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Now as they went on their way, he entered a village; and a woman named Martha received 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 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; one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38-42)
Martha was a dear friend of Jesus, who frequently visited the home in Bethany that she shared with her siblings, Mary and Lazarus. There Jesus found a restful haven, a place where he could be refreshed from his busy days of teaching and ministering to the crowds that so avidly followed him (Matthew 21:17; Mark 11:11).
Martha received Jesus with open arms and then got on with the work of hosting him. Hospitality is regarded very highly in the culture of the Middle East, so it’s natural that she wanted to serve Jesus well. Martha loved Jesus deeply, and expressed this love concretely by preparing him a fine meal.
The way Martha welcomed and cared for Jesus shows her recognition of his humanity. Her warmth and hospitality met Jesus’ human needs for nourishment, refreshment, and rest. Moreover, Martha’s welcome meant not just preparing food and lodging for Jesus and his crowd of apostles. It expressed her acceptance of Jesus’ mission and her desire to contribute to it. However, Martha lost sight of the Lord as she bustled about busily. She was a hospitable but harried hostess, so occupied with serving her guest that she couldn’t take the time to sit down with him.
When Martha indignantly asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself?” (Luke 10:40), she showed a self-concern that robbed her of the ability to appreciate the precious gift of the moment—fellowship with Jesus. In her complaint we find the same Greek verb, melei, that the disciples used in their accusation of Jesus during the storm at sea: “Do you not care that we are perishing?” (Mark 4:38). Jesus responded the same way to both upheavals: he calmed the troubled hearts and storms that swept around him. Jesus gently reproached Martha—”You are worried and distracted by many things” (Luke 10:41). Other English translations of the original Greek Gospel text call her “troubled,” “anxious,” “fretting and fussing,” “upset over all these details,” and “bothered about providing so many things.”
Did Martha resent having to serve alone, feeling that Mary was lazy? Or perhaps she was comparing herself to Mary or was a bit jealous of her sister comfortably sitting at their guest’s feet. But no matter what Martha’s anxieties and worries were, she had a profound love for Jesus; she was at ease with him, comfortable and secure in his love and in her friendship with him. She knew where to go when she was upset and needed help—to Jesus—and he pointed her on the right track, helping her to unify her life and prioritize her concerns.
Jesus’ response to Martha wasn’t a harsh reproof. He knew that her solicitude was genuine, that she was translating her love for him into hospitable acts. Jesus appreciated Martha’s loving labors and recognized the generosity of her bustling nature, but urged her to relax and enjoy his company. His reply was meant to help Martha recognize how senseless and unnecessary her anxieties were. “There is need of only one thing” (Luke 10:42). Or, as the Living Bible translation reads, “There is really only one thing worth being concerned about.”
We may feel sorry for Martha, left to fix the dinner alone, and begrudge Mary her “better part” at the feet of Jesus. But rather than seeing the postures of the two sisters as mutually exclusive—the active life of service versus the contemplative life of prayer—we should recognize in Martha and Mary complementary aspects of the call given to all followers of Christ. . . .
Indeed, in each of our lives, there’s a time to listen, to pray, to sit at Jesus’ feet, and there’s a time to act, to serve, and to wash the feet of those whom the Lord gives us. By balancing action and contemplation in a creative tension in our own lives, we make concrete our love for Jesus through both. “Be both Martha and Mary. Diligently carry out your duties, and often recollect yourself and put yourself in spirit at the feet of our Lord,” St. Francis de Sales wrote in a letter to a to a married woman seeking spiritual guidance. “Say, ‘My Lord, whether I’m rushing around or staying still, I am all yours and you are all mine. You are my first spouse, and whatever I do is for love of you’” (Letters to Persons in the World).
John the Evangelist gives us a later view of Martha, again free and bold in her friendship with Jesus, as she lamented to him: “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him” (John 11:21-22). Assured by Jesus that Lazarus—and anyone who believes in him—will rise again, Martha made an amazing declaration of faith in him: “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world” (11:23-27).
John’s Gospel (12:1-3) also gives us the final scene in which we again see Martha and Mary in their familiar places:
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.
Once again Martha is serving and Mary is at the Lord’s feet. Might we think that Martha had learned her lesson well earlier and is now joyful, content, and wholehearted in her loving service, enjoying the fragrance of her sister’s act? Does not each sister delight in honoring their beloved friend in her own way?
This is a selection from Jeanne Kun’s latest Keys to the Bible study guide Biblical Women in Crisis: Portraits of Faith and Trust (The Word Among Us Press, 2017). Available at wau.org/books