As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But 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!”
“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “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 10:38–42 NIV)
Identifying with Martha
The beauty and wonder of Scripture includes hearing a narrative and finding yourself associating with a biblical character. We can open Scripture and feel as if we have peered into a mirror, seeing our reflection in characters such as:
the quiet teacher, Priscilla,
the fearful Jonah,
the bold Peter,
the dedicated Hannah,
the deceitful Jacob,
the clear instructor, Paul.
I have seen myself in the faithful Timothy and dedicated Lydia, alongside doubting Thomas and selfish Sapphira. But it is the character of Martha, and specifically her story in Luke 10, in whom I have seen my reflection most clearly time and time again.
Because I identify with Martha, I feel I need to defend her, and by extension, defend myself. I have attempted to rationalize Martha’s actions or downplay Jesus’s rebuke. Clearly, in the setting described, someone has to extend hospitality, prepare dinner for guests, and make the Lord feel welcome.
As the tenth chapter of Luke opens, Jesus has sent out the seventy-two, who needed service such as that which Martha later extended to her guests. Luke 10 continues with the parable about the hospitality of a Good Samaritan to a brutalized Jewish man. Certainly then, it would follow that the service of Martha preparing a meal for the itinerant teacher and his band of disciples should be applauded rather than critiqued.
But I can’t deny that the words of Jesus to Martha are direct and clear: “Mary has chosen what is better.”
So the word “better” became my loop hole. It isn’t that what Martha chose was wrong, but that Mary had chosen what was better, meaning that Martha’s choice was at least good. This is how I have heard this text applied in contemporary circles. The two female lead characters of this narrative are compared in order to expose the stereotypes of women and their devotion to God:
Martha, the harried housewife; Mary, the demure devotee.
Martha represents salvation by works; Mary, justification by faith.
Mary, the representative of the contemplative lifestyle, is exalted; Martha, with her overly active life, needs to learn to balance career and homemaking with time for prayer and Bible study.
I could stop here since we could all use a reminder to not allow study, work, or even ministry to replace time in worship, communication, and relationship with Jesus. But there is more to be gleaned from this short narrative of five verses than simply to state that we all need to have a “Mary heart in a Martha world.”
The heart of the matter for Martha, the heart of the issue for me and perhaps for you too, is found beyond actions and attitudes. I believe this story is not about Martha being too busy and bothered, but about Jesus calling Martha to reevaluate her identity. Martha needed not merely to put down her hand towel, but also to take a long look in the mirror to recognize who she had been called to be, versus who she had become.
Hearing the Story
Let us revisit the story, found in Luke 10, attempting to see it through first century eyes and also with some twenty-first-century imagination.
Martha greeted Jesus and perhaps others—the text indicates others were traveling, but we are left unsure whether they entered the house. She warmly welcomed her Lord, and then the scene immediately turned to the sister, Mary, seated at Jesus’s feet. Mary had taken a physical position that indicated a specific identity, that of a disciple. Just as in the parable that preceded this narrative, when the Good Samaritan assumed a hospitable role—which would have shocked the audience—Mary stepped across the threshold of the kitchen to position herself not as hostess of a guest, but as student of the Master. This was not expected. Mary had taken on the posture of a disciple, a posture typical of a male disciple.1
In my imagination of this scene, Martha saw her sister sitting at their Lord’s feet and immediately gave her the notorious older (we assume she is older) sister glare. When this didn’t cause Mary to jump to her feet to help, Martha began to dart her eyes back and forth from the floor to the kitchen in a futile attempt to non-verbally communicate that Mary belonged where food was being prepared. When that was unsuccessful, Martha advanced to the “get back in here” head jerk, but to no avail.
Regardless of whether Martha attempted any of those actions that I have imagined when she entered the scene, we must consider Martha’s motivation for wanting Mary to join her. The text indicates that Martha was overwhelmed by the preparations to be made, afraid that dinner wouldn’t be ready on time. But I believe Martha was also distracted by how she viewed her responsibilities, the role she has assumed. She had been trained to be hospitable to guests as the mistress (Martha’s own name2) of the home.
Martha’s distraction may have extended to a concern for her sister’s reputation, since she was sitting where she ought not sit, and for Jesus’s reputation, since he encouraged Mary to stay put. In my imagination, Martha worried that Peter would enter the scene and order Mary to move from his reserved spot. John and James, the Sons of Thunder, would begin to whisper about Martha’s inability to control her sister. Judas would voice his displeasure about Mary’s imposition.
Regardless of Martha’s concerns, Mary didn’t return to the kitchen, nor did she move to make space for anyone else at the feet of Christ. Mary sat confidently, understanding where she belonged, even if it went against the tide of public opinion or social convention.
So what did Martha do? She assumed the role often associated with older sisters—she began to boss people around. Most might imagine Martha delivered the line with her hands placed solidly on her hips, “Jesus, can’t you see I need help? Send Mary to help me.” Others imagine Martha used a soft whisper in the Lord’s ear, “Jesus, I am trying to help you out, and I need some help. Send Mary to help me and then she won’t bother you any longer.”
If we didn’t already know what happened next, we might think Jesus would look at Mary and say, “Serving through hospitality is as important as hearing the Word, so Mary please help your sister as a demonstration of devotion to me.” We know that Jesus didn’t do this—nor did he send Peter, James, and John to help set the table.
Instead, Jesus called Martha to account for her internal struggles. Jesus acknowledged, “Martha, Martha, you are worried, you are troubled.” Jesus had previously, two chapters earlier in terms of the narrative, referenced something else as worried and troubled—the seed that fell among the thorns. Luke 8:4–15 records the parable of the Sower and the Seed. The seed which fell among the thorns was consumed by the worries and concerns of life to the point that though the plant grew, the fruit could not mature. Is this what Jesus had seen in Martha—a seed that would not bear fruit in its current state?
Jesus’s words to Martha that she was only in need of “one thing” (v. 42) were not a rebuke, they were a redirection:
Martha wanted to return to the kitchen with Mary;
Jesus was calling Martha out of the kitchen to join Mary.
Martha’s concern was to make her guests comfortable;
Jesus’s concern was to make Martha uncomfortable.
Martha understood her call to be a hostess;
Jesus had called her to be a disciple.
And after Jesus assured both Martha, and by extension Mary, that what Mary had chosen would not be taken from her—not by Jesus, not by her sister, nor by any other guest that day—the narrative ends.
We are left to imagine what happens next. I believe if Martha had immediately removed her apron and put down her hand towel to join her sister, Luke would have provided that detail. The Gospel records that Simon Peter, James, and John put down their nets when Jesus called them to become disciples (Luke 5:10–11). Levi closed his money box and left his tax collecting booth (Luke 5:27–28). Zacchaeus promised to repay those he cheated (Luke 19:8). The actions of those healed—a bleeding woman, a “leper,” the blind man, the paralytic—were recorded when they responded to the words of Jesus. Yet Luke’s Gospel account does not record what happens next, nor does Luke mention Martha any further.
I’m left to believe that Martha returned to her duties as hostess, for there was a meal to complete and guests to be served. She was left alone to ponder Jesus’s words, perhaps imagining a continuation of the conversation with Jesus:
Mary has chosen what is better? Of course she has. I know that sitting at your feet, becoming your disciple, is more important than fixing the meal. But I don’t belong there and neither does Mary. We are Jewish women in a Jewish world, and we have to submit ourselves to the customs and times that surround us.
Besides, Jesus, I’m a gifted hostess. When people enter my household, they lack for nothing. I anticipate their needs and provide excellent food and service. I know my gifts and my limits.
But you just offered to remove those limits—those boundaries. What would that demand of me? I know who I am when I stand in the kitchen. I feel safe within this identity, understand my role, recognize that people need me, know when I have accomplished my task, feel appreciated for a job well done, and then I can rest.
I can’t be a disciple, not like the men. I can’t go from town to town without provisions, relying on others to provide for my needs. I can’t teach others the words I have heard from your mouth.
I’m comfortable in the kitchen. I know who I am and who I am not.
So, this is what Martha and, by extension, I and perhaps many of us sometimes fail to understand.
Her identity, as ours, is not meant to be based on our roles, our jobs, our social status, our Facebook status, our gifts, our comfort, or our sex. Rather, as Sarah Dylan Breuer, an Anglican theologian, has stated,
There may be some challenging, liberating, refocusing, life-giving fruit in thinking of my identity and my ministry first and foremost as a child of God loved by God, as a human being made in God’s image, as a follower of Jesus. . . .3
Any other identity we take on is eclipsed by our identity as disciples.
I have been reared in, educated by, and have served in the Stone-Campbell tradition4 since birth. It is a heritage to be appreciated, and it is my desire to serve as an active participant in this tradition for the rest of my life. But God has not called us merely to be good members of our denomination or movement—we are called to follow Jesus.
In this room are current and future senior pastors, children’s ministers, campus ministers, missionaries, seminary professors, and support personnel for ministries.5 Though these are all admirable vocations—they must all come under the heading of faithful disciple.
I was born in the United States. Others of you were born in Zambia, Brazil, Chile, Kenya . . . and though we should be concerned with the affairs of our countries, God has not called us merely to be good citizens of our nations—God has called us to be members of Christ’s New Creation first.
And though I love the state of my birth, Ohio—and though I will root with all my might for the Ohio State Buckeyes—God has not called me to be a faithful Buckeye. He has called me to love all my neighbors, even those who root for lesser teams.
I’m a woman in ministry. Though I have struggled with understanding difficult texts, hearing “no” or “you aren’t allowed,” and bear battle wounds from my own self-doubt, my identity is not restricted by my sex. My identity is first to be a faithful disciple.
I have roles, I have responsibilities, and I have loyalties. You have roles, you have responsibilities, and you have loyalties. But we must resist the temptation to hold on to the identities that come from these situations rather than holding on to the God of creation who continually reminds and rebukes us for identifying ourselves by people, position, and power rather than through God’s image born in us.
Martha had been trapped by the temptation to place her identity in her role, not in the Christ who called her to discipleship. Jesus’s message wasn’t that sitting at his feet was more important than serving in the kitchen.6 It’s not that the work of study will always supersede the work of service. In following him, we are all called to service. We, as Martha, need to be ready to relinquish how we identify ourselves for the sake of an identity as a disciple and invite others to do the same, by holding open the door.
Identifying with Martha
On an Easter Sunday morning a few years ago, my morning was filled with organizing the fellowship breakfast, leading songs in the worship service, directing the adult choir, coordinating children’s volunteers, and teaching the lesson for elementary children. Not only had I missed the resurrection because I was too busy serving, but after everyone had left the building, I discovered a gymnasium filled with spoiling food and dirty dishes. As I was in the kitchen throwing a Martha-style fit—“Lord, don’t you care that I have been left to do all the work by myself?”—I heard the door to the kitchen open. Standing on the threshold was the senior minister I served with. He looked at me, looked at the mess, and holding open the door he said, “Teresa, this can all wait until tomorrow. Get out of the kitchen.”
Give us grace, O Lord, not only to hear your Word with our ears, but also to receive it into our hearts and to show it forth in our lives. Fill us with your light and life, that we may show forth your wondrous glory. Grant that your love may so fill our lives that we may count nothing too small to do, nothing too much to give, and nothing too hard to bear; for the glory of your great name.
1. See, e.g., I. Howard Marshall, The Gospel of Luke, NIGTC (Paternoster, 1978) 452.
2. Martha is an Aramaic word for a woman who is head of a household.
3. Sarah Dylan Breuer, “Commentary on Proper 11, Year C,” https://sarahlaughed.net/lectionary/conversion.
4. Also known as the Christian Churches/Churches of Christ or the Restoration Movement.
5. This sermon was first preached in a seminary chapel service.
6. Marshall, Gospel of Luke, 451: “the story is not meant to exalt the contemplative life above the life of action. . . .”