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Becoming Like Mary and Martha

by Stephen Davey Scripture Reference: Luke 10:38–42

The sisters Mary and Martha both loved and served the Lord. Yet their different priorities give Jesus an opportunity to teach us the importance of keeping work and worship in proper balance.


The Sunday school teacher asked her kindergarten students what they would do if Jesus came to their home unexpectedly. A little boy raised his hand and said, “I would put a Bible out on the coffee table.” Smart kid.

Something like this actually happened in the record of Scripture in Luke chapter 10. The Lord Jesus unexpectedly showed up at a home in a small village.

Let me break this surprise visit down into three scenes. We’ll call the first scene The Invitation. It opens in verse 38: “Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house.”

Also living in this house is Martha’s sister, Mary. Their brother Lazarus, whom we meet elsewhere in the Gospels,[1] also lives here, but he is not mentioned by Luke. Perhaps he was away at the time.

When Martha welcomes Jesus into their home, she is also welcoming all His disciples. There are going to be a lot of mouths to feed. And although the traditional, full meal is not until later, she is not about to serve crackers and cheese. So, her mind is racing through a million details all at once. After everyone is settled and seated, Jesus begins teaching. And verse 39 tells us that Mary “sat at the Lord's feet and listened to his teaching.”

Now we move into the second scene, which we will call The Interruption. Verse 40 tells us that while Mary is listening to Jesus teach, Martha is “distracted with much serving.”

The word Luke uses here for Martha being distracted means to be dragged away, or pulled along mentally and emotionally.[2] Everyone else is enjoying the Lord’s ministry, but Martha has been dragged away by tasks that do matter, but not at the moment. Martha’s actions are not wrong, but her attitude is.

Apparently, up to the point when Jesus determined it was time to teach, Mary had been helping Martha with all the immediate needs of hospitality. But somewhere between chopping the cabbage and cleaning the carrots, Martha became aware that Mary had disappeared.[3] She goes looking for her, and she spots her, sitting, listening to Jesus.

Martha literally walks over and interrupts the Lord’s lecture. She says to Him here in verse 40, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone?”

Martha is being driven, obviously, by her temperament, her nature—what we might call her “wiring”—to put on a feast. She just cannot bring herself to offer anybody a sandwich instead. It has to be a full meal.

Martha is allowing her pride to govern her gift of hospitality. Here she is, pressing full-steam ahead in her preparations and serving, and she is missing this incredible moment of learning at the feet of the King of the universe.

However, there is another problem buried in Martha’s complaint that surfaces in our own lives to this day. She says to Jesus, “Tell her then to help me.” In essence, what she is saying is, “What I am doing is more important than what my sister is doing. Lord, you need to make her serve You like I am serving You. You need to make her see the need like I do; she needs to think like I do.”

Don’t we at times complain to the Lord in a similar manner? “Lord, why can’t other Christians think like I do, and see needs like I do, and serve You like I am serving You?” This is the spirit of Martha.

Now Martha is passionate about serving her guests well. It is an important role, and she is no doubt very good at it. But the reality is that she is focused more on herself and her tasks and her desire to serve in her way, and she is upset that Mary is not lending a hand. Why is Mary not helping her serve the guests instead of sitting and listening?

There is a principle to learn here: our service to others and to Christ can be spoiled by a self-centered spirit.[4] Martha is suggesting that if Jesus cares about her, He will take her side and tell Mary to get up and go in there and help with the dishes.

The original construction of her complaint here implies that she is expecting a positive response from the Lord. She is anticipating the Lord saying, “Yes, I do care, Martha; so, Mary, go help your sister.”[5]

But instead, the Lord moves us into scene three, which we will call The Instruction. Note verses 41-42: “But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary.’”

Martha’s problem is focusing on something that does not matter as much as something else. Jesus is not telling her, “Martha, everything you have been doing doesn’t matter.” He is saying, “Martha, everything you’ve been doing is distracting you at this moment from something better. You love to serve, and yes, we want to eat; but right now, we have a little worship service going on, and you are missing out.” This is not a problem with her activity; this is a problem with her priority.

It is not just about the physical meal she is cooking—as helpful as that is and as much as they are going to enjoy it. It’s about the spiritual meal Jesus is delivering.

The Lord is giving us a lesson here in balance; a proper balance between working and worshiping. Beloved, there will always be a thousand responsibilities that can keep you from sitting at the Lord’s feet.

This scene is included in God’s Word because the Lord knows we have the same tug-of-war between responsibilities and relationship. And so often we find it easier to be occupied for Christ than to be occupied with Christ.[6]

Jesus says in verse 42, “Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.” The Lord is making a play on words here; the word for “portion” is the same word used for a portion of food.[7] In other words, Jesus is saying, “Martha, while you were focused on the meal you were providing, Mary was focused on the meal I was providing, a meal that will sustain you throughout life.”

We are not told what happened next, but we have every reason to believe Martha was moved by the tender instruction and invitation from the Lord, and she sat down next to her sister and received this meal—the Word—from her Lord.

Did she learn to serve Him with gladness? Did she learn to serve Him without expecting others to serve Him in the same way?

We have a clue in John 12 that she did. The last time Jesus visits their home, we are told that His twelve disciples are with Him, and Lazarus has joined his two sisters. Their little home is packed again for supper.

So they gave a dinner for him there. Martha served. . . . Mary . . . took a pound of expensive ointment . . . and anointed the feet of Jesus. (John 12:2-3)

Martha was still Martha, and Mary was still Mary—different, unique, but both lovingly served their Lord with their own special contribution. But at this meal, this time, Martha gave not one word of complaint.

Beloved, I think we ought to be a little more like both of these women. Charles Wesley, the hymnwriter, penned some lines of poetry based on this scene. Wesley’s hymn called for balance, adopting the best of both Mary’s and Martha’s service. Some of the lyrics go like this:

Faithful to my Lord’s commands,

I will choose the better part—

Serve with Martha’s hands,

And listen with Mary’s heart.[8]

Let’s follow that advice. Let’s fulfill our responsibilities to the Lord but not forget our relationship with the Lord. Let’s enjoy our relationship with Him but not forget our responsibilities to Him.

Let’s serve Him and worship Him today.

[1] See John 11:1–12:19.

[2] Charles R. Swindoll, Insights on Luke (Zondervan, 2012), 283.

[3] G. Campbell Morgan, The Great Physician (Revell, 1938), 226.

[4] John Phillips, Exploring the Gospel of Luke (Kregel, 2005), 162.

[5] Darrell L. Bock, Luke 9:51–24:53, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Baker, 1996), 1041.

[6] J. Dwight Pentecost, The Words and Works of Jesus Christ (Zondervan, 1981), 303.

[7] David E. Garland, Luke, Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Zondervan, 2011), 454.

[8] Quoted in Warren W. Wiersbe, Be Compassionate (Victor Books, 1988), 118.

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