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Why the Church needs to be Martha and Mary

02 June 2023

Mary showed how the contemplative life and active life of faith work together, says Christopher Cocksworth


Christ with Martha and Mary: mosaic in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Ascension, Jerusalem

Christ with Martha and Mary: mosaic in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Ascension, Jerusalem

THERE is a sequence of scenes in the middle of Luke’s Gospel that show us how Jesus formed his followers to serve the Kingdom of God in the world. Woven through the stories are the two contrasting ways in which the Church manifests and ministers the life of Christ: the vita contemplativa and the vita activa.

Over the centuries, the contemplative life and the active life have often conflicted with, rather than complemented, each other. Both the contemplative and the active can be seen in Mary’s life. Mary was by no means passive. It was in speaking and doing that she gave personal shape and public presence to her faith in God’s grace, relating to others through her questions and concerns, and acting with them to fulfil God’s call on her.

The life of a mother taking her part in the sustenance and care of a household in first-century rural Galilee would have meant plenty of activity for her, much of it exhausting and exacting, and a lot of interaction with others, essential for survival.

In Luke’s account of Jesus’s ministry in these chapters, and his interactions with those who wanted to follow his way, he seems to be balancing the vita contemplativa and the vita activa and suggesting how they can be integrated.

Jesus sends out 70 people into the towns and villages of Galilee to “cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The Kingdom of God has come near to you’” (Luke 10.9). Luke immediately follows his account of the mission of the 70 with Jesus’s dialogue with a lawyer who asked him what he needed do “to inherit eternal life” (Luke 10.25-37) . . . [this leads to] the story of the good Samaritan whose heart is moved by a Jewish person in need and who goes out of his way to care for him. . . The answer Jesus seems to be giving to the lawyer’s question is that life is to be found in becoming a neighbour to whoever is in need, whatever their background and identity: the vita activa.

“Now, as they went on their way,” Luke tells us, they rest at the home of Mary and Martha (Luke 10.38-42). Martha is preoccupied with the myriad of tasks that fell to women of her culture . . . [unlike] her sister Mary who “sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying”.

Mary is loving God not by serving others, and not even by serving Jesus in the sort of activity that consumed Martha. She was simply resting and listening. She was taking delight in Jesus, enjoying his presence, feasting on his words: the vita contemplativa.

In the next scene, Luke shows how the vita activa and the vita contemplativa belong together in an integrated life of faithful discipleship (Luke 11.1-4). Jesus is praying. The disciples are drawn to the quality of his prayer and ask to share in it.

The prayer that Jesus teaches them is itself a combination of adoration of the God whom Jesus makes better known — “Father, hallowed be your name” — and intercession for the fullest manifestation of God’s goodness that they can see breaking into the world through Jesus’s work — “Your Kingdom come”.

It is a prayer that makes those who pray it participants in the promises of God to all creation. It is a prayer that commits those who pray for the Kingdom to take their part in its coming: in being forgiven, we are to forgive. It is a prayer that calls the followers of Jesus to follow his way of prayer and action; in doing so, we follow the pattern of God who not only is but chooses to act so that we may live.


HANNAH ARENDT’s mid-20th-century study The Human Condition shows how the vita activa and the vita contemplative have vied with each other through the course of Western civilisation, pre-dating the Christian era. Her arguments for why, in large part, the vita activa has eclipsed the vita contemplativa in the modern era need not detain us, but her particular understanding of the vita activa is of real value when it comes to considering the way that the Church witnesses and works for the Kingdom of God in the world.

For Arendt, the essence of the vita activa is not the activity dedicated to the meeting of basic human needs for life (water, food, shelter, etc.), the “labour of our body”, as she calls it. Neither is it the activity dedicated to the meeting of human wants (the making of things, simple or sophisticated, that improve the quality of life), the “work of our hands”, as she calls it. Rather, it is the activity that derives from “our plurality as distinct individuals” as we order the common life together. It is this living and acting together as distinct individuals, each of us the fruit of the natality of the world, that gives our lives its truly human character.

Arendt’s analysis has many parallels with Christian thought which defines human life as life lived together. Accordingly, it correlates both with the deep identity of the Church as the people of God, bound together in Christ’s life and with the activity of the Church in the world, to serve God’s purposes for the reconciliation of humanity with God and with itself — the healing of its self-inflicted wounds, the restoration of its lost peace, and the renewal of the creation of which it is part.

Arendt’s interest is specifically in the political life of human beings which she understands to be the whole sweep of activity through which people relate to each other and decide together how they will live with each other in human community for the good of all.

The Church of the New Testament took its name (ekklesia) not from the religious sphere but from the political — the ordering of the life of the city state in Greek culture. In ancient Greek culture, the ekklesia was the assembly of citizens summoned together to deliberate and decide about its life together.

The identity of the Church — its being — is a community of people called together by God, bound together by a common confession of one Lord and by one baptism into him, empowered together by the same Spirit and nourished together in one body by the one bread.

The activity of the Church — its doing — in its various forms, with each person in some way involved, is directed towards the “common good” so that “the whole body . . . promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love” (Ephesians 4.16). In its being and doing the Church witnesses to the “city that is to come”, as it prays for God’s Kingdom to come. The relationship between the holy city “coming down out of heaven from God” (Revelation 21.2), and the cities of earth in which people live out their lives today, has taken many forms in Christian thought over the centuries.

But, even in times when Christians have been tempted to withdraw from engagement in the wider political and social dimension of human life, and neglect the call of Jesus to be light for the world and salt for the earth, they have continued to pray for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. In every age, the sweeping vision of Mary’s Magnificat for a just and peaceful society stands as a touchstone, challenging God’s people to step up to the call to believe in and work with the God who has promised to transform the earth as well as heaven.

Arendt identified two particular challenges for human beings as they seek to live well together in the vita activa: irreversibility, and unpredictability. Human activity is often harmful, and always difficult to undo. The damage our activity causes, and the hurt we do to each other, sets in motion a spiral of further events from which it seems impossible to escape.

Human life is also unpredictable. We do not know what will happen in the future, and the capacity of human beings to act badly and to cause problems that we cannot presently conceive, means that it is very difficult to enter into any sort of co-operation with others. The risk is too great.

Arendt identifies “the faculty of forgiving” as the “possible redemption from the predicament of irreversibility” — of being unable to undo what has been done. Similarly, in her mind, the “faculty to make and keep promises” is “the remedy for unpredictability, for the chaotic uncertainty of the future”. Here, Arendt acknowledges the unique contribution that Judaeo-Christian thought and practice has played in commending to the world the virtues of forgiveness and promise-making and promise-keeping to human culture.

She pays special tribute to Jesus’s ethic of forgiveness and “his insistence on the ‘power to forgive’” which he not only exercised but taught his followers to do. The extent to which Jesus’s understanding of forgiveness was shaped by his mother’s attitudes and behaviour is impossible to say, but her place in the life of the earliest Church suggests that she was a person who learned to forgive, and that she may have taught others what she learned from her son about the way forgiveness breaks the bonds of the past, as well as what she may have taught him.


Dr Christopher Cocksworth is Bishop of Coventry. This is an edited extract from Mary, Bearer of Life, published on 31 May by SCM Press at £19.99 (Church Times Bookshop £15.99); 978-0-334-06200-4.

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