Mary…Martha…Deeper Questions

Luke 10:38-42 (Genesis 18:1-10a, Psalm 15).

Now as [Jesus and his disciples] went on their way, he 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)

It strikes me that when we are distracted from important things, there are usually two likely culprits at play: either our general busyness; or aspects of life that are socially demanded of us. The former is easy to describe: we get involved in “stuff,” and thereby miss all sorts of important things. The latter describes the demands that our culture requires us to conform to, abide by, or at least pay lip service to (and that applies whichever country or region we are born into or find ourselves living in). Either way, the point is the same: we miss all sorts of things, no matter how well-intentioned we are!

Martha busily serves Jesus, who is her guest. She does so as a social custom or norm (see Genesis 18:1-10a, our Old Testament reading for this Sunday). This is her service (diakoneō) and involves many tasks (pollē diakonia). And it is these very tasks that “distract her.” Or, as another translation puts it: Martha was “preoccupied by the details of serving.” It’s that very preoccupation – not her loving service itself – that leads Jesus to say, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.”


The contrast here is with Mary, who seems to do nothing, but who in fact does the one thing that is needed: she listens to the Word. Mary, sitting at Jesus’ feet, is a student, a disciple. She does what Luke’s gospel says is so vitally important:

I [Jesus] will show you what someone is like who comes to me, hears my words, and acts on them (6:47).

But as for that [seed] in the good soil, these are the ones who, when they hear the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patient endurance (8:11-15).

Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it! (11:28)

When Jesus says, “Martha, Martha,” he is not being critical; rather he is calming her frustration and refocusing her away from her distraction. She desires to serve, but without hearing the Word, without loving God, without recognizing the object of her service, hers is a service that will not last. In other words, whilst trying to be the perfect host, she overlooks the opportunity to be the perfect disciple. She serves without object; simply fulfilling a cultural norm. Yet, love of God leads to love of neighbor, not the other way around.

Diakonēo is a service that includes food and hospitality (of course it does, cries every Lutheran!), but it includes more besides. Our daily tasks and the cultural norms in which we are embedded can certainly be good and useful. However, this Gospel text calls upon us to move beyond a simplistic dismissal of Martha’s fussiness, and into far deeper questions… What does our focus on tasks and norms keep us from seeing or hearing? When are they at odds with Gospel imperatives? What are they worth, how long will they last, who will they serve if they are not grounded in God’s Word? Do these tasks and these norms come from someone or somewhere other than Jesus Christ himself?
Pastor Ken