© 2022 Evan D. Garner
Mary and Martha—paragons of contemplative practice and faithful service—which sort of disciple do you wish you were? And which one are you actually more alike? Before you start beating yourself up for not “having a Mary heart in a Martha world,” let me offer a word of caution: be wary of preachers or authors or gurus who would take this gospel lesson and turn it into a prescription for intimacy with God in an age when busyness always seems to get in the way. That isn’t what this gospel lesson is about.
This story isn’t about Jesus choosing between two disciples, praising the one who sets aside the physical tasks associated with hospitality while shaming the one who neglects the higher calling of sitting at his feet. This story isn’t at all about what sort of disciple you should be. It’s a story about two women—sisters who encounter Jesus—one who encounters him as a faithful disciple and one who entertains him as a curious host. The preference we are invited to choose isn’t contemplation over action but devotion over fascination. The point of this passage is for us to leave it not merely interested in knowing more about Jesus but committed to following him wherever he may go.
A deep dive into the biblical text helps us hear from this story what Jesus would teach us. Set aside for a moment what you might remember about the other Mary and Martha duo we encounter in the gospel according to John. Those women, sisters of Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead, were both faithful followers of Jesus. Luke’s version of the sisters may come from the same household, but Luke remembers them differently—not only omitting their brother’s role in the story but introducing the women as merely minor characters—not as known disciples but as women whom Jesus encounters along the way. Luke never mentions them again. So all we have to go on is the text in front of us—a text that describes one woman as if she were a faithful disciple and the other as if she were a faithful host.
Imagine, if you can, what it felt like to watch this scene unfold in the home of a first-century Palestinian Jewish woman. A famous rabbi and his travelling companions have come into your town, and Martha, a woman of some standing in the community, has welcomed them into her home. Normally, a woman would not have occasion to invite strange men under her roof, so we can only assume that Martha was unusually wealthy and well-connected.
The word that Luke uses to describe the welcome that Martha offered Jesus (ὑποδέχομαι) is a technical term for one who accepts full responsibility for the welfare of one’s guest. It is the highest form of hospitality that one can provide. Luke is the only biblical author who uses that word, a word he also uses to describe how Zacchaeus received Jesus after climbing down from the sycamore tree (Luke 19:6). When this noble woman welcomed Jesus and his disciples under her roof, she was duty-bound to provide for their every need, so she could use all the help she could get.
Imagine, then, looking across the room and seeing the host’s sister, not busy setting the table or refilling cups, but sitting, lounging, longingly and lavishly at the feet of Jesus. Who does she think she is—one of his disciples? Back then, women couldn’t afford to be disciples. Sure, they were offered their fair share of gender-specific teaching from the religious authorities, but women had too much work to do to sit around and study at the feet of a rabbi. They had to help with the family business and take care of the family home. In many households, not much has changed.
To the onlookers in that house, Mary didn’t belong at the feet of Jesus. She belonged at her sister’s side, faithfully and dutifully serving their guests. Everyone in the room, when they heard Martha tell Jesus to send Mary into the kitchen to help, knew that the rabbi would set everything straight. A faithful teacher and custodian of the Jewish way of life would surely reinforce the sacred traditions of their people. But, when Jesus opened his mouth to offer his opinion on the matter, he didn’t send Mary away but instead invited Martha to join her.
“Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled by many things,” he said to her. “Only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” Watching Martha try to serve all the guests by herself, you couldn’t help but notice how frenzied the host had become. Luke tells us that she was “distracted by her many tasks,” and the word translated as “distracted” (περισπάω) has as its root a word that means “to be drawn about” or “to be dragged around.” Martha was literally spinning around the room, bouncing from one concern to another, unable to stay ahead of the demands placed upon her.
Pushed to her limits and infuriated by her sister’s neglect, Martha asked Jesus, an arbiter of morality, to reinforce societal expectations. Apparently, she didn’t know whom she was dealing with. “You are worried and disturbed by many things,” Jesus said back to her. Martha’s distractions had escalated into full-on anxiety. Literally, Jesus’ words meant that Martha’s being drawn about (περισπάω) had caused her to be pulled apart (μεριμνάω). We might say that Martha had “gone to pieces,” implying that she had lost not only her composure but also her sense of herself. In fact, the word that Jesus used to identify Martha’s worry is the same word he would later use to teach his disciples that they should not worry about their life, what they will eat, or what they will wear (Luke 12:22). That sort of worry causes us to forget who we are and whose we are.
All the while, Mary, on the other hand, seemed completely oblivious to the chaos that was swallowing her sister. Pressing the noise and distraction out of her mind, she sat, listening to every word Jesus spoke. How different these sisters were! As if to make the distinction between the sisters even clearer, Luke records the last word Jesus said about Martha’s behavior as “many” and the first word he used to describe Mary’s as “one.” Although, in order to make sense of the text, translators need to rearrange the words, those who heard Jesus’ assessment of the sisters would have felt sharply the way Jesus turned from the many concerns of Martha to the singular focus of Mary.
Now that he has Martha’s attention, he invites her to consider an alternative. “It doesn’t have to be this way,” Jesus seems to be saying to his overwhelmed host. “Don’t focus on what the world expects of you. That doesn’t matter. It doesn’t even matter what our spiritual ancestors would expect of you. Only one thing really matters, and your sister Mary has found that one thing—a better path—and nothing can take that away from her.”
This passage isn’t about leaving behind the servant’s heart of Martha in order to attain the meditative heart of Mary. It’s an invitation to discipleship that cuts through all the societal, familial, religious, and cultural barriers that get in the way of our following Jesus. This isn’t a rejection of being busy; it’s a rejection of being busy for the wrong reasons. Jesus isn’t critical of Martha’s efforts at hospitality but of the way she gets pulled apart by all the demands on her—pulled apart until anxiety causes her to lose touch with what really matters. There is another way, Jesus tells her.
Sometimes we are called to sit at Jesus’ feet until time itself stops and all the concerns of life melt away. And sometimes we are called to prepare a banquet for Jesus so wonderful that nothing could distract us from the one who comes to be our guest. Sometimes we follow Jesus with our minds, and sometimes we follow him with our hands, but those who belong to God in Christ must always follow Jesus with their whole hearts. The invitation to discipleship is an invitation to a way of life in which God is our only priority. All other ways of being and belonging—all our identities and our allegiances—become subject to the will of God.
I hear in this passage a profound and gracious invitation to those of us who feel pulled apart by all the demands that distract us from what really matters. We are children of God who belong to God because we belong to Jesus Christ. Nothing can take that away from us. Whenever we feel the chaos and anxiety of trying to serve two masters or experience the frustration and emptiness of being told that we don’t have enough time to be a true disciple, Jesus gently reminds us that only one thing matters. When we follow Jesus and give our whole selves to God, every moment, every action, every decision of our lives take on the clarity of our deepest identity as God’s children. That is the better way, and no one can take that away from us.