MARTHA, MARTHA

Luke 10:38—42

In Luke 8:1—3, Dr. Luke lists some of the women who accompanied Jesus and His disciples on their travels:

After this, Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him, and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; Joanna the wife of Cuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means.

In the story before us, we read about another woman who would become one of Jesus’ followers.  What makes this story interesting is that while a man entering into discipleship was a common occurrence in the Gospels, this is the only time we read of an account about a woman who enters into discipleship.   Luke demonstrates that not only is the Gospel no respecter of persons, but Jesus Christ transcended the petty prejudices of His day.

1.  A serene scene, verses 38, 39

As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him.  She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said.

Jesus and “The Twelve” were traveling and eventually came to an unnamed village.  We may conclude with some certainty that the name of the village was Bethany, for this was obviously the Martha and Mary John wrote about in his Gospel (John 11:1ff).  We also know that Lazarus, the man whom Jesus raised from dead, was their brother.  Jesus had a very close and warm relationship with this family, so visiting them would not have been unusual.  Some speculate that this incident took place while Jesus was on His way to Jerusalem to observe the Feast of the Dedication during the December preceding His passion.

Most of the time when these sisters are mentioned, Martha is named first then Mary.  This oft-repeated order has led some scholars to believe that Martha was the older sister.  This may well be the case, with Lazarus the youngest of the siblings.

Martha is Aramaic and means “lady.”  Some scholars believe that Martha was the “chosen lady” to whom John wrote his second letter.  She received their good friend, Jesus, and His friends, into her home, suggesting that either Martha was married or, more likely, was a widow, with whom her younger siblings lived.

Her sister, Mary, who as was mentioned, was most certainly younger and therefore subordinate to Martha.  Mary is pictured “at the Lord’s feet.”  Martha may have been the oldest, but it was Mary who assumed the place of “disciple” when Jesus came to visit.  It was highly unusual for a woman of the first century to be accepted as a disciple.  This was a scene of serenity and tranquility:  Mary listening to the words of Jesus.

What was peaceful to one sister was positively stressful to the other!

2.  Irritable outburst, verse 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!”

Poor Martha!  Many of us can empathize with her to be sure.  Luke tells us that she was “distracted by all the preparations.”  The Greek word is periespato, which suggests that her attention was drawn away by the perceived seriousness of her duties.   We need to remember that there were some 16 people in the house at this time:

Jesus and Lazarus
Mary and Martha
Peter and Andrew, James and John,
Philip and Bartholomew,
Matthew and Thomas,
James the Less and Judas the Greater,
Simon the Zealot and Judas (the traitor).

No wonder Martha was all stressed out!  She had to make sure everybody had enough to eat and drink and were made comfortable.  To make matters worse, it seemed to her like she was doing all the work while everybody else was just sitting there, listening to Jesus!  At least her sister, Mary, should have helped out.

At last, the lady of the house “came to” Jesus.  The Greek behind this phrase indicates a sudden cessation of her feverish activity—she was at the end of her rope, throwing her hands up in despair, disgust, and perhaps anger.

Notice who she addressed: Jesus, whom she called “Lord.”  In her anger, she lashes out at Jesus, basically blaming Him for keeping her sister, Mary, from helping out.  It seems that Mary had been helping out; the phrase “has left” can mean “taken away from,” suggesting that as far as Martha was concerned it was Jesus’ fault because He had “taken away” Mary from her.

3.  A calm voice of reason, verses 41, 42

“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things,  but few things are needed—or indeed only one.  Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

Given Martha’s attitude, it is remarkable that Jesus did not mildly upbraid her for it.  Instead, the Lord shows concern for Martha’s anxiety.  Some commentators have suggested that the repetition of her name shows that Jesus was markedly disapproving of her.  However, given His special relationship with the family, it seems more likely He was offering comfort.  Jesus was and remains the great Searcher of hearts, and He knew that Martha was inwardly worried and outwardly distressed.   He also knew what concerned her:  many different things.  Yes, here was an expression of love and concern; Martha was all torn up for no reason, and this bothered our Lord.

Exactly what Jesus meant to convey to the older sister is difficult to ascertain because of some textual problems with these two verses, but especially verse 42.  There are several ways to interpret Jesus’ words; among them:

“Few things are needed…”
“One thing is needed…”
“Few things are needed—or only one…”

To what was Jesus referring?  Believe it or not, some scholars think Jesus was telling Martha that only “one dish was needed.”  Their idea seems to be that Jesus was simply being practical; that He was basically telling Martha that she was going overboard with the preparations.

It seems unlikely to me that Jesus was would take this immensely teachable moment and turn it into a lesson on hospitality!  No, it seems more probable that Jesus is saying to Martha that she is overly disturbed about far too many things that are not that important to Him.

Contrasting the “many things” with the “few” or the “one,” Jesus seemed to be pointing out that Martha’s “many things” were really “many material things” which, though they may have seemed of great import at the time, were really not all that important in comparison to Mary’s “one thing,” which was of spiritual nature and of eternal significance.

Jesus chose His words carefully for He did not condemn Martha in any way.  It was not that Martha was wrong in choosing to see to the material needs of her company; it was that she placed too great an emphasis on the incidental at the expense of the eternal.  Mary was becoming a disciple of Jesus’ and as a disciple her pursuits were slightly different than those of Martha’s.  For a disciple, the Word of the Lord has first claim on their time.  For a disciple, an attitude of learning and obedience takes precedent over anything else in life.

Jesus had come into this home as an invited guest, and Martha as the hostess was feverishly doing what a hostess should do in ensuring her guests were well fed and comfortable in every way.  But to Jesus, and apparently to Mary, what Martha thought was so important wasn’t that important at all.  Our Lord was not primarily concerned with being welcomed with open arms and a table full of food and drink but with open hearts and an opportunity to spread His table for them.

When Jesus says “Mary has chosen what is better,” is He telling Martha that her sister is a better person than she?  Not at all.  Nor is Jesus implying that it is better to sit around and let other people do all the work than to do the work yourself.  It was better for Mary—on this particular day—to sit and learn at His feet as a disciple would do.  In other words, this was the right thing for Mary to do; this was her moment to learn something from her Lord.

If we take this incident in its context within the chapter, perhaps its meaning becomes ever clearer.  In the preceding parable, the parable of the good Samaritan, we learn about priorities within the Christian life—loving both God and our neighbor, whomever that neighbor may be, and doing what is best for them.  In this story, Martha has learned to give priority to God’s Word even above loving service.  While it is true that there are many important human needs all around us—like the poor man in the parable of the good Samaritan, and it is vital to engage in good works in Christ’s Name–what is “most needed” is far more important than both of these things.

Did Martha get the point?  We are not told, however we do read this in John 11:5—

Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.

Notice that it is Martha who is mentioned by name, not Mary.  And also, two of the most profound confessions of faith were spoken by none other than Martha!

“Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died.  But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”   (John 11:21, 22)

“Yes, Lord,” she told him, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.”  (John 11:27)

Yes indeed; Martha got the point!  She discovered the importance of “the one thing”  needed.  Have you?

(c)  2010 WitzEnd
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1 Response to “MARTHA, MARTHA”


  1. 1 Lorraine Colam July 14, 2010 at 8:27 am

    Thanx Mike,
    What a lovely mditation on Luke 10:- 38 -42! I’m a do-er, if need dictates I “do” rather than “be”. You have reassured me that as long as I make sure I prioritise, Jesus will still love me for what I have done even if I’ve done the less impotant thing first! Thank God he understands humans.
    PTL.


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