Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42)

We are familiar with the practice of Jesus of staying with this family in Bethany when he was visiting Jerusalem. This particular family had this unique privilege. They were his friends, but here we have an example of Jesus having to choose between his friends as to who was right and who was wrong.

We don’t know if this incident, described only by Luke, was the first occasion when the family hosted Jesus, but one thing we can say about it is that the disagreement voiced by Martha did not stop Jesus going back there in the future. Nor do we know if Jesus had arranged beforehand to stay there at this time, although that possibility is likely.

We are used to thinking of the differences between Martha and Mary and are therefore in danger of not recalling the similarities that they shared. J. C. Ryle comments: ‘The two sisters of whom we read in this passage were faithful disciples. Both had believed. Both had been converted. Both had honoured Christ when few gave him honour. Both loved Jesus, and Jesus loved both of them.’ Yet there were differences between them and this incident makes that clear.

The priority of Martha

Jesus was travelling to Jerusalem with his disciples. They needed somewhere to stay and Martha welcomed them to stay with her. Clearly she had a big house that could cater for that number of people. It looks as if the house was hers. Maybe she had married a wealthy person. The account of the family in Matthew 26 says that they were in the home of a man called Simon who was or had previously been a leper – he could not have lived there if he still was a leper. Maybe he was Martha’s husband and they had become the followers of Jesus when Simon was healed; another suggestion is that Simon was the father and Martha was taking on the role that would have belonged to her mother. Her brother, Lazarus, is not mentioned here, which suggests that he did not have much say in what happened in the house – perhaps he was a lot younger than Martha.

Whether or not Martha had become a follower of Jesus through the previous suggestion or by some other way, it is obvious that she wanted to do something for Jesus out of gratitude. And is that not the mark of a true disciple? She used the occasion that came to her in providence. She saw that she had been given an opportunity to serve Jesus and she seized it with both hands. After all, she did not know if another such opportunity would recur.

Luke also indicates that Martha was delighted that this opportunity had come along. The warmth of her welcome indicates that there was a warm love for Jesus in her heart. She wanted to do her best for him and for his disciples. This strong affection was clear evidence that she possessed a new heart.

Martha, we can see, wanted to do something for Jesus and she imagined that doing something was more important than spending time with him. As one author put it, ‘Absent from Jesus, she was working for Jesus’ (Moody Stuart). Perhaps this describes much modern Christianity. Of course there is a worse situation, which is neither to work for Jesus or to spend time with him. The solemn thing is that Martha chose her method equally as to how Mary chose her response. It was very personal. ‘Her burden was one of choice, but not of necessity’ (Moody Stuart).

What did Martha choose? She chose things that she could be troubled about, even although she knew by experience that choosing them would not give her peace. Even on this occasion, she is persisting in her choice, even although she is not being Christlike as she serves. Maybe that was what she was like before she met Jesus because we bring our own tendencies with us into our new life of faith.

We could say about the incident that Martha wanted to use her possessions and her talents to serve Jesus and his disciples. A meal had to be prepared for at least fourteen people and Martha assumed that could be done, as long as Mary did her bit and helped. We can imagine Martha planning the menu and getting the various items together. But where is Mary? She was with Martha a short time ago. But she has gone elsewhere in the house. Martha rushes into another room, and there Mary is, sitting on the floor, at the feet of Jesus.

The posture of Mary

Body language says a great deal and everyone can read it. So what does the body language of Mary say about her? Clearly she wanted to be as close to Jesus as possible. She wanted to be in his company. Martha showed her love for Jesus by arranging a meal, but she does not seem to have spent time close to Jesus since he came into her house. I wonder what Jesus thought of service at a distance. Maybe if she had spent some time doing what Mary was doing, then they both would have gone together to work on hospitality for the guests. Mary showed her love by wanting to be as close to Jesus as possible.

This raises the question, ‘Obviously it was easy for Mary to be close to Jesus in a physical sense. How do we get close to Jesus in a spiritual sense?’ The answer is to read the Bible. But we need to read the Bible in certain ways. Some people read the Bible in order to find out what God wants them to do, which is good, but it is not the only use of the Bible. They are on the search for right actions and for correct personal performance and we can admire their dedication. But they never seem to take the time to reflect long on a promise of God about their future or to probe into what occurred when Jesus took their place on the cross. They are not as close to him as they should be.

Mary also wanted to be taught by Jesus. He was explaining things about the kingdom to his disciples and others who had gathered in the home. And Mary loved to hear what he had to say. We are not told what he was teaching on that occasion but we can suppose he would have told them about his mission of mercy and the amazing kingdom he was going to rule, as well as the incredible destiny that lay ahead of all those who became his disciples.

How are we taught by Jesus because we cannot put ourselves literally into the position that Mary had? There are two ways in which we can do this. One is by gathering with his disciples when his word is being explained. The story of Jesus and his interaction with others in the Bible and the blessings he brought them is the only story that is constantly full of gracious encounters.

Mary here is with his disciples listening to Jesus. She does not know as much as they do, but their greater knowledge is not a barrier to her. Instead she sits beside them and learns with them.

The other way that we can learn from Jesus is by personal interaction with him. We come to his Word and say to him, ‘Lord, reveal your truth to me.’ And again we discover the riches hidden in the pages of the Bible, all connected in one way or another with him.

There is something striking about the way Mary is described – she is listening, which means that she is alert and anticipating something important. And is that not the way by which we should listen to Jesus as well.

The problem with Martha

Martha had got herself into a real state and is now irate. Maybe she had a quick temper. Whether she had or not, she explodes. Explosions reveal what is on the inside and what do we see about Martha’s inner life at that moment?

First, we can see that she has reached a state of contradiction in her grasp of her relationship with Jesus. She calls him ‘Lord’ and at the same time she starts to tell him what he should do. That couplet can never be a mark of authentic discipleship. She wants the Lord to change something that belongs to her list of priorities, but which she will discover is not his list. It is a challenging question as to whether my list is the same as his list.

Second, her anger leads her to say things about Jesus that are not true. Imagine suggesting to Jesus that he does not care about her. She has experienced his blessings at some stage in the past and they had come because he cared for her. In fact, the reason why the Son of God was in Bethany was because he cared very much about her and was on the way eventually to the cross because he cared for her.

Third, she is in this state because she had not followed the good example of her sister. At some stage before this outburst took place, Mary had been with Martha because Martha says that Mary had left her. A hint is probably given in Luke’s comment about Martha’s ‘much serving’. Did Mary say that enough preparation had been made and that it was now time to go and listen to Jesus?

The permanence of Mary’s portion

We are not to imagine that Jesus did not want Martha to serve. His words are a solemn rebuke, but they are also a means of giving light to her. There is little point in rebuking a person unless we show them why they are wrong as well as how they are wrong. Jesus recognised that Martha had a weakness, which had led to her distraction, and that weakness was that she was a worrier. Her reaction to Mary’s absence was only a symptom of her problem. We are aware of what Jesus said about the danger of excessive worrying in his Sermon on the Mount.

Jesus gives Martha a way of thinking that would help her gets things in perspective, and that is to realise that what matters are those things that have eternal benefits. Mary had realised that and had taken steps to obtain them. It is ironic that contemplative Mary is more practical than practical Martha. There used to be a phrase that was common among believers although it is not used very much today. The phrase was ‘to keep eternity’s values in view’. In other words, wherever we are, we should think about how that opportunity affects eternity.

It is important to note that Jesus deals with the problem in front of both Martha and Mary, as well as in the presence of the others whom he had been teaching. The Saviour did not do this in order to embarrass them, but to use them as models of discipleship, and to show how worry can be a real hindrance for ongoing discipleship.

It is also possible that he did this in order to show to the other disciples what Martha’s problem was, and that they were not to respond to a symptom, but to the real matter of concern. There is little value in only dealing with the symptoms of spiritual problems. We need to recognise the source of the problem.

Jesus informs Martha of the benefits that Mary was enjoying. The one thing that mattered was her spiritual relationship with Jesus. Surely this was said as an encouragement to Martha to focus on this rather than getting distressed over things that did not really matter.


The pleasure. One wonderful feature of this incident is that both sisters were believers in Jesus.

The problem. Obviously, the only problem in this incident is found in Martha. There are several ways of looking at her problem, and here is one way – her strong point could easily become her weak point because of underlying sinful tendencies in her character that she had taken with her into her Christian life.

The priority. Mary had the right priority, which was to spend time with Jesus as well as doing something for Jesus.

The pairing. In a later incident, recorded in John 12, we are told that Mary poured costly ointment on Jesus and that Martha was serving Jesus and the gathered group (probably the same people as in Luke’s story). On that occasion, each of them contributed to the occasion. One assumes that Martha had learned to stop worrying about things and ceased criticising what Mary was doing, even although she used an heirloom in an unexpected way when she anointed Jesus with precious ointment.

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