things in life. They tend to be mindful and thankful for what they have. They value joy and relaxation and are concerned with their overall well-being.
  1. Putting Your Nose to the Grindstone: This person likes to work hard and is goal-oriented. They tend to be ambitious and productive. They value hard work and achievement and are determined to work through challenges.

Conflicts often arise when people of these two temperaments interact. There’s tension when neither person can see a situation from the other person’s perspective. Both will often think the other person is taking the wrong approach.

The story of Mary and Martha, found in Luke 10:38-42, describes this tension perfectly. The story takes place in their home. Martha invites Jesus and his disciples to stay for a while, and take a break from their travels. While there, Martha’s sister Mary sits at the feet of Jesus and listens to him talk.

Martha, on the other hand, is busy doing what she believes needs to be done to prepare for her invited guests. Noticing Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus, Martha finally asks, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”

Jesus then tells Martha, that of all the important things to do at that moment, Mary has chosen the better thing and it would not be taken away from her.

Mary was smelling the roses, while Martha was putting her nose to the grindstone. 

Mary and Martha represent two ends of a personality continuum. 

At one end we have Mary, led by her heart, she is sensitive to the fact that Jesus is with them and embraces the moment. She thinks to herself, “opportunities like this don’t come by very often.”

Martha is also sensitive to the fact that Jesus is with them. But she expresses herself in a very different way. Martha is busy ensuring that Jesus and his disciples are relaxed and comfortable, have something to eat and perhaps a comfortable place to sleep for the night.

So, why does Jesus say that Mary chose the greater thing? Both sisters are demonstrating their love and devotion to Jesus. Both, in very different ways, are making him a priority. 

I think Jesus said that Mary chose the greater thing because he’s making the point that there’s a time and place for everything, and Mary has chosen the best thing for that particular moment. There are times when we work and serve, and there are times when we connect to the moment.

I remember each of my children’s wedding days. Both days were filled with a lot of activity. Many things had to be done to make it complete. My wife and I could have easily been justified in preoccupying ourselves with the many tasks or distractions of the day. But we would run the risk, of missing the moment and not truly experiencing one of the biggest occasions in our family’s life. We were determined to experience every moment of the momentous occasion. Busyness and tasks were for another time.

In our story, Martha was the one who let her natural tendencies distract her from what was actually happening that day. She was so caught up with her desire to serve, that she wasn’t able to adjust and connect with Jesus. With her nose to the grindstone, Martha was serving Jesus and the other guests.

It’s important to note that the Mary and Martha continuum doesn’t represent a right and wrong scenario. It’s better to think of it as a time and place scenario. In Ecclesiastes 3, we read that “for everything there is a season.”

It wasn’t that Martha was wrong, her actions were just not what was best for the moment. There are times when Martha’s side of the continuum is what’s necessary. If we were always smelling the roses, nothing would ever get done.

In Proverbs 31, we read about the wife of noble character. Many of these verses, often reserved for Mother’s Day, represent Martha’s side of the personality continuum. The person described in this chapter was praised for having their nose to the grindstone. Here are just a few examples.

Verse 17: She sets about her work vigorously; her arms are strong for her tasks.

Verse 20: She opens her arms to the poor and extends her hands to the needy.

Verse 27: She watches over the affairs of her household and does not eat the bread of idleness.

Yes, both sides of this temperament continuum are necessary. Life would not be balanced with only one. The challenge is to know when to operate from Mary’s side of the continuum and when to shift to Martha’s side.

It’s difficult to determine, which side of the continuum is best for a particular situation. I don’t think there’s always a concise answer, or some magical formula to determine what is called for in every case.

I do think, however, that a good starting point would be to take yourself out of the equation. By taking yourself out, you won’t run the risk of operating from your default temperament. This is the mistake Martha made.

A helpful approach is to ask what Jesus would do in a given moment. Jesus operated frequently from both sides of this continuum. By taking yourself out and putting Jesus in, you free yourself to see a situation from the proper perspective. Here are some questions to ask to help see a situation more clearly.

What is the main focus at this moment? 

What is this moment calling for?

Is there a sense of urgency or something to be accomplished? 

Is there something to embrace, that you may regret if you miss it? 

Does this moment call for a task or connection?

Seeing what’s called for in a particular situation isn’t always obvious. But we can usually see what is needed when we step back and look with a clear perspective. Some situations, will call for hard work and completing a task, while others will call for reflection and connection. By knowing the difference between the two, we can make the most out of every situation.

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