The story of Jesus’s visit with Martha and her sister Mary is one with a lesson, about the importance of cutting through distractions and focusing on the essential. Our Lord Jesus uses Martha’s experience as illustrative of this point, because she is the one who seems obviously to be carried away with secondary matters, but if I am right about what is going on in this episode from Luke’s Gospel then Mary has already overcome some potential obstacles standing between her and the Lord Jesus. A few things to notice about the way Luke sets up this story might tell us how that is so.
First of all we are told that Jesus and his disciples have gone on their way. Jesus just sent 70 disciples ahead of him and out to the villages that he himself intends to visit. Those disciples he sent out to households in pairs, yet Jesus is received into a house by himself. And he is received by Martha, who as his host Luke strongly implies is the owner of her own home, which is a bit unusual in this time and place.
The only other person present is not Martha’s husband or some other male relative, which would be customary, but her sister Mary.
Mary’s behavior is a bit unusual too. First, Luke tells us that Mary is sitting at Jesus’s feet. This is not a throwaway description of something as trivial as her bodily posture. This is an idiom that means she is his disciple. To “sit at someone’s feet” in the language of the Bible is to be that person’s student and follower.
Second, Luke calls Jesus here not by his name but by his proper title, “the Lord.” Luke is telling us that while perhaps Mary does not fully understand the whole truth of who Jesus is, Luke himself as the narrator does understand this and is suggesting that the Lordship of Christ is the subject of his teaching to his enthusiastic and devoted disciple and student, Mary.
Third, Luke tells us that Mary is listening to what our translation calls the Lord’s “teaching.” That’s a fine translation, nothing wrong with it, but literally what Luke says is Mary is listening to the “word” of the Lord Christ. This too could be read as a hint; Luke is hinting that the substance of what Jesus is telling Mary is not a variety of words on a variety of subjects but the word, the one true word he has to offer about himself, the word of God, the essential message of salvation.
This is also a chance for Jesus to practice what he himself has preached. In this very same chapter he just told the 70 disciples he sent ahead of himself to remain in whatever house receives them, to eat and drink whatever is offered there, and to proclaim that the kingdom of God is at hand.
So here he is, receiving hospitality from Martha, accepting what he is offered, and proclaiming the truth about himself and the kingdom of God he announces to Mary.
And yet while according to his earlier instructions his disciples should bring peace upon any household that receives them, this household is not entirely at peace.
Martha the householder is carried away with “much serving,” and she is perhaps understandably annoyed that Mary is no help at all.
Hospitality was incredibly important in the ancient Near Eastern world. To receive someone in your home was to owe them a profound service. In Martha’s mind as the home owner she is obligated to her guest and certainly so to a guest who is a religious teacher whose message you are tacitly accepting by welcoming them in to your home.
So all the more is it the case that hospitality is owed to the Lord. Luke even goes so far as to use the Greek word “diakonia” for the “serving” that Martha is busy with; this is the word from which we get our word “deacon,” and Luke certainly knows that a deacon is of course someone specially ordained to serve the body of Christ and particularly to look after the church’s practical needs. So once again we can see here a little hint on Luke’s part that the work Martha is doing is not just ordinary household chores but a form of religiously significant service.
We also know from Luke’s Gospel that Jesus is not hesitant to criticize a lack of hospitality when he encounters it. In chapter 7 he reproaches Simon the Pharisee for inviting him to his home but then failing to receive him properly while a woman of ill repute lavishly welcomes him by washing his feet, kissing them, and anointing them with oil.
That incident is quite a scandalous one, because the woman who welcomes Jesus so intimately is a known sinner, and Simon the Pharisee host is grumbling about this much as Martha is grumbling about her sister’s attention to Jesus.
So here’s the one thing missing in most studies of the Martha and Mary episode. To a contemporary reader of Luke’s Gospel, the story of Martha and Mary I suspect is almost as scandalous as the one about the sinful woman who anointed Jesus’s feet.
Because here is the thing: Simply by being present to the Lord Jesus and receiving his teaching Mary is probably courting scandal herself. And this might explain why Martha is upset: not just because she is not being helped but because something a bit upsetting is happening in her home.
Jesus, a rabbi, is alone in a room with Mary, and he is teaching her as if she were his disciple. But no rabbi would take a woman as a disciple because you only take on disciples to make of them teachers in their own right when their discipleship is over, and no woman can be a teacher.
This way of thinking is still with us in some quarters. Just last semester one of my students at Harvard was a gifted and thoughtful young lady who had been reared in a Hasidic community in Brooklyn. I was telling her about some of my favorite 20th-century Jewish philosophers, none of whom it turned out she had read. When I asked why she was unfamiliar with these works that belong more to her tradition than mine she complained that her education at home had been deficient in a number of ways, not least in that as a young woman she was not allowed even to study Torah thoroughly. I admit I was surprised to hear this. It’s not my place to pass judgment on other practitioners’ of other religions’ policies. I bring it up just to point out that if a woman can be denied theological education today, imagine how outrageous it is that Jesus is teaching a woman in her home in his day.
This I think is why Jesus gently rebukes Martha and puts her back on the right track. It would be totally inconsistent for Luke to teach that practical service and tangible hospitality is not important. In this very same chapter we just read the story of the Good Samaritan, which obviously teaches that practical help to meet people’s material needs is the work that Jesus Christ would have his followers do.
And yet Jesus says that Mary has chosen the good portion, one that cannot be taken away. Martha is troubled about many things, but only one thing matters. That one thing is attention to Christ himself, listening to his word about himself, devotion to his teaching.
Besides the obligation to serve, there is much else about Mary’s world—with all its social norms and expectations—that stands in the way of her attending to this one thing needful, and yet she overcomes those obstacles for the sake of the essential. And so must we.
Most people hearing me now lead very busy lives. We spend a lot of time and energy on many things. A lot of those things I am sure are good things too, acts of service and valuable contributions to the lives of those we love. All that we need though is to hear what the Lord Jesus is telling us about himself and about his will for us. If we can’t hear this, then we can be as busy as we like, but our actions will lack divine direction.
Service is important, but service must be guided by the one we are to serve.
Hospitality is important, but the point of it is to enjoy the presence of the one we have received.
And there is nothing wrong with being busy with many things, but the one thing we really need is to be still and hear the one word that teaches us the truth of all things. Amen.