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Luke 10:38-42

Luke, like the other three Gospel authors, very intentionally arranges his account of Jesus’ ministry. It seems clear that he has a purpose for placing the story of Mary and Martha here in the narrative. For those familiar with the Gospels, we know that John also talks of the sisters Mary and Martha, along with their brother Lazarus. It’s safe to assume this is the same family and one that Jesus interacted with quite a bit in his ministry. According to John, Martha, Mary, and Lazarus live in Bethany, not far from Jerusalem. While Luke places the location of their home near Samaria which is some fifty miles North of Bethany (9:52).

This historical inconsistency tells us that both Gospel writers have their different reasons for placing the location of this families home where they do for narrative reasons. There’s no way to know who is more historically accurate. But that isn’t the point.

Luke places this story of Mary and Martha here because of what comes before. Just after Jesus tells the famous parable of the “good Samaritan,” Luke tells this story of another person who is doing their best to serve faithfully. While the parable of the good Samaritan teaches that servanthood is central to the identity of a disciple, the story of Martha and Mary proclaims that there is still more and what can’t be missing is first hearing the word before the doing begins.

The NRSV tells us that Mary was sitting “and listening to what he was saying.” Literally, she was listening to his “word” (n. logos). Luke’s Jesus has already proclaimed the dangers of being only hearers and not doers of the word when he says that one who hears and does not do the word is like a foolish man who built his house without a foundation (6:47-49). Now he clarifies that this doesn’t mean we can only be doers either. For some, busying ourselves with tasks can cause us to miss out on receiving the word and presence of Christ.

Richard Foster wants us to remember as we exegete and tell this story that Mary and Martha are sisters. “That is to say, service and spirituality go hand in hand, the active life and the contemplative life should never be separated.”[1] In order to be doers of the word we must first be hearers. Foster and other spiritual leaders want us to not simply see this as rigorously studying scripture but as being versed in many spiritual disciplines with the hope of being in constant communion with God in all that we do. It is when we are in the presence of Christ continually that we begin to reflect Christ in our goings and doings.

For those who find the Enneagram to be a helpful tool, Richard Rohr believes Martha is likely a Two, finding her purpose and worth in helping. Helpers are my favorite Enneagram type (I’m married to one), but healthy Twos will be the first to tell you that the motivation for helping doesn’t always come out of a place of altruism. Like all personality types, there is an extreme that helpers can go to and an unhealthy Two may find their self-worth in being the most helpful person around. It is a need for being needed that can be detrimental to one’s spiritual and mental health.

Perhaps Martha is a Two on the Enneagram. We can only speculate. Perhaps she has simply been conditioned by a culture that places her in a gendered role of servant and she sees service as her duty. The point is that it is possible for works of service to not be grounded in the right place.

Jesus tells Martha that she is “distracted by many things, [but] there is need for only one thing.” Some commentators have suggested that what Jesus is saying is that Martha, while being a good host, has concerned herself with perfection and extravagance by providing more and more food, while all the teacher Jesus requires is “only one thing.”[2] Perhaps that one thing is a single and simple dish of bread and wine so that all can get to the important food that is the word of Christ.

What this story is about is priorities. Yes, Martha’s role as servant is important to Jesus and his ministry. But when her concern for perfection causes her to miss the word of Christ, then her worries have led her to distraction. Her action doing isn’t grounded in hearing.

Through our devotion to Christ, both personally and corporately, we receive abundant life and out of that abundance we are able to become servants like Christ. Service and spirituality, or action and contemplation are two sides of the same coin of discipleship. Without action we are like a foolish person building a house without a foundation. And without contemplation we are almost certainly serving in order to meet our own egotistical needs.

While out attention to this story should certainly be on the two sisters of discipleship, we also should consider Jesus and his role here. A few things are worth noting. First, throughout the gospels Jesus doesn’t just teach the importance of both contemplation and action, he also models it. He continually finds time to intentionally sit in the presence of the Father. His acts of compassion are rooted in his communion with the Father and Holy Spirit.

Second, Martha asks for Jesus, the male teacher who holds the social power in this home, to put Mary in her place. It is a significant point that Jesus refuses to abide by the cultural norms that only men are permitted to sit at the teachers feet as the women go about serving. Jesus states clearly that the place for all disciples is most importantly at his feet listening to his words.

And finally we should consider the way in which Jesus interacts with Martha. Jesus isn’t chastising her; he offers gentle correction as he defends Mary. He invites her to consider Mary’s motivation and desire which are far from malicious or even neglectful and are in fact holy and right.


[1] Foster, Richard and Emilie Griffin, Spiritual Classics: Select Readings for Individuals and Groups on the Twelve Spiritual Disciplines (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2000), Page 209. [2] Neal, David. Luke 9-24: A Commentary in the Wesleyan Tradition (New Beacon Bible Commentary). (Kansas City, MO: Beacon Hill Press, 2013), 72.