Mary and Martha

Mary and Martha: the Way of Discipleship St Mark’s 23.8.15 Isa 26:1-12; Psalm 16; Phil 4:4-7;

 “v.38 Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. v.39 She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. v.40 But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.’ v.41 But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; v.42 there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’” (Luke 10:38-42)


The last two sermons I preached at St Mark’s were a natural fit; I have long felt John the Baptist to be a very misunderstood person, as I often feel I have been, and I very much appreciate the exalted Christology of Paul. But a story about two women is a greater challenge. Yet God makes no mistakes, in praying for this sermon I found myself struggling with what the Holy Spirit was telling me through this passage about Jesus. We will come back to that shortly, but first it’s important to clear up some misconceptions.

Church goers generally think they understand this story. Who, male or female, feels they are a “Martha” sort of person – practical, busy, diligent, hard-working? (Raise hands)  Who identifies more with Mary – meditative, reflective?  (Raise hands)  For centuries this story has been used to elevate the contemplative life above the active life, or more broadly, the “Sunday” world over the Monday to Friday world, or the life lived by ordained people over lay Christians. This way of reading the story causes us to think too about human personalities and leads us away from a true focus on Jesus. This story is not about personality types but about the way of discipleship. The first key to understanding this passage is to situate it in the plan of Luke’s Gospel.


Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home.(v.38)

Now as they went on their way…” holds a clue about why this story is included in Luke. The Gospels are not ancient travel diaries; they record events in an order that carries a saving message. Just a chapter back we read of a major turning point in the life of Jesus, “When the days drew near for him to be taken up to heaven, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” (9:51). Jesus is now on his way to certain death and various groups are presented with a final opportunity to reject or accept him along this journey.

We read in Luke 9 of a Samaritan village refusing Christ hospitality, a little later Jesus speaks passionately about the eternal condemnation coming to towns by the Sea of Galilee where he had ministered so often because they had refused his message (9:53; 10:13-16).

Acceptance or rejection of Jesus decides one’s eternal destiny; as he says; “““The one who hears you hears me, and the one who rejects you rejects me, and the one who rejects me rejects him who sent me.”” (10:16). immediately following this teaching the Lord told the parable of the Good Samaritan, climaxing with the exhortation ““go and do likewise”” i.e. embrace anyone in need who comes across your path (10:37).

So when we read in the very next verse “Martha welcomed him (Jesus) into her home.(v.38), we might anticipate a warm response from Jesus to Martha for her hospitality. But Jesus always turns social convention upside down, for there was someone else in the house who welcomed Jesus in a highly unconventional way.

She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying.” (v.39). To sit at Jesus’ feet is to take up the position of a disciple; for a disciple is first of all a learner.  Mary is submissive to Christ and zealous to hear “every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deut 8:3; Matt 4:4).

When I was young I thought what I read was the most important thing in growing as a Christian, my sermons could have up to 100 biblical references within them. With experience I have learned that the most important thing in life is to come to Jesus daily in prayer and listen to what he has to say. Returning to our story; Jesus has not allowed Mary to be defined in any other way than as a woman who hears the Word of God.

This is the true radicalism Christ always seeks. In Luke 8 when his mother and brother sought to call him out of a meeting where he was teaching Jesus pronounced, ““My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.”” (Luke 8:21 cf. 6:47; 8:11).

Those who listen to Jesus’ words became part of a new sort of family; God’s family. Hearing God’s word is the foundation of discipleship. From a first century cultural perspective everyone would have automatically expected all the women in the house would be in the kitchen preparing dinner for their distinguished guest. In sitting at Jesus’ feet Mary has become a revolutionary disciple. “But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.’” (v.40) To be fair to Martha we need to remember that Jesus travelled with a considerable retinue; at least a dozen people had suddenly turned up in her home (Luke 8:1-3).

Added to this, Middle Eastern hospitality is legendary; to treat guests well is a matter of great honour and a near unbreakable duty. Believe it or not, it is one reason why some Westerners become Moslems! When we hear that Martha was “distracted” the word used implies that she sincerely wanted to listen to Jesus but the inner pressures of fulfilling her household duties pulled her away from his presence.

Perhaps she had already tried to get Mary to help her, but now she solicits the authority of Jesus to relieve her burden.  “‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.’”  Whilst Martha calls Jesus “Lord” her speech is completely self-centred. She speaks of “my sister has left me…Tell her to help me.”” Her tone is accusatory and resentful towards Jesus for giving what she sees as preferential treatment to Mary while she is left with the hard work and with no proper recognition.

Martha is not really serving Jesus at all, she is a slave to a sense of duty about what it means to be a good host. Over the years I have seen people leave churches in bitterness because their hard work was not recognised; which just shows they were looking for recognition from men rather than from God (cf. Mat 6:1-4).  [JY personal example] Jesus, who always knew what was going on in people’s hearts better than they knew themselves, had allowed space for Martha’s deepest motives to be exposed; not so that he might condemn her, but so that he might instruct her in the ways of discipleship (Luke 9:47).

Mary, Martha and Jesus are not involved in a “clash of personalities”; the matriarch of the house is rebuking the Son of God for not caring for her, she is telling her Creator that she knows what is best for her more than he does. With all her heart Martha felt she was in the right over against Jesus (ever had that experience), she felt this way because her cultural upbringing had shaped her conscience into believing her place was in the kitchen;  so Jesus should tell her sister to get up and help.

The impudence of this lady in the presence of Almighty God is incredible. (The things that Christians say and do never ceases to amaze me.) The scriptures are not interested in a household disagreement about who should be helping with the dishes; this story is profoundly revelatory about how we are to live the family of God because of the unique closeness of Martha’s household to Jesus. Only once in the Gospels do we find the expression, “Jesus loved…” followed by a personal name; in John 11:5 we read, “Now Jesus loved Martha…” Whatever Jesus is about to say to the critically tongued Martha is an expression of pure love.

“But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42 there is need of only one thing.” (vv.41- 42a)

This is the hinge point of our story and the place where I did not at all appreciate what the Holy Spirit was saying to me. Let me ease my way into what I need to say with an illustration. My last dog was a Malamute-cross called Brandy. I used to tease Brandy by saying to him in a pleasant tone of voice “Bad dog, bad dog”.  And of course Brandy would………wag his tail because dogs are like humans, tone of voice is a huge part of communication (38% in humans).

Very rarely in the Bible does God address someone by speaking their name twice over; so when Jesus says “Martha, Martha” a highly charged life changing revelation is about to be spoken (1 Sam 3:10; Luke 22:31). But what tone of voice is Jesus using? Some commentators hear Jesus administering a stern rebuke; others hear a voice of tender compassion. When the Gospel reading was read out today (i.e. Luke 10:38-42) what tone of voice did you hear Jesus using… The Puritan Richard Baxter profoundly said, “It is a great pity that our hearts are not as orthodox as our heads”.

Your head might tell you that Jesus is gentle and kind, your mind may say that there is no condemnation in Christ and God loves us all unconditionally, but if you live a life where daily sitting at the feet of Jesus is not your greatest priority then your heart actually believes none of these things. Your heart actually believes that it is neither same nor profitable to spend time with Jesus; not safe because Christ will “tell you off” for being a spiritual failure, and not profitable because you do not believe that listening to his Word will change your life for the better. The simple but unpalatable truth is that anyone who does not enjoy spending time with Jesus has a deep inner problem of unbelief, guilt and shame.

Jesus’ words “Martha, Martha” are not stern oppressive words; they are imploring words of great compassion for a woman in distress and confused at the core of her being. Jesus speaks not to Martha’s agitation but to her heart; she is not serving him out of grace but is motivated by anxiety. Her service is driven by duty rather than delight. Honestly, if everyone who is motivated by duty stopped serving the Anglican Church tomorrow the whole religious system of our churches (of various forms of theology) would grind to a halt.

Jesus’ words “you are worried and distracted by many things” is not the comment of a therapist to a client but of the Master to his disciple.  Jesus always teaches that worry/anxiety is a sign of a failure to listen to and believe in his word. Worry is a symptom of a crisis in discipleship. In interpreting his Parable of the Sower Christ says, “And as for what fell among the thorns, they are those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the worries and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature.” (8:14). Martha had convinced herself that in baking cakes for Jesus she was serving God, but the Lord’s piercingly gentle reprimand revealed she was being crushed by the cares of this world. The one sure remedy for anxiety is to put Jesus first.

“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will wear…. Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them….O you of little faith….But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.”” (Matt 6:25ff.). I will never forget the year I was studying for my PhD full time in Brisbane; we had four small children, our rent took half of my student scholarship and things were extremely tight financially. (At the end of each fortnight we had nothing in the bank.)

Then when out praying one day I came across a clearing full of birds flying about in perfect freedom, and Jesus’ teaching about the Father’s care came strongly to mind. Not long after this Donna received a phone call from a friend, a lady recently diagnosed with MS as it happens, who just had a dream in the night in which she was told, the “The Yates’ need help.” The rest is history; Jesus is the cure for our worries.

Here are the final words of Jesus’ to Martha: “There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’” (v.42)

There is a vast difference between what we think is important and what Christ tells us is important. Every fibre of Martha’s domesticated being wanted to do the right thing in setting a dinner for Jesus; the need she felt to work for Jesus had become dominant over the need to pay attention to Jesus himself.  (cf. tired, frustrated, discontented, burnt out believers) There are many good things in life, family, friends, fun…, but only one thing that is absolutely necessary.

What Martha actually needed, the “better part”, was to choose Jesus and give attention to his Word. As the Lord said, ““Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”” (Luke 21:33). Martha’s house would pass away, her family would pass away, her reputation as a host was temporary; but no power on earth could deprive Mary of the blessings that came from listening to Jesus.

Application and Conclusion

I began this sermon with the suggestion that each of us most likely identify with one of the two female characters in the story, Martha or Mary. We see ourselves either as practical Martha-like people or Mary-like spiritual people.

After a while a pastor comes to know which folk in a congregation think of themselves as unspiritual and which think of themselves as spiritual. These ways of thinking about ourselves are both in error because they are equally self-centred (cf. 1 Cor 14:37). The only thing that matters is how we see Jesus! Mary sat at the feet of Jesus in submission to him as Lord; in like manner Martha addressed Christ as her “Lord” but did not do what pleased him.

It is one thing to call Jesus “Lord” by reciting the creed each Sunday, it is another thing to live with him as the Lord of your life (Matt 7:21). To treat Jesus as Lord is to follow him as a disciple and the first call of a disciple is to listen to his Word; and it is the Word that Jesus speaks into our hearts that has the power to recreate our lives for the better (John 1:3).

This story is revolutionary in a manner that few Christians or churches dare appreciate.  Martha had been confined by the limits of her culture and gender; but if we are true disciples of Jesus we are not what our mother, father, brothers, sisters, spouse, friends or anyone else has told us we are (cf. Luke 14:26).

My father used to say, especially when he had been drinking, “You’re not worth a cold meat pie.” Christian counsellors have said to/about me that my personal problems are much worse than those of my parishioners, that I am a “social isolate” (can’t relate to other people) and I am “sexually autistic”, whatever that is supposed to mean I am not entirely sure, but it is not complementary.

Many dreadful, indeed vicious things have been spoken, and yes they did distort the way my heart has unconsciously heard Jesus. In the same way your heart’s ability to hear Jesus’ words has been distorted by the things spoken to you over the years (Prov 18:21). But Jesus himself has never spoken in the critical manner my wounded heart wanted to hear him speaking until his Spirit persuaded me that his words “Martha, Martha” were uttered with the purest and most penetrating gentleness.

To sit at Jesus’ feet will mean at times correction and admonition, but his words will never destroy or depress you, they will recreate you in his own image (Col 3:10). In hearing Jesus you will be taken far beyond the limits of every way your culture and community has taught you to think of yourself.

It is certain that after Martha heard the words of the Lord she sat down at his feet with her sister and they became, with Christ in the centre, one truly happy family. After a time Jesus would have released both sisters to take care of his material needs, but everything in its order.

If we would become that extraordinary family of love that Jesus has called us to be there is only one way forward, we must listen to Jesus together…..not Jesus as we have thought of him, but Jesus as he has revealed himself to be today. Put your name in the place of Martha and hear him calling, “X, X” “Y,Y” and come to his feet today, and every day.

John Yates

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