(Bible study)

Luke 10:38-42



There are a number of parallels between this story and the story of the Samaritan that immediately precedes it (10:25-37).

• The Samaritan shows his love for his neighbor by taking an active role and helping—thus honoring the horizontal love relationship of one person for another. Mary shows her love for the Lord by listening to him—thus honoring the vertical love relationship of a person for God.

• In the Samaritan story, Jesus introduces “a certain man” (Greek: anthropos tis) (vs. 30). In this story, he introduces “a certain woman” (Greek: tina gune) (vs. 38).

• The Samaritan sees. Mary hears.

• Neither the Samaritan nor Mary are the kind of people who would usually emerge as a hero. They would most often fade into the background as a more prominent character (a priest, Levite, or Martha) assumed the role of protagonist (Culpepper, 231).

These stories balance each other. The early part of the Samaritan story lifts up love of God, neighbor and self, and Jesus concludes by saying, “Go and do likewise” (v. 37)—calling for an active, “doing” discipleship. The Mary-Martha story is the reverse. Jesus criticizes Martha for her worry and distraction and affirms Mary for listening—thus calling for a “being” discipleship.

Perhaps the key to understanding this dichotomy is to emphasize, not the active or passive role of the one who loves, but the appropriateness of the response to the situation. The wounded man needed the Samaritan to love him actively—needed him to bind his wounds and arrange for his care. The situation is quite different when Jesus visits Martha and Mary. While he has human needs for food and hospitality, his is a Godly visitation, and it is more appropriate to focus on the spiritual food that he offers rather than the food that Martha is preparing.


Jesus’ relationship to Martha and Mary breaks social norms at two points:

• Jesus visits women in their home, and Martha welcomes him into “her house” (v. 38). Although Lazarus is the brother of Martha and Mary (John 11:1-2), this story mentions neither him nor the male disciples who accompany him. There is no reference to a man as the head of this household—Martha is clearly in charge.

• Mary sits at Jesus’ feet to receive his teaching, the posture of a disciple, a man’s place. Luke’s Gospel frequently shows women in places of honor.

In recent years, some scholars have characterized this story as an attempt by the early church to define the role of women in ministry (Reid, 373-375). However, imposing that sort of twenty-first century concern into a first-century story serves only to pull the reader away from the primary point of the story which, in this case, has to do with discipleship focused on listening to Jesus instead of allowing oneself to be distracted by many concerns.


38It happened as they (Greek: autous) went on their way, he (Greek: autos) entered into a certain village, and a certain woman named Martha received him into her house.

“It happened as they went on their way, he entered into a certain village” (v. 38a). Luke does not name this village, but John tells us that Mary and Martha reside in Bethany (John 11:1-2; 12:1-3). It is here that Jesus will raise Lazarus from the dead (John 11:17-44). It is in this same house that Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with perfume and wipes them with her hair (John 12:1-3). Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, where he will die. Bethany is near Jerusalem, only two miles (three km) distant. He has twice told his disciples that he will soon die (9:21-27, 43-45)—and we feel the shadow of Jerusalem hanging over this story.

Luke does not tell us how many people have come with Jesus—only that “they (autous) went on their way” and that “he (autos) entered into a certain village”. The Seventy have just returned from their journeys (10:17). Are they traveling with Jesus or only the twelve? We do not know.

“and a certain woman named Martha received him into her house” (v. 38b). Presumably this is Lazarus’ and Mary’s home too, but Martha does the inviting and the invitation is to her home. In the various accounts of Mary and Martha, Martha usually takes the lead. The dramatic exception is when Mary disrupts Martha’s dinner by anointing Jesus feet with perfume. That incident seems out of character for the quiet, retiring Mary, but sometimes the quiet ones surprise us! There is no mention of the disciples. That might be because homes are small, and Martha could host only a small group inside her home. More likely, it represents Luke’s spotlight on Martha, Mary, and Jesus. To bring anyone else onstage would only distract us.


39She had a sister called Mary, who also sat at Jesus’ feet, and heard his word.

Martha had a sister called Mary, who also sat at Jesus’ feet, and heard his word. Mary assumes the lead here. While Martha busies herself with many tasks (a traditional female role), Mary sits at the Lord’s feet and receives his teaching (a traditional male role).


40But Martha was distracted with much serving (Greek: diakonian—the word from which we derive the word, “deacon”), and she came up to him, and said, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister left me to serve alone? Ask her therefore to help me.”

“But Martha was distracted with much serving” (diakonian) (v. 40a). Martha does what people expect of her. She does her duty. She prepares dinner. She offers hospitality. Mary, on the other hand, does none of those things. From Martha’s perspective, Mary is neglecting her rightful responsibilities, and Martha is paying the price. Every “responsible” person sometimes feels the burden of carrying more than her fair share, and that is what Martha is experiencing. It is too much to expect that the “responsible” person will never feel resentment.

“Lord, don’t you care that my sister left me to serve alone? Ask her therefore to help me” (v. 40b). Martha’s resentment goes beyond having too much work to do. She sees Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet, and would like a moment with him too. If Mary would just help, perhaps Martha could find time to talk to him. Furthermore, Mary’s presumptuous posture embarrasses Martha and brings shame on their house. Just imagine! A woman! Sitting at Jesus’ feet! Like a man!

Mary is sitting “at Jesus’ feet” (v. 39). Martha addresses Jesus as “Lord,” (v. 40) but in the same breath rebukes him and gives him an order. “Don’t you care?” and “Ask her therefore to help me” are hardly the respectful tone that one uses to address the Lord. Martha is focused on her own agenda, and asks Jesus to align himself and Mary to that agenda.

While Luke characterized service positively in the parable of the Good Samaritan (vv. 25-37), he will show us in the Acts of the Apostles that service can also be a distracter. When the church neglects widows in the distribution of food, the apostles will say, “It is not appropriate for us to forsake the word of God and serve tables” (Acts 6:2). They therefore call on the church to appoint seven men of good standing to take care of food distribution so that the twelve can focus on the task of proclamation.


41Jesus answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, 42but one thing is needed. Mary has chosen the good part (Greek: agathen merida—good portion), which will not be taken away from her.”

“Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things” (v. 41). Jesus repeats Martha’s name as a gentle rebuke. He notes her distraction rather than her hospitality. Certainly he welcomes food, but he welcomes discipleship even more. He is on the road to Jerusalem and the cross, and this is his final visit in Luke’s Gospel to the home of these dear friends (although the visit where Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead most likely comes later—see John 11:17-44). Martha and Mary need Jesus, and Martha’s busyness distances her from him. Jesus needs Martha and Mary, too. He knows what awaits him in Jerusalem, and he needs good friends now more than good food.

Martha may have allowed herself to be distracted, in part, as an escape from Jesus’ uncomfortable teachings. Jesus has begun to tell his disciples that he has to go to Jerusalem and that he will die there. If Martha heard Jesus say these things, she may have fled to the kitchen as an escape.

“but one thing is needed. Mary has chosen the good part” (agathen merida—good portion) (v. 42). The better part that Mary has chosen is sitting at Jesus’ feet and listening—being a disciple. There will be time enough for action. First, the disciple must learn from the master—otherwise, the disciple’s busyness may create more problems than it solves.

This has implications for us today. We, too, are busy about many things. We, too, are troubled and distracted. We, too, need to choose the better part—to sit at the master’s feet—to steep ourselves in prayer—to seek the Lord’s direction. Only then can we be assured that our busyness will further the Lord’s business. Only then can we expect the Lord to bless our work.

“many things … one thing” (vv. 41-42). Jesus’ contrasts Martha’s distractedness (“many things”) with Mary’s focus (“one thing”). The one thing on which Mary is focused is not bread, but “everything that proceeds out of the mouth of Yahweh” (Deuteronomy 8:3).

As a “doer,” I feel bad for Martha. She is doing her duty as she sees it. She works hard. She has good reason to resent Mary, who (as Martha sees it) has abandoned her at a critical moment. Jesus’ words must feel like a slap in the face. If I were Martha, I would take Jesus at his word—turn off the stove and sit down to listen. At some point, people would start thinking about food. We would see how long it would take Jesus to understand the error of his ways. Hunger is a good teacher!

The irony, of course, is that Jesus so recently fed five thousand people with only five loaves and two fish (9:12-17). If he could do that, Martha can trust that he has the means to provide for her guests—that they will not go away hungry. Also, as Jesus told the tempter, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone'” (4:4).

But let us be sensitive to those in the congregation who express their love for family, friends, and Jesus by working in the kitchen. Does this story invalidate their hard work? Hardly! Jesus has used the services of good cooks to nourish lives and to save souls. The story of Mary and Martha does not teach us that it is better to sit than to do. It teaches us to discern—to set priorities carefully—to seek the better thing, the good portion, whatever that might be in the situation in which we find ourselves.

And again, let us remember the relationship of this story (which shows the value of listening to Jesus) to the parable of the Good Samaritan (which shows the value of taking action to solve a problem). Both listening and acting are appropriate behaviors for Jesus’ disciples. The discipleship quandary is trying to determine which is needed in the immediate situation.

SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.


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Copyright 2004, 2010, 2012, Richard Niell Donovan