But Martha was distracted with all her preparations; and she came up to Him and said, “Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to do all the serving alone? Then tell her to help me.” But the Lord answered and said to her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and bothered about so many things; but only one thing is necessary, for Mary has chosen the good part, which shall not be taken away from her.” (10:40–42)
Unfortunately, even genuine believers can lose their focus on what really matters. Unlike her sister, Martha was distracted from hearing the Lord’s teaching, being preoccupied with all her preparations. The verb translated distracted literally means, “to be dragged away.” She allowed her preparations (lit., “much serving”), such as fixing a meal for the guests and making arrangements for where they would sleep, to keep her from the priority of listening to the Lord teach.
There is certainly nothing wrong with showing hospitality; in fact, Scripture commands it. Paul wrote that believers are to be constantly “practicing hospitality” (Rom. 12:13). The writer of Hebrews exhorted, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Heb. 13:2), while Peter commanded, “Be hospitable to one another without complaint” (1 Peter 4:9). Showing hospitality marks both elders (1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:8) and godly women (1 Tim. 5:10). But in the process of doing that, Martha got her priorities twisted; she was fussing and fretting, trying to get everything arranged to her satisfaction, maybe to make an impression on Jesus. As a result, she failed to take advantage of a rare and priceless opportunity—to hear in person the Lord of the universe teach and be impressed profoundly by Him.
Her misguided priorities finally caused Martha to lose the joy of serving. She became more and more flustered, agitated, and frustrated, until finally she became angry. The target of her anger was her sister who, instead of helping with the chores, was sitting there listening to Jesus. Finally, in exasperation, Martha came up to Jesus and interrupted Him. Her irritation and anger caused her to lose control and make the unthinking accusation, “Lord, do You not care?” To so rebuke the one who is “compassionate and gracious” (Ex. 34:6; 2 Chron. 30:9; Neh. 9:17, 31; Pss. 103:8; 111:4; 116:5; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2) and cares for His people (1 Peter 5:7; cf. Ps. 34:15; Matt. 6:26–30) is one of the most foolish and graceless statements anyone ever made to Jesus.
Specifically, Martha accused Jesus of not caring that her sister had left her to do all the serving alone. And if He did care, then He should tell her to help bear the burden of serving. After falsely accusing Him of not caring, Martha then presumed to tell the Lord exactly what to do, implying that her will and her plans were more important than His. She had lost her perspective; she was totally out of control; her view of reality was severely skewed. Martha was worried about the bread that feeds the body, while Mary’s focus was on the Bread of Life that feeds the soul (cf. John 6:33, 35, 48, 51).
Demonstrating the gentle, compassionate care that Martha had unthinkingly questioned, the Lord answered and said to her, “Martha, Martha. Repeating her name as a sign of intensified emotion (cf. 6:46; 8:24; 13:34), Jesus said to her, “You are worried and bothered about so many things.” Martha was unduly concerned and troubled about temporal things to the point that she had forgotten that only one thing is necessary—listening to the Word of God. Far from rebuking her as Martha had demanded, Jesus commended Mary for understanding that reality. “Mary has chosen the good part (lit., “what is best”), He told Martha, which shall not be taken away from her.”
All too often Christians, like Martha, allow their lives to be regulated by what is not necessary. Faithfulness on the job, in the home, and in the church has a place, but must not be allowed to replace faithfulness to divine truth. “Man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord” (Deut. 8:3). Only by making that their highest priority can believers behold the beauty of the Lord, as David did, and know Christ, as was Paul’s supreme passion. To that end they must “commend [themselves] to God and to the word of His grace, which is able to build [them] up and to give [them] the inheritance among all those who are sanctified” (Acts 20:32; cf. Col. 3:16; Eph. 6:17; 1 Tim. 4:6; 1 Peter 2:2; 1 John 2:14).
Thus, in this account, the necessity of being a student of the Divine Teacher is established, and the lessons from His lips will unfold through the subsequent chapters.
Having a Mary Heart in a Martha World
But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:41–42)
How will it all end? Will the late, great United States be destroyed by some unforeseen cataclysm? Will we collapse under the weight of our own decadence? Or will we simply fade away, going not with a bang, but with a whimper?
Consider another possibility: maybe it will all end in a blur. Living at hyper-speed, the images flicker ever more rapidly across the screens of our lives. Hyped up and supercharged, we live from one surge of adrenaline to the next. We are busier now than we were a year ago, and we will be even busier next year. According to James Gleick, we are witnessing “the acceleration of just about everything.”2 So maybe we will just keep moving faster and faster until, as we approach the speed of light, we suddenly disappear in a blur that smudges the cosmos.
Where is the time in all of this to nurture the life of one’s soul? Because if there is one thing we cannot accelerate, it is our growth in godliness. How can our love for Jesus deepen without time away to read our Bibles, or to pray, or even to stop and think?
This struggle is not a new one. Even before the fastest culture ever, people were distracted from spiritual things. We see this in the story of two sisters who were close friends with Jesus Christ: “Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching” (Luke 10:38–39).
These two sisters had two very different personalities. Their character-types are not hard to recognize in women we know today. “Mary’s bent,” writes Joanna Weaver, “was to meander through life, pausing to smell the roses. Martha was more likely to pick the roses, quickly cut the stems at an angle, and arrange them in a vase with baby’s breath and ferns.” Not surprisingly, these two women had two distinct ways of serving God: Martha served him with her hands, while Mary served him with her mind and her heart. But both sisters wanted to honor God with true devotion to Jesus Christ. There were some problems with Martha’s attitude, as we shall see, but we do her an injustice if we fail to recognize the sincerity of her love for Jesus. Like Mary, this godly woman deserves our admiration.
Martha was the responsible one, the type who is always volunteering and always making sure that everything is done to her standards. She was one of the 20 percent who end up doing 80 percent of the work. And if there was one area where Martha excelled, it was in the gift of hospitality. Today people would call her “the hostess with the mostest.” Think Martha Stewart, with her panache for stylish homemaking.
As soon as Martha heard that Jesus was coming, perhaps with little warning, all her domestic instincts took over. She welcomed him into her home as an honored guest. Even as she offered him the best seat in the house, her mind was probably racing down her mental list of all the things that needed to be done for Jesus and his disciples. Any woman who has ever welcomed a special guest into her home knows all the things that needed to be done: cleaning, buying, chopping, cooking and baking, to say nothing of washing up. Everything had to be just right. Martha was the type to put place cards on the table, goat cheese in the salad, and wine with every place setting.
Martha was right to give this kind of welcome because hospitality is one of the noble virtues of godliness. “Seek to show hospitality” (Rom. 12:13), the Scripture says. “Show hospitality to one another without grumbling. As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace” (1 Peter 4:9–10). Martha used her gift of hospitality to serve others, and when she had the opportunity to do this work for Jesus, she wanted to shine. As the Son of God, he deserved the best welcome that she could give him. We know from other places in the Gospels that Jesus visited this home more than once. Could it be that Martha’s gracious hospitality was one of the things that drew him there?
While Martha was busy getting everything ready for dinner, Mary was also attending to Jesus—not in the kitchen, but in the living room. From the moment she heard that Jesus was coming, one thought had consumed her. Unlike Martha, this thought did not concern what she could do for Jesus, but what Jesus could do for her. He could teach her his word, drawing her deeper into a relationship with him.
Mary wanted to know Jesus, and as he taught, she was the very model of attention. Mary sat in the front row, right at Jesus’ feet. She did not want to miss a word; she wanted to hear everything her Teacher said. To sit at someone’s feet implies not only attention, but also submission. Mary was not standing up to confront Jesus, like the lawyer who asked what he had to do to inherit eternal life (Luke 10:25). Instead, she was sitting at his feet, ready to listen, ready to learn, and ready to believe. Mary shows us how attractive it is when a woman devotes herself to learning what Jesus says. She is a perfect example of the kind of listening Paul had in mind when he said, “Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness” (1 Tim. 2:11). The apostle is teaching submission, but like Jesus, he is also opening the door for women to learn theology.
Mary’s posture seems all the more remarkable when we remember that in those days women were not exactly encouraged to become theologians. Somehow people had the idea that theology was mainly for men, but not for women, as if it were some kind of gender-specific specialty rather than what it actually is: the knowledge of God that everyone needs. Some rabbis permitted women to study the Torah, but forbade them to sit at their feet for formal instruction. Jesus not only permitted it; he positively encouraged it. To him it was as important to teach women the doctrines of discipleship as it was to teach the men. Sound theology helps us to know God, and of course women have as much need for this as men do. Every believer is called to grow in his or her understanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the teaching of the Bible, the doctrines of the Christian faith, and the way these truths apply to daily life. Mary reveled in her opportunity to do just that. While Martha was busy preparing a banquet, Mary was already having one—she was feasting on the word of Christ.
What Martha Thought
Unfortunately, this heartwarming scene of gracious hospitality and theological instruction was soon disturbed by the storm that was building in Martha’s heart. As Jesus went on teaching, Martha became increasingly agitated, until finally the storm cloud burst and the angry words came pouring out: “But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me’ ” (Luke 10:40).
There was nothing wrong with what Martha was doing, but there were some problems with her attitude. We should give them careful notice because these problems are all too common in people who work hard for the Lord. It is possible to serve the Lord, as Martha did, and yet do it in a very unattractive way.
Martha was guilty of at least three sins. One was distraction. As Luke tells us, she was “distracted with much serving.” Martha was guilty of inattention to the word of Christ. The primary meaning of the Greek verb for distraction (perispaō) is to be dragged away. This implies that Martha was doing or wanting to do one thing, but ended up getting pulled away from it. This is what it means to be distracted. First we are attracted to something, but then we get distracted, and our attention turns away.
Martha had lost her focus, and it was her service, of all things, that distracted her attention away from Jesus. With her strong sense of duty, Martha had a long list of all the things she had to do. They were all things she wanted to do for Jesus, but she got so caught up in doing them that she lost sight of Jesus himself. Charles Spurgeon comments: “Her fault was not that she served. The condition of a servant well becomes every Christian. Her fault was that she grew ‘cumbered with much serving,’ so that she forgot him and only remembered the service.” Martha’s ministry was keeping her from Jesus.
How easy it is for us to get distracted, even when we are serving the Lord. We begin serving because we are attracted to Jesus and want to show him our love. So we get involved in helping children, or reaching out to the poor, or teaching the Bible, or some other form of Christian service. Our motivation is to honor God by loving our neighbors. But soon we get distracted by the problems we have in ministry, or even by the work of ministry itself. We have discipline problems in the classroom, and we forget why we ever wanted to work with children in the first place. Or we get so caught up in getting ready to teach others that we fail to listen to what God is saying to us in his Word. Sometimes we even forget to pray for God’s blessing, without which our service can accomplish nothing at all.
Distraction soon gives way to self-pity. The more Martha thought about all the things that had to be done—at least according to her own high standards for hospitality—the more overwhelmed she began to feel. As she continued slaving away in the kitchen, she began to feel sorry for herself. We know the feeling, because like Martha, we start sulking whenever we feel that we are the ones doing all of the work. We think more and more about how hard we are working; little by little, our feelings of self-pity take over. Soon we have stopped serving Jesus at all. We are serving ourselves, and thinking only about what our ministry is or is not doing for us.
Self-pity inevitably gives rise to resentment. Martha did not stay feeling sorry for herself for long, however. Quickly she realized that there was someone else to blame—someone who wasn’t lifting a finger. It just wasn’t fair! Martha did not have to be doing all this work by herself; if only that lazy Mary would get back in the kitchen where she belonged! For if there was one thing that Martha hated, it was a slacker:
It was not of course that she did not enjoy his conversation: she would have enjoyed it as much as Mary; but she had very clear and very strong ideas on what things just had to be done when you were entertaining so important a guest as the Lord. If asked, she doubtless would have explained that true love is practical, and that work must be put before pleasure; and it was this that filled her with resentment when Mary left off working and went and sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his word. It meant that Mary was getting all the pleasure, and Martha was getting all the work, her own share and Mary’s as well. To Martha’s way of thinking, Mary was being selfish, unprincipled and unfair.
In her resentment, Martha self-righteously assumed that her sister ought to be serving Jesus the same way that she was. This attitude is common in the church, especially among people who think they are working hard in Christian ministry. We assume that others should have the same priority that we have, and we look disapprovingly on their lack of commitment. Why isn’t anyone volunteering to help? Why aren’t more people supporting this ministry? Why don’t people notice what I am doing? Whether we are involved in children’s ministry, or adult discipleship, or mercy ministry, or missionary work, or some other form of Christian service, we resent it when people do not make our ministry their priority.
All of these sinful attitudes go together. First we get distracted. However much we say that we want to worship like Mary, our inner Martha keeps bossing us around, and we grow inattentive to Christ and his word. This makes us vulnerable to self-pity. Since we are no longer focusing on Jesus, we can only focus on ourselves. Our difficulties loom large, our work seems overwhelming, and we start to feel sorry for ourselves. Then in our frustration we look for other people to help us, and when they fail to meet our expectations, our resentment begins to burn. As Kent Hughes explains, “There is a tendency for people who are wound tight like Martha to give everything to their particular area of calling or interest and to allow that interest to so dominate their lives that they have little time to let God’s Word speak to them. Without the benefit of the Word, they adopt a mindset of narrowness, judgmentalism, or fault-finding. And eventually the creativity and vitality they once gave to their area of ministry sours.”
This can happen very quickly. For Martha it happened during the time it took her to start preparing a meal. One minute she was welcoming Jesus into her home with joy; the next minute she was busy in the kitchen; the minute after that she was making a scene out in the living room.
Perhaps Martha tried banging on a few kitchen utensils and casting some dirty looks before she said anything, but if she did, of course it was useless because Mary only had ears and eyes for Jesus. By the time Martha spoke, her blood was on the boil. Out spilled all of her irritation, maybe even outrage. Indeed, she was almost as angry with Jesus as she was with Mary, because he was part of the problem! By letting her sit at his feet, Jesus was actually encouraging Mary to neglect her domestic duties. We can hear the tone of reproach in Martha’s words: “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone?” Then she presumed to tell Jesus what he should be doing: “Tell her then to help me” (Luke 10:40).
By this point Martha’s attitude was more than unattractive; it was ugly. She had stopped serving and started scolding. She interrupted Jesus and interfered with her sister’s relationship with her Savior. If she could, Martha would even usurp the place of God in Christ by telling Jesus what to do.
This is where the unattractive attitudes in our own service to Christ will lead. It may not seem all that serious to neglect the Word of God. At first we can hardly tell the difference it makes not to read our Bibles or to pray. But soon a subtle self-pity creeps in. Rather than rejoicing in the promises of God, we feel sorry for ourselves because of the difficulties we are facing. We are increasingly critical, finding fault with others for what they are doing or not doing for us. Before long we will be trying to tell God his business. This will all happen when in our service for Jesus we get distracted from Jesus.
What Mary Chose
How did Jesus respond to Martha’s complaint? Given everything she was doing to get dinner on the table, her request for a little help would seem more than reasonable. Jesus did not see it that way, however: “But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things’ ” (Luke 10:41). Or as the New English Bible expresses it, “you are fretting and fussing about so many things.”
Notice what Jesus did not do. He did not take sides. He did not send Mary back to the kitchen. Nor did he tell Martha that she ought to be more like her sister. He did not even tell her to stop doing what she was doing. This is because Jesus did not “disapprove of Martha’s activities as such, for they were also the outcome of love for Him and were meant to serve Him. It is her wrong attitude as revealed in her condemnation of Mary and her dissatisfaction with Himself that had to be set right and rebuked.” The issue was not who was doing what, but what kind of relationship Martha had with Jesus, and what kind of relationship she needed to have.
It is important in all this to see that Jesus loved Martha as much as he loved Mary. He loved Mary by protecting her time with him and praising her choice to sit at his feet. But he also loved Martha. We know this because the apostle John says so in as many words (John 11:5), and also because of the way that Jesus spoke to her. “Martha, Martha,” he said, calling her back to attention. It was out of love for Martha that Jesus gently rebuked her. He did this by identifying the sin in Martha’s heart; he exposed her underlying idolatry. The Bible tells us not to be anxious about anything (Phil. 4:6), but Martha was anxious about almost everything. She had a to-do list as long as her arm. She did not know how to let some things go, and she did not know how to stop worrying about all the things she could not get done, or that she could not get done according to the unreasonable standards of her own perfection. Kent Hughes comments: “Martha’s self-appointed responsibilities distracted her from what mattered most. So it is with us. The self-imposed necessities of ministry smother us, and serving becomes drudgery.”
Martha’s rebuke shows that behind all our self-pity and resentment are the worries of an anxious heart. Knowing this helps us know how to preach ourselves the gospel. When we find that we are feeling sorry for ourselves because we have suffered a setback, or that we are snapping at people over little things, we need to ask ourselves what we are really worried about. Then we need to recall the promises of God that speak to our anxieties. If we are worried that we will not get what we need, we need to remember God’s promise to provide. If we are worried what people will think, we need to remember God’s promise to accept us in Jesus Christ. If we are worried about will happen or will not happen in the future, we need to remember God’s promise to love us to the very end. Behind every unattractive attitude in the distracted heart there is an ungodly anxiety, and for every anxiety God has a promise in the gospel.
After showing Martha what was really in her heart, Jesus crumpled up her to-do list, so to speak, and said, “One thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:42). Martha had a whole list of things she thought were necessary; Jesus said there was only one. But what, exactly, was the one and only necessary thing?
This question has caused a fair amount of consternation, because Jesus never says. He does not define the one thing that is necessary for the life of discipleship. Instead, he points to Mary’s example. Rather than giving us a proposition, he shows us a picture. What is necessary is to sit at Jesus’ feet, the way that Mary did, and listen to what he says, and in this way come to know Jesus for sure. This picture shows us Mary’s devotion to Christ, specifically her commitment to his teaching. Mary loved Jesus and his Word.
Some scholars emphasize the context for these words. Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem and the cross. Time was short. So Martha did not need to make a fuss over his meals. Dinner could wait. What Martha really needed to do was to sit down and listen to some of the last important things that Jesus had to say.
What Jesus said about the one needful thing also has a wider application. There is only one thing that is necessary for any of us. It is not anything that we can ever do for God. This was Martha’s mistake. She thought that what was really important was her service for God. Yet our service for God can never be necessary in the absolute sense, because he does not need us at all. As the apostle Paul said, God is not “served by human hands, as though he needed anything” (Acts 17:25). God can do perfectly well without our service. But we, on the other hand, are in desperate need of him. Therefore, what is necessary for every Mary or Martha is not to serve Jesus, but to be served by him.
To be more specific, the one thing necessary is to receive the Word of God through the ministry of Jesus Christ. It is by this Word that God gives us the saving knowledge of his Son. The one thing that is truly necessary for us, therefore, is to hear what Jesus has to say about the way of salvation:
Amid all life’s duties and necessities there is one supreme necessity which must always be given priority, and which, if circumstances compel us to choose, must be chosen to the exclusion of all others. That supreme necessity is to sit at the Lord’s feet and listen to his word. It must be so. If there is a Creator at all, and that Creator is prepared to visit us and speak to us as in his incarnation he visited and spoke to Martha and Mary, then obviously it is our first duty as his creatures, as it ought to be our highest pleasure, to sit at his feet and listen to what he says.
With this in mind, Jesus told Martha that her sister had made the right decision: “Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:42). This expression fits the context perfectly, because the Greek word for portion (merida) often refers to a meal. While Martha was preparing one meal, Mary was having another, better one. She was feeding on the Living Word.
Strictly speaking, Jesus did not say that Mary chose something better, but simply that she chose “the good portion.” Nevertheless, he still seems to be making a comparison. It is good to serve the Lord, as Martha did, but better still to love him and learn from him. To be sure, practical service has its place in the Christian life. Jesus values our service; more than that, he demands it. In fact, as Mary sat listening to Jesus she may well have heard him say something about serving God by serving others. But what we do for Jesus is not the heart of our relationship with him. He prizes our friendship and our fellowship more highly than all our service. He wants us to be with him and to know him. He wants us to give ourselves to him, just as he gives himself to us. The good portion is Jesus himself.
Doing Martha’s Work with Mary’s Heart
What portion are you choosing? The story of Mary and Martha confronts us with a choice. It may not be the choice that we usually have in mind, however. Some people see it as a choice between two different ways of living: the active life and the contemplative life. Thus there are two kinds of Christians in the world: the Mary Christians and the Martha Christians, the listeners and the doers. The Marthas are the ones who do most of the work. They volunteer a lot, and usually end up running a ministry. The Marys lead a more thoughtful existence. They are the ones who start the prayer groups and set up the monasteries.
There is some truth in all of this because Mary and Martha represent such familiar personality types. We have all known our Marys and Marthas in the church (especially the Marthas). But we do not have to choose one of these personalities as a Christian lifestyle. After all, every Martha needs a prayer life, and every Mary is called to serve. Nor do we need to think that a contemplative life is superior to an active one. Jesus loved both Mary and Martha, and he loves the Mary and Martha in all of us.
Others see the story of Mary and Martha as a choice between two different duties. One duty is to serve God in practical ways like Martha, and the other duty is to spend time alone with God in prayer and Bible study. Martha’s problem, then, was that she chose the wrong duty. Here is how one commentator explains the choice:
We cannot do everything; there is not enough time. Like Mary, therefore, we shall have to choose and choose very deliberately. Life’s affairs will not automatically sort themselves into a true order of priorities. If we do not consciously insist on making “sitting at the Lord’s feet and listening to his word” our number one necessity, a thousand and one other things and duties, all claiming to be prior necessities, will tyrannize our time and energies and rob us of the “good part” in life.
This is closer to the truth, but still needs some correction. We do need to make the time and take the time to be with Jesus, not only by worshiping with other believers, but also by spending our own private time in God’s Word. One of the main lessons of this story is: “Don’t be so distracted and concerned about doing good that you neglect what is most important, namely, to sit at the feet of Jesus and hear the Word of God.” However, we need to think about this the right way. Our quiet time with Christ is not another item on our to-do list—yet one more thing that we have to do for Jesus; rather, it is an opportunity for him to do something for us. Remember what is necessary: not something we do for Jesus, but something he wants to do for us as we listen to him. Do you see the difference? When the Marthas read this story, we usually think we need to add another duty to the list: time with Jesus. We do need time with Jesus, of course, but not if we think of that time as fulfilling our religious obligation. Jesus is not asking for something more from us; he is asking for less, so that he can give us more of himself.
When we make this kind of time for Jesus—quality time to meet him in his Word and through prayer—we are choosing the good portion. Jesus is the perfect antidote for all the unattractive attitudes that poison our service when we turn our attention away from him. His gospel is the cure for our distraction, as we are drawn to the beauty of his grace. His peace is the cure for our anxiety, as we trust him through the worries of life. His love is the cure for our self-pity, as we forget ourselves in serving others for his sake. His mercy is the cure for our resentment, as we offer others the same forgiveness that Jesus has given to us. This is the good portion that God offers to Marys and Marthas everywhere: Jesus himself, in all his grace. What we gain in knowing Jesus cannot be taken away from us, any more than Martha could take away Mary’s golden opportunity to sit at her Master’s feet.
Happily, we do not have to choose being with Jesus to the exclusion of serving him. God has given us the time to do everything he has truly called us to do, including spending some of our time in private communion with Christ. But he has also given us his Holy Spirit, and this means that we can commune with Christ in our daily activities. Part of Martha’s problem was that she could not serve in the kitchen and be with Jesus in the living room at the same time. But we can. Through the inward work of the Holy Spirit, who makes Christ to live in us by faith, we can pray and listen to Jesus right in the middle of all our activities—even in the kitchen. As much as we need time away with Jesus, we also need to know his presence when we are with others, and when we are busy with our work. The Holy Spirit makes this a reality in the Christian life. By his ministry we can have a Mary heart in a Martha world, offering Martha’s kind of service with Mary’s attention to Jesus.
One Christian who learned to do this well was the French monk Nicholas Herman, better known as Brother Lawrence. Brother Lawrence made it his ambition to “do everything for the love of God, and with prayer.” He found this hard to accomplish in the busy life of his daily routine. There were so many distractions, especially when he served in the kitchen. But eventually Brother Lawrence learned to meet with Christ in the kitchen as much as anywhere else. He said: “The time of business does not with me differ from the time of prayer, and in the noise and clatter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I possess God in as great tranquility as if I were upon my knees.” Brother Lawrence learned this not so much by doing something different, but by doing what he always did in a different way—doing it for Jesus instead of for himself.
The best examples of this kind of spiritual repose are Mary and her sister Martha. We must include Martha because she was listening when Jesus gave her his kind rebuke. We know this because of what happened later when the two sisters were grief-stricken at the death of their brother Lazarus. Their house was full of guests. Doubtless Martha was concerned to be a gracious hostess, even through her tears. But when she heard that Jesus was coming, she knew that only one thing was necessary. So she abandoned all her guests and ran outside the village to meet her Lord.
Martha was still Martha, however, and we can hear the reproach in her first words to Jesus: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:21). Yet even these words were spoken in faith, because Martha went on to affirm her trust in Jesus and his resurrection power. She had learned to know Jesus, and even in her disappointment with him she could not bring herself to deny what she knew to be true about his grace. When he asked if she believed that he is the resurrection and the life, she made one of the first great confessions of the Christian faith: “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world” (John 11:27). Martha got it. When the crisis came and she had to look death in the eye, her theology did not let her down. When she was in the living room with Jesus, she learned what was most necessary of all: not anything that she could ever do for God, but what God was doing for her through Jesus Christ.
And what of Mary? She also listened to what Jesus was saying, and while sitting at his feet, she learned something that nearly all of the other disciples missed: Jesus was going to suffer and die. Then, out of the extravagance of her love, she responded to this awful news by anointing Jesus with sweet perfume, preparing him for burial (John 12:1–8).
We may even say that these two sisters were the first disciples to believe the gospel. Mary believed in the cross, even before the crucifixion, whereas Martha believed in the power of the resurrection. They believed these things because they both did the one thing that is needed, which is to listen to Jesus with the full attention of a loving heart.
41–42 The Lord shows concern for Martha’s anxiety (v. 41), but the precise meaning of his saying (v. 42) is partly obscured because of a textual problem (see Notes). There is no explanation of “what is better” (tēn agathēn merida, lit., “the good part”). Some have understood it to be the contemplative life, or placing worship over service. Manson, 264–65, believed it denotes seeking the kingdom first. This interpretation has the merit of explaining Mary’s seeming neglect of household duties, which in comparison with the kingdom would have a radically diminishing demand on her. The word of the Lord has first claim. For the disciple an attitude of learning and obedience takes first place. The preceding narrative and parable establish the importance of priorities in the Christian life—i.e., heeding the commands to love God and neighbor. Martha must now learn to give the Lord and his word priority even over loving service. There are important human needs, whether of the victim in vv. 30–35 or of Jesus himself. But what is most “needed” goes beyond even these.
The thoughtful reader will recognize, however, that this spiritual priority is not the same as the sterile religion of the priest and Levite in vv. 31–32. In line with the emphasis of the parable of the good Samaritan is the emphasis on doing what is necessary, even when it means that one has to deviate from the expected mode of behavior.
Mary and Martha (10:38–42)
The Lord frequently stayed with Mary, Martha and their brother Lazarus at Bethany, near to Jerusalem. Here were disciples who had not become homeless in following the Lord, but who used and opened their home for him.
Mary sat at his feet and listened attentively as he spoke. Martha, her sister, was busy preparing food for everyone. Martha asked him to rebuke Mary because she needed her help. Yet to have left so noble a guest on his own would have been rude and foolish. Mary used her time wisely, and was nourished by the word of God, infinitely more important food than could be served on a plate (Luke 4:4).
Like the parable of the Good Samaritan, this small account is timeless. We all have aspects of Mary and Martha within us. Perhaps our modern, active church life more closely resembles that of Martha than Mary. We tend to be ‘distracted with much serving’ today, and only rarely spend time sitting at our Lord’s feet and hearing his word.
 MacArthur, J. (2011). Luke 6–10 (pp. 365–366). Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers.
 Ryken, P. G. (2009). Luke. (R. D. Phillips, P. G. Ryken, & D. M. Doriani, Eds.) (Vol. 1, pp. 552–565). Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing.
 Liefeld, W. L., & Pao, D. W. (2007). Luke. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Luke–Acts (Revised Edition) (Vol. 10, p. 201). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 Childress, G. (2006). Opening up Luke’s Gospel (p. 97). Leominster: Day One Publications.