Mary and Martha

TODAY’S GOSPEL: Luke 10: 38-42

Now as they went on their way, he 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.”


Our Gospel today was the story of two sisters with two very different priorities.

Mary and Martha, and their brother Lazarus, were very close to Jesus. John tells us that He loved this family, and they loved Him. In the context of their society, hospitality was highly valued. It was hard work and very expensive to open one’s home to thirteen people, but to Martha it was a labour of love. It was she who welcomed Jesus into the house and assumed the role of hostess, of which she was justifiably proud.

As Martha was serving, she saw her sister, Mary, sitting at the feet of Jesus. Perhaps she considered Mary to be lazy. We can see how she may have felt resentful. She was so concerned that Mary was neglecting her duties that she actually spoke to Jesus about it. Notice that she didn’t askJesus — she demandedthat he tell Mary to help her serve. She must have been very sure he would agree with her, and we can imagine her surprise when he rebuked her. He acknowledged that she was troubled, but her troubles were of this life.

Martha wanted Jesus to acknowledge her for all the hard work she was doing. In fact, we can identify more strongly with Martha than with Mary in this story, considering that Jesus and His disciples were guests in their home. We would not blame Mary at all if she were caught up with her sister in the frenzy of cooking and serving instead of listening to what Jesus had to say.

Martha was right that the serving of the meal was important. Although  this was very commendable, she made it her priority. Mary was neither neglecting her duties, nor taking advantage of her sister. Mary’s priority was sitting and listening to Jesus. In doing so, she was breaking a cultural boundary, for sitting at the feet of a rabbi was not something a woman would be welcomed to do. No doubt she was aware of Martha’s disapproval, but it didn’t change the fact that she wanted to hear what Jesus had to say.

Although Jesus rebuked Martha, He did so gently, calling her by name. He did not condemn her for her role as hostess, but He explained to her that she was worried about many things – in this case, the meal and the serving of it – but that Mary had chosen the better part, one thing that is necessary. In other words, while Martha was fulfilling a duty to her guests, Mary was fulfilling a duty to her Lord.

What Jesus was telling Martha is that spiritual nourishment is more important than physical nourishment.  In Matthew 6:33 Jesus tells us to “seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness …”  It is to be our priority in life. Martha was trying to please Jesus by actively serving Him and providing a meal, but Mary was seeking first the kingdom of God and serving Jesus in a contemplative way, and her devotion pleased Him.


Like Martha, we get preoccupied with our daily work. We all know housework never ends… beds get unmade, dishes get eaten off again and again, and laundry always finds its way back into the laundry basket. Now add the demands of family, the never ending phone calls and emails that we get at work, and the distractions that fall into all of these when the car breaks down or the dishwasher needs servicing.

On any given day, we can pinpoint exactly what our priority is. It may not be the most important part of our routine but at that moment it’s the most imperative. And Jesus – although He is a priority in all our lives – probably isn’t on our minds at that moment. We are distracted by the task at hand, just like Martha was. The behaviour of the people in our lives –family dynamics, relationships with coworkers and even the attitude of the cashier at Walmart — can leave us feeling self-righteous and judgemental, as Martha was when she disapproved of Mary’s actions.

So is Martha to be avoided while Mary is to be emulated? Not at all. Just as the two sisters complemented one another, so does the combination of hospitality and love of God. We must welcome Him into our lives as Martha welcomed Him into her home. At the same time as we are serving Him, we must set our duties aside to sit at His feet and hear His word.

All the pursuits of the world, — including perfectly  served dinners– are temporary. Our love of God is eternal. The real test of our wealth is in the richness of our relationship with Jesus.

Let us not look at what others are doing with criticism as Martha looked at her sister. But when others look at us unfavourably for following Jesus, He will justify us just as He defended Mary. Had Martha joined Mary in sitting at the Lord’s feet, her worries would have been put into the proper perspective.

Dear Lord,

Like Mary, may we always be drawn into Your presence. And, let us “seek first the kingdom of God” and “choose the better part”  — the way, the truth and the life.


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