Bible Passage – Luke 10: 38-42 – Jesus at the house of Martha and Mary

Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.’ But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’


How often we have heard Mary and Martha as two opposites – and I suspect most of us – if pressed – feel more for Martha, the busy active, helpful one, and that she was got at by Jesus. Is that what is happening in this passage? – Some questions first.

This is Martha’s house it seems – does she presume she can push her younger sister around? Probably Martha is the more senior of the two sisters. 

Some translations are better than others at highlighting the double-meanings in this short passage. Martha is “serving” which is the same word as ministering, being a deacon; She is busy with many things – maybe many dishes, and Jesus suggests one dish is enough! Mary has chosen the better portion (better translation than ‘right choice’). At one level here is a domestic discussion about how many dishes to prepare for Jesus and at another level it is about ministering or choosing the route of listening to Jesus.

What we do not know is how much noise is coming from that kitchen – Jesus gently chides Martha for being distracted and busy, dragged away by her activity, not for being hospitable in itself. Do we know people, even ourselves who in our busyness or our drive can be anxious distracted, stressful?

Last weekend was Eid in the Muslim calendar and we were invited to a feast and party to celebrate with Syrian friends; the women were busy in the kitchen and had been busy making many dishes for Arab hospitality is always so generous. The men were doing the barbecue, and even preparing vegetarian options for their strange friends1 especially when Eid is known as “meat-Eid” to differentiate from “candy-Eid”, the Eid which falls at the end of Ramadan. I came away full and “satisfied” because of the hospitality we were offered. I don’t want to write something that snipes at the Marthas who offer hospitality – and just two weeks ago we read of Jesus telling his disciples to be people of peace in the house they entered and to eat what was put in front of them. If I had eaten all that was put in front of me, I would not have got through the front door! Thank you too to those who offer hospitality in our churches.

So I take this short account to be a reminder about anxious busy-ness, frenetic busy-ness which causes stress to the doer and to those around; I take it as a challenge to me, to make sure I also sit at the feet of Jesus – and – by the way – it was code-breaking for Jesus to welcome a woman to sit and learn in those days. 

Is our church one where we get the tasks done and done well, but which feels peaceful and welcoming? Is it one where we all help to reduce stress and anxiety by sharing in the load? Are we those who prefer our busy-ness to being still before God? Can we hear the love and concern in Jesus’ voice for Martha, as well as his support for the rule-breaking younger sister. I am grateful to all who do things in our churches, and even more grateful to those who pray for us, for me, for the well-being of our churches.

Revd Peter Reiss