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The Life of Jesus - Series 8: Episode 9

At the home of Mary & Martha

| Martin Charlesworth
Luke 10:38-42

Mary chooses to establish her relationship with Jesus whereas Martha takes on herself the responsibility to cater for him and his disciples. Jesus commends Mary.

Mary chooses to establish her relationship with Jesus whereas Martha takes on herself the responsibility to cater for him and his disciples. Jesus commends Mary.


Hello and welcome to Series 8 and Episode 9, 'Jesus at the home of Mary and Martha'. We're going to be studying the brief account in Luke 10: 38 - 42.

Introduction and Recap

As we carry on our studies of the life of Jesus, we are focusing on Luke's gospel for a period of time because Luke provides us with lots of information about the time when Jesus leaves Galilee and heads south towards Jerusalem. This has happened just recently in Jesus' life and various things have happened in the intervening period. We're now heading south. In fact, the location of this event will turn out to be very far south, near the capital city of Jerusalem, which is Jesus' ultimate destiny. Luke makes it clear that this is a turning point in Jesus' life and he decides fundamentally to bring to an end his very successful and popular ministry in Galilee and to head for Jerusalem in the expectation that this will lead to conflict with the religious authorities and ultimately his death and resurrection. He's already warned his disciples; he's predicted his sufferings on a number of occasions and will continue to do so. He's warned them that he will suffer, die and be raised again from the dead. They're really struggling to understand this. Opposition is rising to Jesus and there's more examples of opposition in the second half of the story than there is in the Galilean period.

Luke gives us lots of details of what happens on this long journey, which probably took several months because Jesus didn't go very quickly. He went from place to place; he stopped in many different places. He had sent out a team during this time of 72  preachers who've gone out in pairs - that's 36 pairs that would include the Twelve plus 60 others. This is recorded in the beginning of Luke 10; they were travelling around preaching in all the different towns and villages of the central and southern parts of the country, south of Galilee, Samaria and Judea, and probably a little bit further afield than that. Jesus was essentially trying to provide a witness to him, and evidence of his claims, to all the Jewish communities, to get word out to them about who he was, what he claimed, and the fact that the Kingdom of God had come - the power and authority of God was beginning to reign on the earth very directly through Jesus, and through the people who followed him. That's what is going on in the background at this particular time. There is obviously quite a large number of people travelling with Jesus, no doubt they'll come and go during the journey but he managed to gather 72 who went out two by two; that's quite a significant number of people on the road travelling with Jesus.

During this time, Luke also records all sorts of different interesting incidents. In the last episode, we looked at a discussion between Jesus and a Teacher of the Law, who asked him a very searching question that led to Jesus giving him the parable of the good Samaritan, explaining how to fulfil the commands of God; the significance of loving your neighbour universally; and the significance of merciful attitudes and actions towards other people. All sorts of things are happening as this exciting, challenging and uncertain journey is unfolding.

Jesus Visits Bethany

Luke then takes us, in this passage, to an interesting geographical place because he's recording Jesus arriving at the home of Martha and Mary, two sisters who also appear in John's Gospel in a later episode, and their home appears to be Bethany, a small village not far from Jerusalem, just a few kilometres from Jerusalem, right in the south of the country. This shows us how far Jesus is travelling backwards and forwards as he's going round the central and southern parts of the country. Let's read from Luke 10: 38 - 42

‘As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. 39She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet listening to what he said. 40But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don't you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” 41“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, 42but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”’

Luke 10:38-42, NIV

Jesus was on his way with his disciples and he came to the home of two sisters, Mary and Martha. We know from John's Gospel that the location of this was in Bethany - this is very close to Jerusalem as I just mentioned. We also know from John's Gospel, from a later incident, that Mary and Martha had a brother called Lazarus. We're going to be coming to the astonishing story of Lazarus later on. Mary and Martha lived together and were probably unmarried at the time. The description of this household is slightly unusual; we've got the description here in Luke and then we have an extended discussion of the family situation in John 11 and 12. These are things that happened later on. What's unusual is that there is no sign of Mary or Martha being married. John tells us they have a brother, but there's no sign that he is married. It appears they live in the same household. There is no mention of parents and there's no mention of any other family members. Probably Martha is the householder, the older sister, and perhaps their parents have died - that's the logical conclusion from the evidence that we've got. We can't be entirely certain, but the interesting thing is only three family members are mentioned in the two different Gospels and they are siblings together Martha, Mary and Lazarus. Lazarus doesn't appear in this story; Mary and Martha are the central characters. It's important to mention here that the Mary here is not Mary Magdalene.

Responsibility v Relationship

Verse 38, ‘Martha opened her home to him’. ‘Opened her home to him’ - this was a big thing to do because when you open your home to Jesus you're opening your home to his followers. He's got twelve disciples and other people following him. We don't know how many of those people came into the home but it's very hard to imagine that it was just Jesus. She is taking on quite a big responsibility when she opens up her home to Jesus. She begins to feel this responsibility, especially as Mary ‘sat at the Lord's feet listening to what he said’. Jesus comes into the home, probably with his disciples; Mary is seizing the opportunity of listening to Jesus, building a relationship with him, understanding him, getting the feeling of who he is, what his message is, what is heart for people is. As far as we can tell, she's not met him before; it's very unlikely that she would have met him, bearing in mind where she lives, which was a long way away from Galilee where he has been living and working for almost all his public ministry. This was an amazing opportunity. Have you ever had those amazing opportunities when you meet somebody significant and you've got just a little time with them? You think to yourself ‘make the most of this time because I'm not going to get this time again’. They're busy, they're popular, they're well-known, they're influential but I've just got this one opportunity. No doubt that's exactly what Mary thought. She just had a brief moment. She was excited; she was in awe; she was interested; and she had a spiritual need. This was the first time they'd met face-to-face. This is in stark contrast to Martha. You can imagine the sitting room of the house filled with people crammed in, and everybody listening carefully to what Jesus was saying - maybe describing things that happened, maybe teaching them formally, maybe telling them things were going to happen in the future, maybe answering their questions We don't know exactly what it was but Jesus was always interesting to listen to, and Mary seized the opportunity. The contrast between Mary and Martha is really stark: ‘Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made.’ She knew that when you open the door to people, food will follow. Hospitality is going to require the availability of sufficient water for washing and for drinking; hospitality is going to require organising some bedding for people, either in the house or going to neighbours and asking for their help. She was distracted. There was a huge task. One particular feature that is likely is that because of the nature of the household, there were no children probably to help; there were no servants to help; there don't seem to be any other people around. Martha is taking a lot of responsibility on her shoulders and she is distracted by the fact that her sister isn't helping her. Her expectation was that the two of them would work together and let Jesus and his disciples rest in the sitting area of the house.

She comes to Jesus and says, ‘don't you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” Here is a seriously upset and distracted lady. But Jesus does quite the opposite of what Martha expected.

“Martha, Martha, …. you are worried and upset about many things,but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”’

Luke 10:41-42, NIV

This is a polite rebuke; it is a word to calm her down and it is an affirmation of what the priorities were at that particular time. In fact, I think Jesus would have preferred it if Mary and Martha both had come and spent time just talking to him and then later on they would have worked together on sorting out the hospitality. Don't be anxious; Mary has chosen to stop and to listen to Jesus. That's something that Jesus greatly values. Mary has chosen the better option.

A very short and simple story but a real affection builds up between Jesus and Mary and Martha, such that on a subsequent occasion, when their brother Lazarus was suddenly taken very sick, they sent a long distance message to Jesus, who was a long way away from their home in Bethany. They told him Lazarus is sick, and Jesus had a real affection for Lazarus too, so he came. He travelled a long journey to come back to Bethany, and miraculously, he raised Lazarus, who had died in the intervening period and was in his tomb, from the dead. This is one of the greatest miracles that Jesus ever did. As John tells the story, you see the sense of affection between Jesus and Mary, Martha and Lazarus. It's a family that he connected to at a level of friendship.


This story, although quite well-known, needs further reflection to try and work out what we can actually learn from it. People often talk about the distinction between Mary and Martha: are you a Mary, are you a Martha? Women sometimes talk to each other using these two examples of different personality types. Most people identify more with Martha than they do with Mary.

What can we learn as we reflect on the short but significant story? Martha is a classic example of the negative power of anxiety. There is no record of her talking to Jesus and saying, ‘Jesus, what would you like? Here I am. Here we are. We're going to look after you; it'll take time to prepare things. How would you like us to do things? When would you like to eat the food? Would you like to spend some time relaxing on your own? Would you like to talk to us and other guests in the house?’ There's no record of that sort of a conversation. It appears that as Jesus entered the house, Martha entered into a state of hyper-responsibility, of feeling hugely responsible for what was going to happen. She was overwhelmed with those feelings of responsibility, and she feared losing control of the situation because perhaps the numbers of people involved are a bit overwhelming, perhaps she's going to have to get some food supplies and perhaps she's going to have to get some help from other people in the village, or other relatives in the village. She's literally rushing around. You know how anxious people sometimes rush around. Their anxiety gets the better of them. I know that I've done it many times myself. You notice that you can get very angry with people; you can get very frustrated; you can move quickly; and you can become very awkward in the way that you relate to people. Anxiety can have a really strong effect on people.

What is the antidote to this? This is tremendously common in human experience. Many of us feel very anxious and worried about life for all sorts of reasons, and some of those reasons appear to be very good reasons. There's some big things to worry about, a lot bigger than the situation that Martha was facing on this particular occasion. We do need to learn from what Jesus said to Martha. He did not agree with her anxious state of mind and her implication that Mary was guilty of laziness and getting her priorities wrong. He didn't agree with that.

Here we have something we really need to wrestle with. We can say to God how busy and stressed we are but Jesus said that Mary had chosen a better path, a better way better use of the time, that particularly significant time in her life when Jesus came to her house. Martha's way of thinking is being challenged by Jesus. If we think more broadly about the New Testament, and we think of some of Jesus' other teaching, and we think of the teaching of Paul and others in the New Testament, we can find that there's quite a lot of important things said about the issue of anxiety or worry. You see, anxiety and worry essentially means that we are afraid of losing control of the situation; we're afraid of things that are happening or might happen in the future. It creates a desire to control that situation, to manage it, to take it in hand so that it doesn't cause difficulties for us later on. That's really the condition of anxiety that Martha is demonstrating. She wants to get moving really quickly because she's afraid of how much there is to do and she's taking all this responsibility on herself. Jesus implies you shouldn't be doing that. She shouldn't be worried; she can come and sit with Mary for a time herself. There'll still be enough time to cook the food. Maybe the disciples will offer to help, maybe Jesus will help himself. There's all sorts of ways the situation could be resolved but Martha's absorbed all this responsibility into her own being, and she's rushing around and distracted.

Already we've seen in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus addressing the question of worry very directly. Just to remind you, if you need reminding of some of the things that Jesus said: Matthew 6: 25,

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?”

Matthew 6:25, NIV

And then he goes on to say, verse 33,

“But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

Matthew 6:33, NIV

The context is not a specific event; this is more general teaching but I think the principles are important: if we trust God, rather than trusting in our own capacities - in our own abilities - then we can find an inner peace. If we prioritise the things that God wants us to do, then we can find our inner peace as well. We can apply that principle very directly to the situation of Martha and Mary because Mary's decision to sit and listen to Jesus did not imply that she was unwilling to work when she needed to. She was more interested in engaging with Jesus' presence than with getting all the practicality sorting out and putting on a good show. Actively trusting God and putting his priorities first is a key to overcoming anxiety. Martha could have done it on that occasion but she didn't. She was literally overwhelmed with anxiety. A very particular aspect of this process is described in Philippians 4: 6 - 7, when Paul addresses the question of anxiety:

‘Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.’

Philippians 4:6-7, NIV

Paul had lots of tremendous pressures on. He lived a very tough and pressurised life but he had learnt that prayer and petition, and relating to God closely - thanking him for what he's done -, trusting, entrusting to him our responsibilities, could bring peace. He contrasts in that passage anxiety and peace. God does not want us to be anxious; he wants us to be at peace by actively trusting him. Mary is an example of this kind of trust and openness to God, even in this very brief incident in her life.

She is also an example of female discipleship. We've already noted in Luke 8: 2 - 3, where it says,

‘the Twelve were with him, and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; 3Joanna the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod's household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means’.

Luke 8:2-3, NIV

A group of women were travelling with the disciples as part of the discipleship community. This Mary and Martha were not part of that but they were part of the culture that Jesus encouraged of female discipleship. Mary has become an example of that female discipleship and an inspiration to women who want to follow in the same path.

This short account has some very powerful truths attached to it. It's also linked to the subsequent and extended narrative that John gives in chapters 11 and 12, where he recounts the astonishing story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead - Mary and Martha's engagement with Jesus, their grief before Jesus came, and when he came, and when Lazarus had died. That story is a very powerful story still to come. Then there's the wonderful story of Mary anointing Jesus just before he died - she took perfume and she wiped his feet with her hair and poured the perfume on his feet and the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume according to John 12: 3. That's the same Mary. Mary who is attentive to Jesus, learning from him, becomes a worshipper of his and as we'll describe later on when we get to that episode, she shows her devotion to him, her affirmation of him, her worship of him, honour of him by anointing him with some very expensive perfume, just before he dies.

How can we prioritise spending time with Jesus in prayer in a busy and pressurised life? I know that the people I'm speaking to through this study are almost all busy, very busy in our lives. We have huge responsibilities - families, and work - huge pressures going on in our lives. I understand that. So did Mary and Martha but we have a choice. All of us can take time to pray, take time to read and study and meditate on the Bible, and can take time away from the pressure of life. You can only do this if you plan to do it, and if you really believe it matters. This story helps me, and I hope it helps you, to really understand how important this is. Jesus emphatically affirms a woman who chose not to do the obvious things of rushing around and preparing food and hospitality, who chose rather to be quiet and to listen, and to be in the presence of Jesus, even when there were other things to be done, which could be described as quite urgent things. Certainly Martha felt that those things were more urgent. Life is like that. There's always something which appears urgent to do but I've learnt over the years in my own Christian life that to set aside time, to designate that time in a very busy life which I lead, is a key to finding inner peace, and to avoiding that excessive anxiety that can be so crippling to us.

I want you to take this story, read it again, meditate on it. It's a very simple story; it's a very short story; it's quite a moving story; it's quite a profound story; and it speaks to our human condition about our priorities. It speaks into that ever-present tendency to be worried, to be anxious, or, as modern people say to be stressed. The number of times I hear people talking about stress is incredibly large. It's a major topic of communication between people in the developing world. In countries like mine; people are always talking about the stress and the pressure of life. Worry and anxiety exist for all sorts of reasons in all sorts of cultures but for all of us there is a choice. We can take time; we can find quiet places; we can take hold of the Bible; we can sit down and meditate on it; we can ask God for help; we can seek to trust him; and we can hand over to him the things that are really making us worried, as Paul encourages to do in Philippians 4: 6 - 7. As we do that, the peace of God can fill our hearts - that very same peace of God that filled the heart of Mary as she sat Jesus' feet and listened to all that he had to say.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. Have you ever met anyone famous or popular when it has been a privilege to spend time with them?
  • Discipleship
    1. How difficult is it to know how to complete both your responsibilities and your relationship with Jesus?
    2. How do you cope with the stresses and strains in your everyday life? What choices can you make? How do you make time for listening and talking to God in your busy 21st-century life?
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. Look at the 3 different accounts that refer to Lazarus’ family. What do they reveal about their friendship with Jesus and his with them?
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