top of page

Luke 10:38-42

The story of Martha and Mary is located in the middle of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. If a preacher is following the lectionary passages from Luke’s gospel, then they have been on this journey for several weeks now. It is a journey that began in 9:51, and it is a journey that is, for Luke, primarily theological in nature. In particular, it is a journey that is about the ‘way of Christ.’

In Jesus’ encounter with the religious expert we learn that to be a true disciple, “You shall 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 your neighbor as yourself” (10:27). A true disciple is one who will ‘go and do’ this very thing. Jesus illustrates the going and doing nature of discipleship by telling the parable of the Good Samaritan. In this parable we come to realize that ‘doing’ is more about who we are, rather than what we do. Nonetheless, there is a very real and active component to our discipleship.

As we come to the story of Martha and Mary, Jesus and his disciples are still ‘on their way’ to Jerusalem when they enter a certain village. On this theological journey Luke does not bother to name the village, but it is interesting what he does name, Martha and Mary. The story of Martha and Mary is unique to Luke’s gospel, but that should not surprise us. After all, Luke continually shows us that Jesus, and all he has to offer, is available to all kinds of people: a Roman centurion, women, Gentiles, Jews, and Samaritans.

Martha welcomes Jesus into her home. In 9:48 Jesus said, “whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me,” and in his instructions to both the 12 (9:1-6) and the 70 (10:1-2), Jesus has said that the Kingdom of God has come near to those who welcome him. So, Martha has responded to the coming of Jesus just as we would hope.

Mary, Martha’s sister, on the other hand, responds in quite a different manner. Instead of helping her sister prepare a meal and care for the household tasks, she shirks her responsibilities. Mary is breaking social norms, and in doing so, she risks bringing shame upon the house. But not only has Mary neglected her responsibilities, she has chosen to sit at the feet of Jesus, which is the position of a male disciple.

At this point the story shifts back to Martha. While Martha has welcomed Jesus into her home, Luke tells us that she is distracted. Luke’s commentary is borne out in Martha’s words: “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all of the work myself? Tell her then to help me” (10:40, emphasis mine). Jesus responds to Martha by telling her that she has become distracted with many things, while only one thing truly matters.

Martha’s problem is not that she was busy, but that she was distracted. Hospitality is a good thing, but Martha’s practice of hospitality has become more important than the focus of her hospitality. She was so busy with what she was doing, that she forgot whom she was doing it for.

John Wesley’s sermon “On Dissipation” is focused on 1 Corinthians 7:35, “I say this for your own benefit … to promote good order and unhindered devotion to the Lord.” Wesley suggests that when Paul wrote about “unhindered devotion to the Lord,” he had Mary in mind. The goal for a follower of Christ is to see God, love God, and serve God in all they do. Mary has this singular aim, and in doing so she has exemplified what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. A disciple does not tell Jesus what he should do; instead, a disciple, like Mary, lets Jesus tell her what to do.

At the same time, a true disciple does not only sit at the feet of Jesus. Mary provides one picture of what a disciple looks like, but the story of Martha and Mary stands in juxtaposition to the story of the Good Samaritan. In the story of the Good Samaritan we see that disciples are called to ‘go and do.’ In the story of Martha and Mary we see that disciples are called to ‘sit and listen.’ True discipleship, it seems, lives in this tension between going and doing and sitting and listening. The life of a disciple that is unhindered in their devotion to God is a life that is lived in this tension. In his commentary on this passage Fred B. Craddock says, “If we were to ask Jesus which example applies to us, the Samaritan or Mary, his answer would probably be Yes.” [1]

[1] Fred B. Craddock, Luke: Interpretation: A Biblical Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1990), 152.