47. Mary Listens while Martha Labors (Luke 10:38-42)

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Gospel Parallels §145

James J. Tissot, 'Mary Magdalene at the Feet of Jesus' (1886-94)
James J. Tissot, 'Mary Magdalene at the Feet of Jesus' (1886-94), gouache on gray wove paper, 7.9 x 10.4 in., Brooklyn Museum, New York.

" 38  As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. 39  She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet listening to what he said. 40  But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, 'Lord, don't you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!' 41  'Martha, Martha,' the Lord answered, 'you are worried and upset about many things, 42  but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.'" (Luke 10:38-42, NIV)

It was the Apostle John who observed,

"Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written." (John 21:25)

Every gospel writer, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, had to pick and choose from many incidents and sayings in Jesus' life, and decide just what to include and what to exclude. Luke is no exception. So when Luke decides to include six or seven sentences about a couple of sisters named Mary and Martha, we need to ask: Why? What point is Luke trying to pass on to his readers? As we examine this passage, let's keep the question before us: What are we supposed to learn from this?

On Their Way (Luke 10:38a)

"As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him." (10:38)

The story is simple enough. It is set in a traveling mode. "As Jesus and his disciples were on their way...." The verb in this phrase is an infinitive, the common Greek word poreuomai, "go, proceed, travel."412 Jesus hasn't settled here, Luke is saying. This was a stop on his itinerant teaching ministry.

Location of Bethany, east of Jerusalem.
Location of Bethany, east of Jerusalem. (larger map)

Luke doesn't tell us the name of the village, since it isn't important to his point, though from John's Gospel we know it is Bethany, just east of Jerusalem. It was the village where Jesus' friend Lazarus lived. Toward the end of his ministry, Jesus stayed there during the Passover that ended in his crucifixion. John acquaints us with the family members in two incidents: the Raising of Lazarus (John 11:1-44) and Jesus' Anointing at Bethany by Mary (John 12:1-8). I am tempted to fill in the details of each of the characters from the rather extensive data we have in John, but I am resisting the temptation for one reason. I don't want to clutter up the story so we miss the point. Let's work with the material that Luke gives us.

Martha Opens Her Home (Luke 10:38b)

"As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him." (10:38)

Luke tells us simply, "Martha opened her home to him." The verb is Greek hypodechomai, "receive, welcome, entertain as a guest."413 The same word is used when Zacchaeus invites Jesus into his home in Jericho (19:6), Jason welcomes Paul and his party in Thessalonica (Acts 17:7), and Rahab the harlot welcomes the Hebrew spies into her house in Jericho (James 2:25). Jesus' ministry had a person-to-person structure. His pattern was to find a person who would receive him, and then stay with that person while preaching in the village (9:4-5; 10:5-7). If he didn't find a home open to him -- a person hungry enough for spiritual food that he would offer hospitality -- Jesus would go on. He didn't fund a block of hotel rooms for his crusade team in each town on the itinerary (though that may be a model suited better to other cultures). Rather he taught and waited for an invitation.

I've always imagined that Jesus' friendship with Lazarus was the primary one, since he was a man, and that Lazarus had introduced Jesus to his sisters Martha and Mary (John 11:3). But notice who issues the invitation in our passage: Martha. She invites Jesus to stay in her home. It is spoken of as "her home." She isn't keeping house for her brother, who probably lives nearby in Bethany. It is her house. Since we don't hear of her husband, she may have been widowed. It wouldn't surprise me if her sister Mary lived with her, though we aren't told.

Sometimes we get the impression that Mary is the spiritual one, while Martha is not. But Martha's invitation indicates her openness to spiritual things. She, too, longs to be a disciple, and wants to honor Jesus by inviting him to her home. Martha's name in Hebrew, incidentally, means "lady" or "mistress (of the house)."414

Mary Sits at Jesus Feet Listening (Luke 10:39)

"She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet listening to what he said." (10:39)

Now we meet Mary, named after Moses' famous sister Miriam. While Martha is bustling about the house getting ready for dinner, Mary is sitting at Jesus' feet listening. The verb is Greek parakathizō, "sit down beside someone,"415 but the rest of the sentence explains that she was actually sitting not directly beside him -- a place of honor -- but at his feet, a place of humility -- and probably attention.416 Figuratively, "at his feet" seems to have been the phrase connoting a disciple or learner.417 Paul wrote:

"I am verily a man which am a Jew, born in Tarsus, a city in Cilicia, yet brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, and taught according to the perfect manner of the law of the fathers...." (Acts 22:3, KJV)

"When they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone out, sitting at Jesus' feet, dressed and in his right mind; and they were afraid." (Luke 8:35)

That Jesus would encourage her to listen to him as he taught in the house was, in itself, radical. Women were openly despised by the Judaism of the time. Women were exempt from the study of the Torah. Many rabbis actively discouraged women from learning.418 The Mishnah includes some pretty cynical thoughts about women: "May the words of the Torah be burned, they should not be handed over to women."419 Rabbi Eliezer (c. AD 90) said, "If a man gives his daughter a knowledge of the Law it is as though he taught her lechery."420 Jeremias explains,

"Of the two sections of the synagogue mentioned in the law of Augustus, sabbateion and andron,421 the first, where the liturgical service took place, was open to women too; but the other part, given over to the scribes' teaching, was open only to men and boys as the name suggests."422

But Jesus encourages Mary to sit listening. I imagine the scene with Jesus seated in a place of honor, perhaps in the house's courtyard, surrounded by eager listeners -- his disciples, prominent members of the community, probably Lazarus, and Mary. Jesus speaks, answers questions, tells parables, and teaches. All the time Mary sits and takes it in. She can't imagine anything better than this!

Distracted by the Preparations (Luke 10:40a)

"But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made." (10:40a)

Inside, Martha is fuming. All these guests, a great deal of cooking, setting the low table where her guest will be seated. Too much to do! Dinner will be late unless she can get help. But where is her lazy sister Mary? Sitting outside with the men rather than inside doing the work that needs to get done. How irresponsible! I can't understand why she thinks she can be out there when there's so much to do to get ready for dinner. A woman's place isn't sitting around when there is work to be done. A woman's place is preparing for her guests.

The word translated "distracted" is Greek perispaō, "be pulled or dragged away," then "become or be distracted, quite busy, overburdened."423 You probably know exactly the kind of resentment and indignation Martha is feeling. The verb is in the imperfect tense, indicating a continued action in the past. Her distraction has been going on for some time. Marshall indicates that, "The implication is that Martha wished to hear Jesus but was prevented from doing so by the pressure of providing hospitality."424

Tell Her to Help Me (Luke 10:40b)

"She came to him and asked, 'Lord, don't you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!'" (10:40b)

The verb translated "care" is Greek melei, "to be a care or concern to someone."425 Finally, Martha can stand it no longer. She comes to where Jesus is, and seems to interrupt the conversation he is having. She doesn't rebuke her sister in front of Jesus; she almost seems to be rebuking Jesus himself for not caring, for not having ordered Mary to go and help her sister an hour before. She doesn't ask Mary to help her. She commands Jesus, "Tell her to help me!" Her anger and frustration have taken over. Martha is out of line. She is rude to her honored guest.

You Are Worried and Upset (Luke 10:41)

"'Martha, Martha,' the Lord answered, 'you are worried and upset about many things....'" (10:41)

Immediately, Jesus seems to soothe Martha's anger. The repeated name suggests as much.426 He also identifies accurately how she is feeling: "worried and upset about many things." The verb translated "worried" is Greek merimnaō, "have anxiety, be anxious, be (unduly) concerned," then "care for, be concerned about something."427 The verb translated "upset" is Greek thorubazō, "be troubled or distracted," 428 from the root thorubos, "a noise, tumult, uproar."429 Martha is feeling like she has more to do than she can do herself.

Only One Thing Is Needed (Luke 10:42a)

"... But only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her." (10:42)

 The next phrase, "only one thing is needed," is a bit obscure. This is one of the passages in the New Testament where there are a number of textual variants. One of the variant readings is: "but few things are needed -- or only one" (NIV margin).428b  One question is: What did Jesus mean by "one thing"? Is he referring to the one spiritual goal, or to a single dish rather than multiple dishes that Martha may have been preparing in order to show special honor to her guest? We're not sure.

What we do know, however, is that Martha is gently corrected by Jesus, and Mary's choice to sit at Jesus' feet and listen to him teach is affirmed. When you think about it, that response is the one you wouldn't really expect Jesus to make.

After all, Mary is shirking her responsibilities to help her sister prepare the meal. In Jesus' culture (and most others), fixing meals is considered part of a woman's responsibility. And a woman being taught the Torah was frowned upon. I am sure that Jesus' disciples would have expected him to side with Martha here, and say something like: "Mary, your sister has a lot on her hands. Why don't you get up and help her. It would mean a great deal to her," -- or something like that.

It is really remarkable that Jesus doesn't encourage Mary to help Martha. This isn't the first time that Jesus has cut across his culture's expectations about familial responsibility in order to make a point that will be remembered:

  • A would-be disciple said he needed to bury his father first, and Jesus replied, "Let the dead bury their own dead" (9:59-60).
  • Another wanted to say good-bye to his family. Jesus talked about the importance of putting one's hand to the plow and not looking back (9:61-62).
  • His mother and brothers came to see him, but he told the crowds, "My mother and brothers are those who hear God's word and put it into practice" (8: 21).
  • Later he promises blessing to those who have "left home or wife or brothers or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God" (18:29-30).

Why does Jesus say such off-the-wall things? Because he is teaching. He is seeking to make an indelible, memorable imprint upon the minds of his disciples. His followers had been raised to think of one's responsibilities to family as preeminent. Jesus puts a person's allegiance to following him higher than any other human responsibility.

It Will Not Be Taken Away from Her (Luke 10:42b)

"Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her." (10:42)

Even though it cuts across the grain of societal expectations, even though it means neglecting her regular duties, Mary has correctly discerned that listening to Jesus and learning his ways is more important than anything -- anything else she can choose. And no one can rip this precious spiritual food away from her. The word translated "taken away" is Greek aphaireō, passive, "be taken away, robbed ... deprived of something."430

As I ponder on the lessons for disciples to be learned from this incident, I see two:

  1. Listening to what Jesus is teaching is the highest way to show him honor, and preferable to any human way we seek to honor him.
  2. The good is the enemy of the best. We must be willing to shift our priorities in order to follow Jesus.

My mind goes to another pair of siblings who sought to honor God -- Cain and Abel.

"Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil. In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord. But Abel brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast." (Genesis 4:2-5)

Apparently, God has preferences on the way people respond to him and worship him. All forms of worship are not equal in God's eyes. In the case of Jesus, putting on a great dinner for the Master doesn't compare to listening to him and obeying him.

I don't want to be too hard on Martha; Jesus certainly wasn't. But he tried very gently to explain how Mary's choice was better, and that she shouldn't be deprived of it by having to be marched off to the kitchen by her older sister.

What is it that you are trying to offer Jesus? Your talents and abilities? The open doors and opportunities afforded by your position in the community? Faithful service as a Sunday school teacher even though you might prefer to do something else? All these can be good. And I am sure that Jesus wants each of these from you, each in its own time.

But the one thing that Jesus seeks above all else is time that you spend time listening to him, "sitting at his feet," as it were. That needs to come first, before all these other things. That is where peace is found. That is the only place of spiritual rest.

"Martha, why don't you take off your apron and sit down for a few minutes. Dinner can wait. There's something very dear to my heart that I'd like to share with you -- you personally. Do you have some time right now?"


Father, when I look at my own life, I'm often too busy to just listen to you. I'm an activist. I'm always wanting to be doing something. I have trouble sitting still before you. Please forgive me for my restlessness. Forgive me for putting my agenda before yours. Help me to listen with unclogged ears and a focused and attentive mind to what you want to teach me today. In Jesus' name, I pray. Amen.

Key Verse

"She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet listening to what he said." (Luke 10:39)


Click on the link below to discuss on the forum one or more of the questions that follow -- your choice.

  1. This is just a short glimpse, a few verses, a couple of minutes in Jesus' entire lifetime. Why was it so important that it was preserved for you and me to read?
  2. Martha was a spiritual woman. How was she seeking to honor Jesus? Mary was a spiritual woman. How was she seeking to honor Jesus?
  3. How is Jesus' treatment of Mary astonishing in his culture? Why do you think he said the unexpected?
  4. In what ways do you sometimes find yourself busy, upset, and troubled like Martha?
  5. What patterns and practices could you institute in your daily life that would make you more like Mary?
Discipleship Training in Luke's Gospel, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Lessons compiled in 805-page book in paperback, Kindle, & PDF.


Abbreviations and References

[412] Poreuomai, BAGD 692-693.

[413] Hypodechomai, BAGD 844.

[414] John J. Hughes, "Martha," ISBE 3:266-267.

[415] Parakathizō, BAGD 616.

[416] Literally, this may have meant that Jesus sat on a low stool, while Mary sat on the floor near his feet. If Jesus had been reclining at a table, however, his feet would have been behind him -- not a suitable position for students to listen to and answer questions posed by the teacher.

[417] Konrad Weiss, pous, ktl., TDNT 6:629. In Rabbinical teaching, both teacher and pupil sat. Karl Heinrich Rengstorf, mathetes, ktl., TDNT 4:435 cites Strack and Billerback, II, 763f.

[418] See more in the lesson on Luke 8:1-3.

[419] jSota, 10a, 8, quoted in Albrecht Oepke, gynē, TDNT 1:781-784.

[420] Sota, 3,4; cf. bSota, 21b. Quoted Jeremias, Jerusalem, in an appendix on "The Social Position of Women," p. 373.

[421] Josephus, Antiquities 16.164.

[422] Jeremias, p. 373.

[423] Perispaō, BAGD 650.

[424] Marshall, Luke, p. 452. He cites Luce, 208.

[425] Melei, BAGD 500.

[426] Marshall, Luke, p. 452.

[427] Merimnaō, BAGD 505.

[428] Thorybazō, BAGD 362.

[428b] Metzger (p. 153) gives the sense as: "You are worried and troubled about many things, by one is necessary," as the NIV text, giving it a {C} "considerable degree of doubt" level of confidence.

[429] Thorybazō, Thayer 201.

[430] Aphaireō, BAGD 124.

Copyright © 2024, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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