Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.”
–Luke 10:38–42, English Standard Version
There are women reading this who have likely studied this passage before. There have been books written on this passage, and most women find themselves having a character a bit more like Mary’s or a bit more like Martha’s. Prayerfully consider this passage as an encouragement to serve others as you walk with the Lord. This article focuses primarily upon women.
As we turn to this passage, we see Jesus traveling on his way to Jerusalem. As he is traveling he comes to a village where, verse 38 says, a woman named Martha opened her house to him. She had a sister named Mary. We know this family. These sisters also had a brother named Lazarus, and Jesus loved this family. Remember, when Lazarus later dies (John 11), Jesus weeps. The village is Bethany, just outside of Jerusalem. What kind of family was this? We don’t know, but it was likely a wealthy family and the parents were likely dead. We do not read about them, and it is strange that this house would be called Martha’s. This house was likely big.
How many people were with Jesus? Well, the seventy-two had just returned from preaching and teaching and healing earlier in Luke 10 . . . they might all be with Jesus. There could be a hundred guests coming to the home of Mary and Martha. Martha, as the woman of the house in a day and age where hospitality was extremely important, would have been busy preparing a meal. Put yourself in Martha’s sandals for a minute: you have dozens of guests coming over for a last-minute meal. What would your attitude be? If my wife and I invite someone over unexpectedly from church, we send the kids into the house to do a twenty-second clean-up sweep of the living room in one last rush before the guests arrive.
In the busyness of all of this preparation, Martha sees Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet listening to what he said. Mary had taken the position of a disciple or a student, that is, the position at a teacher’s feet. This clearly annoyed Martha, who had been busy, and so she brings her complaint to Jesus, calling him Lord. “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.”
Let’s pause a second. It is easy at this point to be condescending to Martha. C’mon, Martha, Jesus, the most important person to ever walk on the earth, is in your house, and you are too busy to listen to him? As I mentioned, hospitality was important. Poor hospitality reflected poorly upon a family. Think about hosting without running water and without indoor plumbing. Martha wasn’t the strange one in the text. Mary was. It was not normal for a woman to take the place of a disciple. It also would have been expected that women would have prepared the food, especially with such honored guests. Martha must have thought Mary was being lazy or negligent. “Do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me!”
Jesus before had commended diligent servants. Matthew 24:45–46 (English Standard Version) says, “Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom his master has set over his household, to give them their food at the proper time? Blessed is that servant whom his master will find so doing when he comes.” Or think about the parable of the talents. Just before our passage we find the parable of the Good Samaritan. The point of that parable focused on loving and serving your neighbor. That parable ends with Jesus saying in Luke 10:37b, “Go and do likewise.” Now, in what Jesus is going to say, it is as if he is going to balance out that teaching. But in verses 41–42 Jesus reproves Martha. Why does Jesus reprove Martha? Let me tell you what it was not for. It was not because she was busy. Jesus also does not reprove Martha for her hospitality.
Rather, the problem with Martha was that she was anxious and troubled about many things. Martha was serving out of anxiety and worry, not grace. She was anxious and worried about many things, and when that happens, isn’t it the case that we are worried and concerned about ourselves? Who are we serving? This anxiety can be subtle, and it can be a danger to each of us. Why is this subtle?
First, it is subtle because the root is selfish, but the fruit looks deceptively unselfish. Isn’t this a problem with great philanthropy . . . if you give this much money we will put your name on this building. It isn’t always the case, but self-glory is a real danger there.
A second reason this is subtle is because this is a desire for approval disguised as a desire to serve. What was Martha so worried about? How many trips to the well she would have to make to get water without Mary’s help? Not at a base level; she was concerned about herself, and this is why Jesus reproves Martha.
A third reason this anxiety is subtle because it is my caring what you think of me, dressed up to look like my caring for you. And the danger is that we might not even notice, just like Martha. We don’t know what happens after verse 42, but we do know in John 11, Martha seems to have understood Jesus’ teaching, as she is the one who is quick to encounter Jesus. Nevertheless, we must pause and ask ourselves who it is that we are serving. Even when we serve others, there is a danger in serving ourselves.
But Mary has chosen the better way or the good portion, depending on what translation you use. In the original Greek, this word likely means the best. The best option. The only one thing that is needed is to sit at Jesus’ feet. Mary was more enthralled with Jesus than she was with Mary. She cared more about what Jesus said than about what people thought.
Physical service and spiritual disciplines are often pitted against each other in discussions of this passage. Though they can be helpfully distinguished, we must not separate them, for there is much overlap. We must do both of these things. Both of those things are important.
In the parable of the Good Samaritan, it would not have been okay for the priest to see the man who was beaten up on the side of the road and say to the man, “Sorry, I would love to help you, but I am late for a prayer meeting. In fact, we will pray for you there.” No, that is not service. That is not love. That is selfish. We must be diligent in both love and service. And yet, Jesus calls one better. The first and the great commandment is to love God with our whole being. Mary longed to listen to the words of Jesus, and Jesus said, “It will not be taken away from her.” She will not be forced to stop listening. May the same be true of us. Once we find our place at the feet of Jesus, and once we recognize our security and acceptance in him, we then will be freed to live unto his glory. The gospel leads to gratitude.
As we take a step back from this passage, let me say what this passage does not mean. This passage is not teaching that a life of contemplation is greater than a life of service. This has been the view of monks and nuns for centuries. This is not what this passage is teaching. This passage is also not teaching that there is a separation between loving neighbor or loving God. The one who loves God will be able to love her neighbor best, and the one who is loving her neighbor is at the same time loving God.
Let me give you some thoughts to take to heart by way of application.
1. Don’t worry about the lesser things. Many things had Martha worried and upset. Oftentimes it is many little things that push us to exhaustion and burnout. Jesus says in the parable of the soils (Luke 8:14) that the thorny soil pictures the cares of the world which can choke out the word of God.
What are those things in your life? Certainly at times we have many competing allegiances and many things vying for our time and energy. Be wise, be stewardly, keep a calendar, but don’t worry about tomorrow. Let tomorrow worry about itself.
2. Practice hospitality. Open your home to others. When you open your home, you are opening your life to others. This is genuine Christianity. The danger we face is individualism, or maybe family only-ism. Open your home and share it and yourself with others.
Your house doesn’t have to be spotless. People will not enjoy themselves more if you home is perfectly clean. Nobody has ever said, “What a boring time at the Smiths’ today, but at least their house was clean.”
When my wife and I went to our first church I served, we obviously didn’t know anyone. In fact, we were there as an interim pastor. There was a family from the church who invited us over to their house that first Sunday. As we were going to walk in, the mother who invited us said, “Please excuse the boxes.” Their whole house was packed up; they were moving that week to a new house. I don’t remember what we ate, but I remember as I watched her kids play among moving boxes, how wonderful it was that they would have us over when their house was in disarray. We ate off of paper plates, and we loved it. It was refreshing to us.
Hospitality is a focus upon people. Though you might enjoy a meal together, and good food and drink is a delight, the focus is on people. It is on building relationships and showing love. It is serving others as a Christian disciple. When you open your home, you open your family.
The more means you have, the more you can physically give to others. I say this because Mary, Martha, and Lazarus were wealthy. This get-together in Bethany would have been a large financial undertaking. Later, Mary would take extremely expensive perfume and wash Jesus’ feet with her hair. But with little means, there is always an opportunity. God blesses service. I knew of a lovely widow who opened her home to college students. Some Sunday nights there might be thirty of them there for a meal. That was a financial hardship, but she told me once in a while someone would put some money in her church mailbox anonymously, or she would find a hundred-dollar bill under her coffee pot. That was a beautiful picture of service, and God provided.
Hospitality and welcome are why many visitors end up joining churches. It isn’t for the sermons first of all; it is for the people connection.
3. Slow down. There is a principle taught in this passage, lying under the surface of quiet learning. We are busy. Sometimes we need to say no. We need to evaluate how much time and focus we are committing to social obligations and how much focus we have upon God’s Word. How much time are we spending at the ball field compared with how much time we are spending in family devotions? Then you have to ask yourself, Is it worth it to be so committed to extracurricular activities?
4. Godliness and Christian piety are a calling that we each have. We cannot go out and serve well if we don’t do so after leaving the prayer closet and the feet of Jesus.
We have likely all been taught that we ought to engage the culture around us instead of fleeing from this world. We cannot hide away in a corner until Jesus returns, this is true. But we must engage culture based on a foundation of Jesus Christ and godliness in our life, and a continual growing sanctification in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ.
5. We will get our priorities messed up, just like Martha did. But Jesus’ response to her was an act of love: “Martha, Martha . . .” It was tender shepherding and teaching. We need that too. Sometimes, we need a sermon to give us a little, gentle kick to the seat. How are your priorities? This is a conversation to have with your husband. Where you are in the trenches of raising children or considering how to spend your retirement? Everyone can find it easy to get their priorities messed up. When we do this, listen to the voice of the Lord from Psalm 46: “Be still and know that I am God.”
6. See your role in the kingdom of God. There may be some women reading this who feel like they are living day by day. Especially if you are a young mother or have little kids in the home to take up so much time and attention. You might see women who seem to have it all together. Maybe they have young children and a career and from the outside all looks perfect. Don’t worry about them . . . they are not you. Remember your calling and place in the kingdom. Don’t feel guilty about a dirty home or the fact your husband comes home and says, “Let’s do something or have someone over,” and all you feel like doing is going to sleep.
God has called you to the very place that you are. If you are a mother who is tired, then take the time you need. Be in prayer and the Word, but don’t feel guilty about the little stuff in life. You are raising the next generation. It is an interesting study about how much influence mothers had upon the great leaders of the past.
7. Be comforted, sisters in the Lord. Jesus receives us in love and frees us from the anxiety of what others think. After this episode, Martha and Mary were dear friends of our Lord. The same is true for us by faith and repentance. We will not be accepted by everyone. How often do have to remind ourselves that we cannot please everyone? However, there is one we must seek to please, and he is not an angry ruler who is unapproachable, but rather, he is a loving Father who has sent his Son to save us and to become the friend of sinners.
This article is adapted from a speech given at a women’s conference.
Rev. Steve Swets
is the pastor of Rehoboth United Reformed Church in Hamilton, ON.