The story of Mary and Martha in the Bible shows us two different approaches to following Jesus. In Luke 10:38-42, Martha works hard to welcome Jesus to her home. Her sister, Mary of Bethany, simply sits at his feet and listens. Both Mary and Martha serve, yet Mary understands the priority and necessity of choosing to abide with Christ. Sitting at the feet of Jesus prevents Mary’s service from becoming distracted and unhealthy.
Jesus, you call us to seek your presence and to serve the world in your name. Teach us to seek you wholeheartedly and to serve you without distraction or self-righteousness. Fill us with your love that we might bring it to a broken and hurting world. Amen.
“Now as they went on their way, [Jesus] entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.’ But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’” – Luke 10:38-42
Introduction to Mary and Martha in the Bible
In our text, we find Jesus headed two miles east from Jerusalem toward the nearby village of Bethany. Jesus stops in Bethany where his friends Martha and Mary and their brother, Lazarus, live. John’s Gospel tells us that Jesus “loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus” (John 11:5). One commentator indicates that Mary and Martha may have been the most important and prominent women in Jesus’s life after his own mother.1
If we consider the passage in its canonical order, we first meet Jesus’s friends here in Luke, and later in John 11 and 12. Mary positions herself at the feet of Jesus in each of these stories. Luke says Mary “sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching.” John 11 says she falls at Jesus’s feet. Mary anoints and wipes the feet of Jesus in John 12. The connection between Mary and Jesus’s feet is significant.
As Mary sits at Jesus’s feet, Martha finds herself “distracted by her many tasks” (Luke 10:40). Consumed by worry and anxiety, Martha demands that Jesus tell Mary to help her. Feeling justified, Martha receives an answer from Jesus she surely did not anticipate. Jesus commends Mary for sitting at his feet, inviting Martha to consider the way in which she serves.
Digging Deeper: Mary and Martha as Disciples of Jesus
The significance of Mary at the feet of Jesus
Mary “sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying” (Luke 10:39). Without understanding the cultural context, we might miss the profundity of Mary’s posture. In Jewish tradition, “sitting at the feet” was what a disciple did. In Acts 22:3, the apostle Paul tells us that he was educated “at the feet of Gamaliel.” Gamaliel, an esteemed rabbi in Israel, trained Paul who would later self-describe as a “Pharisee of Pharisees” (Acts 23:6; cf. Philippians 3:5).
Mary sits at the feet of her rabbi, Jesus. Since this was the posture assumed by a disciple, we can safely conclude that Mary was a disciple of Jesus. Mary, a woman in a male-dominated world, yet a disciple! Scandalous and profound, indeed! Jesus’s affirmation of Mary’s posture reveals his acceptance of Mary as a legitimate disciple. Jesus welcomes women to learn at his feet.
Learning from both Mary and Martha
At first glance, we might assume this story invites us to be either a Mary or a Martha. We ask, “Does a disciple sit at Jesus’s feet or serve?” While this may seem like the main point the passage is making, a clue to a deeper meaning may lie in a small word in verse 39 that is often left out in translation: the Greek word “kai,” translated into English as “also.” A more literal, word-for-word translation would read like this: “And she had a sister called Mary, who also having sat at the feet of the Lord, was listening to his word.”
What might “also” be referring to here? We might consider it to mean that Mary also served. Or, perhaps the word communicates that Martha “also”—just like her sister Mary—sat at Jesus’s feet. This could mean that, in general, they both sat at Jesus’s feet when he came around, but this time, it was only Mary. Either way, Jesus does not condemn Martha, nor does he pit the sisters against each other. Jesus seizes a teachable discipleship moment.
Disciples are not called to either sit or serve but are called to both sit and serve.
Was this distracted state Martha’s characteristic way of serving? Perhaps, given Jesus’s pointed answer to her demand. The word “distracted” means to be drawn away, driven about mentally, over-occupied. Very literally, it means to be pulled and dragged in different directions. Martha’s distraction leads to a sense of aloneness and self-righteousness, to self-focus and questions about Jesus’s care.
Martha’s distraction leads to five Ds:
- Disbelief – Martha asks, “Do you not care…?”
- Defensiveness – Martha defends her place: “My sister has left me to serve alone.”
- Dismissiveness – Martha depersonalizes Mary as “my sister,” as though Mary is not even there.
- Demands – Martha flat out says to Jesus, “Tell her to help me.”
- Desperation – Martha attempts to control the situation—and Jesus—with her comment about being alone.
Martha’s distracted serving led her to a place she did not want to go. Martha surely regrets the way she speaks to Jesus. We hear him lovingly acknowledge the state of her heart when with tender repetition Jesus says, “Martha, Martha.” Jesus invites her to consider a way of serving that is without distraction or self-righteousness. In Martha’s mind, she seems to have no choice but to serve alone with much worry. Jesus reminds her that she does have a choice. Martha can spend time doing the one “needed” and “necessary” thing from which all else flows.
She Is Called and We Are Called
Jesus did not acquiesce to Mary’s sitting at his feet. He unequivocally applauds it. Jesus affirms Mary as his disciple as well as her choice to abide with him. Jesus declares that “one thing” is needed as his disciple: a kind of attentiveness to Jesus that glories in his presence, a serving that bears eternal fruit.
Not long after visiting Mary and Martha, Jesus uses a vine as a teaching metaphor (John 15). As he walks through the grapevines of the Kidron Valley, Jesus emphatically endorses a choice like Mary’s. He instructs the disciples how to live without his physical presence. The key, he says, is abiding in him and allowing his words to abide in them. For apart from Jesus, they will not be able to do anything of kingdom value. It is to the Father’s glory that they bear much fruit. Mary models that fruit will not be born apart from remaining in Jesus.
Yet and still, each of us needs to be a Mary and a Martha. As disciples, we are called both to sit and to serve. We are called both to abide and to bear fruit. We sit and hear Jesus’s word. We bow at his feet in worship. We kneel before him in prayer. In all these ways, we follow after Mary’s example at the feet of Jesus. It is in this place that we find the discernment, clarity, wisdom, strength, and courage to bring Christ’s loving presence into the world.
In our desire to follow God’s call by serving him with everything we have, we can easily find ourselves overcommitted, “worried and troubled about many things.” Distracted. In a culture that exalts multitasking and a “we-can-do-it-all” mentality, we have a teacher who invites us to learn his way and adopt his priorities. This one, who Paul says “ascended on high … and gave gifts,” gives each of us gifts for such a time to best express God’s love in our appointed generation (Ephesians 4:8, NIV).
We each have our uniquely given expression in the body of Christ. If we are all trying to do it all, we are driven to distraction. Instead, we remain and abide in Jesus by sitting at his feet. We receive and absorb his love. We hear Jesus’s word, and these words remain in us. For apart from him, we can do nothing (John 15:5).
Friends, how will you choose to serve? Many of us find ourselves mostly like Martha. We can learn from Mary. Distraction is sometimes translated as “cumbered.” “Cumbered” speaks to hindrance, hampering, and obstruction. How might our hampered and hindered lives stand as an obstruction to the lasting fruit Christ desires to bear in and through us? What might it look like for us to abide at the feet of Jesus and to receive his invitation to be unencumbered by the weight of self-imposed responsibility, anxiety, and control?
Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).
How fitting are these words! The one who sits at the rabbi’s feet learns the rabbi’s yoke. The rabbi’s yoke was a way of living and being in the world. Jesus’s yoke is easy and light. With Jesus’s yoke, there is work and there is rest. Jesus invites you: “Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how … Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace” (Matthew 11:28-30, The Message).
- Do you most identify with Martha or Mary?
- What tends to distract and pull you away from Jesus? What is the result when you are distracted with much serving?
- How is “sitting at Jesus’s feet” viewed by the culture and world around us? How about by the Church?
- What surprised you in this Bible study session?
- What do you hear the Spirit saying to you/your family/your church/your community?
Michelle Christy is a speaker who passionately and faithfully leads others to personal and transforming encounters with God through the study of his Word. She brings almost 25 years of experience to her inspirational speaking and Bible teaching ministry, Defining Word. Michelle has spoken nationally and internationally, and thousands have experienced her sincere and natural style inviting them to a deeper relationship with God in Christ Jesus. Her Bible studies include The Goodness of God in the Waiting Rooms of Life, Defining Words for Daddy’s Daughters, and When Jesus Sees. For the last two years, she has also been serving as director of adult discipleship at Trinity Reformed Church in Orange City, Iowa. Michelle’s husband and her three adult children describe her with one word: intentional. Michelle is learning to be less of a striver and more of an abider.
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