“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. 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!’
‘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’” (Luke 10:38-42).
Jesus gladly accepted hospitality from Mary and Martha—or perhaps we should say from Martha. We have no way of knowing whether her sister Mary ever took her turn in the kitchen.
What we do know is that on one particular occasion Martha is distracted with the task of preparing dinner for Jesus and his disciples. In fact, she is irritated, not that 13 men are joining their small family for the meal but that her sister Mary is not helping with the preparations. Instead of appealing to her sister, she tries to win Jesus’ sympathy. Mary seems to be hanging on his every word—perhaps Jesus could drop a hint that she really should be helping in the kitchen.
It doesn’t work. In fact, Jesus defends Mary’s choice to sit at his feet, and he gently chides Martha for being all hot and bothered about the situation. And Luke tells this story to help his readers understand the priorities of Jesus.
But what does the text mean? A quick look at the commentaries on Luke reveals a surprising variety of conclusions.
- Some are sure Jesus is critiquing Martha for her intemperate mood. (“Calm down, Martha, you could learn a thing or two from your quiet, peaceful sister.”)
- Some are sure Martha’s problem is her busyness. (“Martha, Martha, don’t you know that a contemplative life pleases God so much more than a lot of activity?”)
- Some think her problem is with her priorities. (“Martha, it’s fine to meet physical needs, but spiritual disciplines are so much more important.”)
- Some think the problem is Martha’s pride. (“Martha, Martha, the magnificent spread you are putting together might feed your ego. But Jesus delights more in Mary’s humble fare.)
- Some think her problem is with gender roles. (“Just because you feel at home in the kitchen, Martha, doesn’t mean Mary shouldn’t get a theological education.”)
Somehow, we know that Mary is affirmed, and Martha critiqued, but we’re not quite sure what the problem is.
I remember the time I led a Bible conference. We were studying a series of texts in Luke. It was Saturday morning, about 10 minutes before noon, and all participants (including the Bible teacher) were eagerly anticipating the wonderful fellowship meal we were about to enjoy. Delicious smells wafted from the church kitchen into the sanctuary where we were wrapping up the morning, trying to understand this text about Martha and Mary.
It somehow seemed unthinkable that this text was designed to critique those in the kitchen and favor those studying the Bible in the sanctuary. And then something hit me. What if Martha’s problem is her assumption that Mary should make the same choice she has made. Mary chooses theological education (that’s in fact what sitting at a teacher’s feet meant in her world). Martha chooses to prepare the meal. Both are good choices. Both still are good choices. The challenge is to discern which choice is better in a particular time and place, given our unique needs, unique gifts, unique calling.
I suspect that if Mary had been the complainer—if she had said to Jesus, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister is out there in the kitchen preparing a meal rather than sitting here at your feet as I am doing?”—that then Jesus might well have defended Martha’s generous service and gently chided Mary for not recognizing that her sister had chosen well. I shared my thoughts with the group just as the clock struck noon.
We all filed eagerly into the gym where tastefully decorated tables had been loaded up with the dishes we had been smelling. I overheard numerous participants in the Bible study tell the cooks they had wonderfully served the Lord by preparing the noon meal. And I heard some of the cooks respond, “Glad to serve, and next time we would be happy if others would prepare the meal so that we could also be in the Bible study.” I sensed that we had all learned something from Mary and Martha.
The call to serve at tables is not an inferior calling. And the privilege of sitting at Jesus’ feet is not one to be taken from those called there. Both are ways of serving Jesus.
One day while conversing with a Pharisaic lawyer, Jesus asked, “What is written in the Law?” The Pharisee answered correctly: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind;” and “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27). In order to help the man understand “Love your neighbor,” Jesus told the story of the so-called “Good Samaritan.” But which story can help us understand what “Love the Lord your God” means? I think Luke would respond, “How about the Mary/Martha story? That is why I put it next in my Gospel.”
Mary was loving God; Martha was too. Perhaps on that day Mary might have said, “Lord, I am serving you with all my heart, as I sit here at Jesus’ feet.” Perhaps she could have said, “I’m serving you with my mind, learning here from the Master.” If Martha had had the grace to prepare the meal without getting all hot and bothered, without criticizing her sister’s choices, she could have chimed right in: “I’m serving God with all my strength.” Perhaps she could even have said, “I’m pouring heart and soul into this meal.”
If we can have the grace to allow each other to make different choices in different circumstances—if we can learn to value all the ways that people love the Lord their God, then we, too, can follow the greatest of all the commandments, both in the kitchen and at the Master’s feet.
This article has been adapted from an article previously published (2004) in Canadian Conference of MB Churches magazines the MB Herald, Chinese MB Herald and Mennonitische Rundschau and in the German magazine Brücke.
Tim Geddert is professor of New Testament at Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary in Fresno, California. He is a member of the U.S. Conference Board of Faith and Life.