Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

122. Martha and Mary (Luke 10:38-42)*

It is not clear just where in the Lord's ministry this fascinating vignette of Martha and Mary belongs. It may be that the opening phrase: "as they were going," refers to the mission of the seventy (10 :1), during which time Jesus and the twelve were making their December visit to Jerusalem (Jn.10 :22). Or it may be that Luke has deliberately inserted these few verses here as further answer to the lawyer's questions: "What shall I do to inherit eternal life? ... Who is the neighbour I am to love?"

The answer now is: "Love your Neighbour" by a generous hospitality offered to Him, and to those who are His (Mt.25 :40), and-better still-by an avid attention to His teaching. Indeed, the insertion of this episode here is probably intended to correct any false inference from "Go thou and do likewise" about justification by works.

There is a studied vagueness about Luke's mention of "a certain village" as the home of Martha and Mary. Presumably they were still living there at the time when he wrote his gospel (c. A.D.60), and the omission of "Bethany" would be to save them from the embarrassing enthusiasm and curiosity of early disciples visiting Jerusalem.

Since there is good reason to believe that this home at Bethany was also where Simon the leper lived (Mk.14 :3), it seems likely that Simon was Martha's husband, for "a certain woman named Martha received him into her house." The narrative very neatly implies (note the word "also" in verse 39) that Mary too joined in the welcome given to Jesus. And well she might, if she was "the woman in the city, which was a sinner," whose moving story Luke had already narrated (7:36-50; Study 74).

Because of that redeeming experience, her proper place was at the feet of Jesus on every possible occasion. This time she was torn between duties. The Greek text implies that she gave some help to Martha in the kitchen, but from time to time broke off to sit at the Lord's feet, facing him (cp. 2 Kgs.4 :38). Then the domestic chores were let go altogether, and she continued there, listening to his talk, drinking in every word.
Minor Crisis

With mounting indignation Martha put up with this for a while. Then, unable to restrain herself any longer, she came and stood over Jesus, and burst in on his discourse abruptly; "Lord, dost thou not care that my sister has kept leaving me to serve alone? bid her therefore that she help me."

There is a problem here. Was Martha preparing the meal single-handed? It was a wealthy household with high social standing (Jn.12:5; 11 :19). Then were there no servants? Or is it that the mere superintendence of arrangements called for more than one? Or is Martha's "explosion" to be taken as an indication of her frustration?—she too wanted to sit and listen to Jesus. But then what about the meal? Jesus was accompanied by his disciples, so Martha had the responsibility of providing the equivalent of a Christmas dinner (for it may have been Chanukah; Jn.10 :22) for at least seventeen people! So perhaps there was some justification for her indignition. Naturally enough, with Jesus as the chief guest, she wished the hospitality provided for him to be as splendid as possible.

It is noteworthy that her excusably blunt words were not directed at her sister, but were addressed to Jesus-as who should say: 'She won't take any notice of what I say. Surely, Lord, you will back me up in this.' But her words involved a reproach of both of them: "Lord, dost not thou care that she left me. . .?"

Mild rebuke

Challenged thus, there was nothing for it but to set things in perspective. Up to this point Jesus had spoken no word of rebuke.

There are lessons to be learned here, for often enough comparable situations recur in both home and ecclesia. Yet there was no rebuke for Martha until her misplaced diligence and her frustration made impact on others. And in this difficult situation Mary apparently said never a word.

Only now, when he must, did Jesus speak his reproach, and with the utmost gentleness (for "Jesus loved Martha, and her sister and Lazarus"; Jn.11 :5): "Martha, Martha, thou art worried and troubled about many things; but one thing is needful; Mary indeed hath chosen that good portion, which shall not be taken away from her."

The words are simple. Yet nearly all of them need some explanation. Martha's "many things" were, of course, the mass of culinary operations she was superintending. The expression: 'one thing needful' was a double entendre, it is as though Jesus said: 'One course only, Martha—and the one I mean is that which Mary is now sharing with me; that is the best of them all' (cp.Ps27:4).

A lively discussion with the Samaritan woman at the well had had a marvellously invigorating effect on Jesus. So it may be taken as certain that the understanding and appreciation of Mary was as good a "meal" as could be set before him. It was even more true that Mary also was enjoying such a "meal" as she had never known before. What Mary had that day was not to be token away from her. It was hers for ever. The word used by Luke is that which describes the special portion assigned by Joseph to Benjamin, the favourite brother (Gen .43 :34).

It is certainly a correct inference from Mary's choice that no material preoccupation can rank alongside eagerness to receive the Lord's instruction. But it is important to avoid the assumption that Martha had chosen a bad part, even though the word "troubled" is that which comes twice over in Ecclesiastes 3 :10: "the travail which God hath given to the sons of men to be exercised therewith;" for Martha's motive undoubtedly was: 'Jesus is our guest. The very best I can provide is hardly good enough for him' (contrast Lk. 9:58).

It is important that the attitude of the two sisters should not be regarded as mutually exclusive alternatives. Both expressed a high degree of devotion to the Lord. But, when challenged, in honesty Jesus had to say which gave him the greater pleasure. It is the age-old tension between faith and works. For every one who seeks heaven's blessing through faith in the Lord's teaching and increasing insight into it, there are ten who are happier serving with their hands or feet.

This Martha-Mary problem seems to have been specifically in Paul's mind when he wrote: "The unmarried woman (Mary) careth for the things of the Lord" how she may "attend upon the Lord (Lk.10 :40) without distraction" ... she that is married (Martha) careth for the things of the world" (1 Cor. 7 :34,35). In the Greek text the same key words come in both places ("cumbered, part, care, the Lord").

Notes: Lk. 10:38-42

Sat at his feet And so always, see Study 74. That Mary was first and for a while torn between two duties is implied by "also" (v.39), and the imperfects "heard" (v.39), "left" (v.40).
Help me, A very expressive Greek word: Num.11 :17LXX; Rom.8 :26. "Lend a hand" comes fairly near to the meaning.
Martha, Martha. How often a name repeated becomes a means of reproach; cp. 22 :31.

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