Reading an article about Mary and Martha by Mary Stromer Hanson gave me a completely different perspective on the incident. The picture I was given in Sunday School was that Martha was busy cooking a Sunday Roast Dinner for Jesus, while Mary was sitting at his feet listening to him talk. Martha got flustered because she was doing all the work, and Mary seemed to be doing nothing.
I am sure that many women feel that way, but usually it will because their husband is leaving them to prepare the meal, while he sits and talks about the ball game. But that is not the reason that this incident got into the gospels.
To understand Martha’s situation we must interpret the incident in terms of what went before. The chapter begins with seventy disciples being sent out in pairs to live for a time in the towns and villages that Jesus was planning to visit. This was followed by the parable of the Good Samaritan. Both are relevant to Martha’s situation.
Mary Hanson makes four observations about Luke’s account of the incident.
The words “into the house” are a later addition to the Greek text. Jesus and some disciples came into the village where Martha lived. Luke says that Martha met him, but he did not say they went into the house. There is no mention of preparing a meal.
Mary was not there. She never speaks and Jesus never speaks to her. Jesus would not have a conversation about her in her presense without addressing her, so clearly she was not there.
The word used to describe what Martha was doing is “diakoneo”. Throughout the New Testament this word is used to describe a minsitry of service to people in need (Acts 6:1-7). The English word deacon is derived from it. It is unfair, and bad translation, to translate it here as “preparing a meal”, just because Martha was a women. Stephen and Philip are described as deacons, not as kitchenhands, so Martha should be given the same respect.
The word “also” is missing from most translations of Luke 10:39. Luke says that Martha had a sisster who “also sat at Jesus feet” and heard his words, ie both women “sat at Jesus feet” “Sit at the feet” was a common expression to describe a person who has chosen to be a disciple of master/teacher. Luke is saying that both Martha and Mary were disciples of Jesus. Mary was not sitting on the lounge floor while Martha worked in the kitchen. Luke was explaining that Martha and Mary had committed to being Jesus' disciples, and to putting his words into practice.
As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha welcomed him. She had a sister called Mary, who was also a disciple of the Lord, who had heard his teaching. But Martha was distracted by many works of service. She stood by him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me alone to carry on this ministry of service? Ask her to return and help me!”
But Jesus answered and said to her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things. But one thing is needed. Mary has chosen a good part, which will not be taken away from her.Martha was busy doing works of service for the needy people of the village. The preceding verses described the good Samaritan’s care of the man wounded by bandits. Mary and Martha had heard Jesus’ message and committing to serving the poor and weak people living in their village. Now Mary had seemingly gone away and left Martha to carry on the work on her own.
Jesus knew where Mary was, but Martha did not, so she asked Jesus to get Martha to come back and support her.
The key to where Mary had gone is found at the beginning of the chapter. Jesus had sent seventy disciples out in pairs to stay in the towns and villages he would visit. As a devoted disciple of Jesus, Mary must have heeded the call of Jesus and gone out to share the gospel in one of these villages. Martha had stayed at home to continue serving the people of the village.
Martha was frustrated because she had so much to do. Jesus said that only one thing is needed. That is to obey him. Obeying Jesus is all that is required.
Martha should focus on doing Jesus will, rather than trying to meet every need she could see.
Jesus said that was Mary had chosen a “good part” of Jesus will and would not be taken away from her. The Greek word is “agathe”. Many translations have “better”, but “good” is just a valid. Jesus did not say that what Mary was doing was better than what Martha was doing. They were both doing his will.
Mary had chosen a good part of his will, so that would not be taken from her. Going out to new places is part of Jesus will. It must not be sacrificed to continue the work at home.
In any church, there will be a tension between those who are sent out to start something new and those who remain behind to keep things going. Luke 10 explains that both are valid ministries. The first part of the chapter explains that being sent out is good. The parable of the Good Samaritan validates those who stay back and care for those in need. The incident of Mary and Martha illustrates the tension between the two callings.
Jesus affirmed both callings. Those are sent must not think they are better than those who remain. Those who remain will sometimes be under pressure, but they must not condemn those who have been sent out.