Return to Sermon Archive


Mary and Martha

August 19,2001

Luke 10:38-42


Tony Grant

The Great American Think-Off

In New York Mills, Minnesota--population 972--in the heart of Otter Tail County, a new game has come to town. Contestants from as far away as Pakistan and Denmark, Argentina and Zimbabwe have convened in a sports arena. They are not here to play Monopoly or arm wrestle or play chess or bridge. They are here to think. The Great American Think-Off was held back in June in New York Mills. Four finalists were chosen from hundreds of contestants across the country, all vying for the right to be called "America's Greatest Thinker."

No pompous college professors need apply. No ivory tower dwellers allowed. This battle royale calls upon everyday folks--a turkey farmer from North Carolina, a baton twirling instructor from Oklahoma, a Little League coach from Missouri--to wrestle with the heavyweight questions of life, and, if possible, to come to a convincing conclusion.

People from all over the country answer the same Big Question in 750 words or less, written in essay form and than mailed in to Minnesota. The four most "thoughtful" of the contestants are then selected to debate the issue on national television at the New York Mills Sports Center. In past years The Today Show, C-SPAN, the New York Times, Smithsonian Magazine, and the Christian Science Monitor have all, at one time or another, covered the annual debate.

Last year the Big Question was: "Is the Nature of Humankind Inherently Good or Inherently Evil?" Other questions, asked in previous years, were: "Does God exist?", "Is the Death Penalty Ethical in a Civilized Society?" and "Is Honesty the Best Policy?" Back in 1993 the question was: "Does Life have Meaning?" To the chagrin of many, it took an uneducated fisherman to assure us that indeed it does. But then again, it was biblically fitting for a fisherman to do the job.

In fact, the Bible poses many Big Questions. Sometimes they are also answered. Often the questions are direct: "What Must We Do to Inherit Eternal Life?" and "Who is My Neighbor?" Other times, they are implied, like the question raised by today's text.

Luke 10:38-42

Of the four gospels, only Luke recounts this story of two sisters, Martha working in the kitchen making Jesus a meal, and Mary sitting at his feet hearing his instruction. Most people assume that the sisters in question are the same Mary and Martha who are sisters to Lazarus, but Luke does not say that. The siblings--Mary, Martha, and Lazarus--appear only in the gospel of John (John 11-12).

Lazarus appears in a parable in Luke 16:19-31, but there the sisters are not mentioned. So, if you want to be picky, you might say that the Mary and Martha of Luke 10 are perhaps not the same women who are sisters of Lazarus in the gospel of John.

Geography presents a problem for connecting these sisters with the sisters of Lazarus in John. Most of the action of Luke's gospel takes place during the course of a journey Jesus is making from Galilee to Jerusalem, which begins in 9:51 and ends at 19:27. The sisters named Mary and Martha in chapter 10, then, should live in Galilee because Jesus' journey has just started. In fact, Jesus still seems to be in Galilee in chapter 13, where some Jewish leaders come to warn him to leave before Herod succeeds in having him killed. The Herod in question is Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee. However, if these sisters live in Galilee, they are not the same Mary and Martha who are Lazarus' sisters, because that family, John tells us, lives in Bethany, which is just outside Jerusalem.

That is the kind of question that scholars debate, but I do not think that it should particularly concern us. Luke's concern is not geography. The question he is debating is What does it mean to be a disciple of Christ?

Back in Luke 8, before Jesus begins his journey, when he is first teaching his disciples, Jesus states that the true disciple is the one who lets nothing distract him or her from "hearing the word." In the parable of the sower, the seeds that fall in good soil (8:15) are those who do not let the distraction of riches and cares dilute their enthusiasm for the gospel. Jesus demonstrates this single-mindedness himself in 8:21, when he refuses to be distracted from his work by the arrival of his own family and states that his true family are those who "hear the word of God and do it."

By focusing on Mary's attention to Jesus, the story of the two sisters in Luke 10:38-42 reinforces Jesus' teaching about discipleship in chapter 8. Unlike Martha, who is distracted by all the things she thinks she must do to be a good hostess to Jesus, Mary understands that it is better to pay close attention to Jesus' teaching. In the original Greek, there is a pun in the text connecting Martha's worrying (Greek merimnas) over "many things" and Mary's choosing of "one thing," which is a better "portion" (Greek meris) that will not be taken from her. The term for "portion," describing Mary's choice to listen to Jesus, is a word commonly used to describe dishes of food.

By telling Martha that Mary has chosen a better "portion" while Martha is in the kitchen trying to prepare many different "portions" Jesus is not saying that we do not need to prepare food, because obviously someone does need to prepare food; what he is saying is that at that moment only ONE thing is necessary--namely, to hear Jesus' words. Jesus is not interested in Martha serving him food at that moment. He is more interested in serving Martha by giving her his teaching. Later in the gospel of Luke, Jesus emphasized that he was more interested in serving others than in being served by them (Luke 12:37; 22:27).

Gender Roles

Ironically, Martha may be trying to exemplify the servanthood that Jesus says he desires in his disciples, but her aggravation with Mary reveals that she has not yet understood what a Christlike servant should be like. It is not the fixing the meal that is a problem here. Had Martha fixed the meal and served her guest with a generous and loving spirit, Jesus would have received it, and blessed it, and blessed Martha. But the problem was that Martha was not really interested in serving others. She was not willing to serve her sister along with Jesus. As a woman, Mary chose the nontraditional role of a disciple. Rabbis did not have female disciples--but Jesus did. So what Mary is doing is unusual, and Jesus appreciates her decision, but Martha does not. It has long been noted that Luke's gospel contains much more explicit support for nontraditional converts--foreigners, sinners, women--than do the other gospels. In this chapter, we have a direct contrast between a woman in a traditional gender role (that of food preparer and server) and a woman in a non-traditional role for her gender, that of disciple.

Even today, some Christian communities assume the role of disciple is appropriate only for the male followers of Jesus, but Luke 10 makes it clear that for Jesus, the role of disciple was a completely acceptable role for women. Luke's account makes this point by contrasting Martha's reaction to Mary's choice with Jesus' reaction to Mary's choice. Martha asks Jesus to instruct Mary with regard to her proper place in society. Martha's assumption is that Mary's choice NOT to be in a traditional female role is a cause for rebuke from Jesus. The fact that Jesus does not rebuke Mary, but commends her, sends a message to us that even if other women object to women seeking to be Jesus' disciples, Jesus himself did not object.

Mary or Martha?

I said earlier that a question was implied by our text today.

The Big question is: Is it better to be a Mary or a Martha? That is a rhetorical question because Jesus already answered it. But in any case, let us think about it.

Our answer depends upon how we interpret the question. That is always a problem with a question and answer type discussion. When a person answers a question, what they answer is their interpretation of the question--which may not be what the questioner meant at all.

Many people in answering the Mary-Martha question assume that Martha is a type of active Christian, the Christian at work in the world, and Mary is a type of passive Christian, withdrawn from the world in the quest for prayer and contemplation. So the real question here, they would say, is about the relative merits of active service vis--vis quiet devotion.

Martha Christians sweat and slave in the kitchen/world; Mary Christians prefer to study, pray, and reflect. And Jesus said Mary was right. Now I do not think that this is the only interpretation of this scripture, but it does make a valid point. It reminds us that sometimes we get too busy doing--instead of being. We are so preoccupied with serving God; we forget to take time to know God better.

Poor Martha

That is true, but it is not the main point of the lesson. Possibly Mary did her part in the kitchen, helped her sister with the preparations prior to Jesus' arrival, vacuumed the sitting room, and swept off the porch, and kneaded the bread. But when the guest arrived, she stopped what she was doing, and sat at the feet of Jesus and listened to his words.

Martha, on the other hand, is really not concerned about her guest at all. Martha is concerned about Martha. Martha is preparing the food. Martha is setting the table. Martha is cleaning the house, because Martha wants people to say, "Isn’t Martha wonderful." And Jesus does not enter into it at all, unless Jesus is willing to say, "Is’nt Martha wonderful?"—which he isn’t by the way.

Or Martha may be trying the opposite way to focus attention on herself. "Look how hard Martha works, isn't she pitiful?" "She has this slovenly no-good sister. Isn’t Martha pitful?" "She is overworked, underpaid, and misunderstood." This is a destructive psychological game that some people play. They gain self-esteem, they gain attention by emphasizing the pitifulness of their situation. "Poor Martha." We feel so badly for her. Who are we thinking about? "Poor Martha." Who should we be thinking about? Jesus.

In one sense, the lesson of the passage is a matter of focus. Even in the midst of appearing to wait on Jesus, Martha is actually focused on herself. Martha broke the cardinal rule of hospitality by shoving her guest to the side and becoming the center of attention herself. She even fussed at Jesus as if he, too, was falling short of his assignment. What was Jesus’ assignment? Martha could explain that to him easily enough. His assignment was to demand that Mary get off her knees and help her wonderful sister?

Mary in a Martha World

Now the unfortunate thing here is that though Jesus said Mary is the model for the church, the reality is that Martha is the model for the church. The church tells us to beat the pavement for justice and mission. Worship leaders challenge us to serve, to respond to our calling. The church board reminds us to volunteer in the nursery, attend next week's potluck supper, donate nonperishable canned goods, take our turn in the nursery. In other words, to be Marthas.

If we think of Martha as a person who got things done, then we have to be Marthas, so some extent. We live in a Martha world, you might say. The real question then is whether or not it's possible to be Mary in a Martha world.

If I were debating this question at the Great American Think-off in New York Mills Minnesota, I would say, "Yes, it is." We can be Mary in a Martha world, but there are some things we need to do in order to be this way.

1. For starters, we might stop talking for a second and listen. The activist in each of us prompts us to speak up, to express ourselves, to make our demands. Jesus calls us to stop talking. Stop telling him what to do. Stop, sit quietly, and listen to what Jesus is saying. Maybe the words we speak would be wiser if we listened a little more to what Jesus is saying to us.

Mark Buchanan wrote an article for Christianity Today titled "Trapped in the cult of the next thing," [] He was in western Canada, on an island between Vancouver Island and the British Columbia mainland.

He writes: "I walked along a forest trail and returned to my cabin along the shoreline. The greenness of the water, the clatter of stone and shell underfoot, the natural sculpture of driftwood: it is a gallery of art. I sat on a shelf of sandstone that sloped down to the water. The sandstone, with its pits and ridges where the water's persistence has pried loose embedded stones, resembled a rough lizard hide, hugely magnified. This is a place of good silence. There are sounds, but they are woven into the texture of air and earth and water. It is a place for listening.

Walking home, in early evening, I heard voices. They sounded near, but they weren't. They came from across a vast expanse of water, sweeping effortlessly, like herons skimming the water's surface, over the distance. The voices traveled that distance intact, the shades of inflection still in them, no echo blurring their edges. I heard every word. "

The words he heard were, "Mammon outshouts God. It's hard to hear what God has put in your heart with Mammon roaring."

To Mark Buchanan, though he knew those words were only people talking somewhere across the water, those words were a message from God. He says, "Simplicity is like a silence. It is a place for listening to a Voice that otherwise we might never hear."

-Mark Buchanan, "Trapped in the cult of the next thing,"

2. The Second thing we need to do, if we are going to be Marys in Martha world is to focus on something besides ourselves. As I have already indicated, that was Martha's real problem. She was frantically trying to "take care of everybody," so she could prove how terribly valuable she was. What she needed to realize how terribly valuable Jesus was.

3. Thirdly, and lastly, we need prayer. "Prayer is like having a date with God," says Trappist monk and author Thomas Keating. "Regular periods of prayer let us get acquainted with Christ and God, not unlike the way we might phone someone who has impressed us or attracted us to their goodness. It's the same way in forming a relationship with God. We have to hang out together."

When a person goes to a monastery, their intent is to "hang out" with God as a way of life. But most of us do not do that. For most of us, busy with babies and bosses, spouses and parents, prayer is not something we can do 24 hours a day, or even eight or ten hours a day. And God knows what our prayer relationship with him is and can be. Someone has said that God is content with a brief appointment, but God does insist that it be a standing appointment. St. Benedict expressed that in his Rule when he wrote: "Give yourself frequently to prayer," but added, "Prayer should therefore be short and pure. ..."

Ron Berges, an oblate of St. Andrews Abbey in California, aims to balance the demands of his law practice with a commitment to his prayer life. "The important thing is to set up a cycle of prayer," he says. "If you give God five minutes a day in this type of practice, God honors that. Your five minutes might be equal to someone who has the leisure time of five hours." [Lynda McDaniel, "Hanging out with God,"}

What Berges is saying is that if we try to be Mary, even though it is a Martha world, God will honor that. If we devote ourselves to listening and prayer, in so far as we can, God will honor that. Amen.


If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant

HOME About YARPC Webmaster Links Sermons What's New Prayer Center

Copyright 2000 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church

Last modified, 9/20/01