Luke 10:38–42 . . . Bible Study Summary with Questions

Martha Labors, Mary Listens, We Learn

From last week's "Good Samaritan" story, it seemed at first that Jesus was advocating salvation by works. However, he was doing the opposite, attempting to show an expert in the law that in order to be saved through law-keeping, he'd have to do what everyone else was unable to do, for salvation through the Law required perfect, progressive obedience to the Law of Moses, without failure. The story of Martha and Mary also underscores the futility of works. It wasn't the focused activity of Martha that impressed Jesus and won his commendation, it was Mary's inactivity, sitting at the Savior's feet, listening intently to his teaching. For those who place too high an emphasis on works, today's story will put things into perspective.

Every gospel writer, under the Holy Spirit's inspiration, picked and chose from many incidents and sayings in Jesus' life, deciding what to include and exclude. Luke is no exception. When he decides to include six or seven sentences about a couple of sisters named Mary and Martha, we need to ask: Why? What point is Luke trying to pass on to his readers? As we examine this passage today, let's keep the question before us: What are we supposed to learn and realize from these five verses?

Martha: Six Realizations (vv. 38–40)

Martha was upset because Mary remained at Jesus' feet, listening to him teach, while the burden of fixing the meal fell entirely on her. There are several things about Martha to take note of before considering our Lord's words spoken to her.

1. -- Martha is the central person in our five-verse text, not Mary. We might all agree that Mary is the hero and model, but she isn't the dominant personality of our passage. Luke's account records not so much as one word spoken by Mary; and there's but one brief verse describing her actions (v. 39). The remaining four verses are divided between Martha's actions (vv. 38, 40) and Jesus' response to Martha's tantrum (vv. 41–42).

2. -- Martha wasn't jealous that Mary was spending time with Jesus; she was angry that Mary wasn't helping her. If Martha had said, I'd like to sit at your feet, also, Jesus, that would have been good. But Martha seems to have felt that by working in the kitchen she was doing the "better thing." How sad that Martha lacked the longing that Mary evidenced, to be preoccupied with sitting at Jesus' feet to hear him teach.

3. -- Martha doesn't see a problem with her focus on her doing good works while Mary wasn't. She blamed Mary while finding herself innocent. However, Jesus refused to grant Martha's "Tell her to help me!" demands (v. 40), though forcefully put. Instead, he praised Mary for the choice she'd made and informed Martha that she was in the wrong.

4. -- Martha's work effort wasn't wrong; her work attitude was what was clearly wrong. Martha genuine had a ministry of serving, however, she lacked a servant's heart.

5. -- Martha's frustration, anger, and temper tantrum — though understandable, they may not be excusable. If Mary's delight at sitting at the Master's feet is easily understood, so is Martha's chagrin. Remember that culturally in the Eastern world, men would sit about talking "man talk" while women performed "domestic duties."

6. -- Martha's words reflect a lot: In addition to expressing anger, they demonstrated a lack of reverence and submission. Martha charged Jesus: (a) with not caring for her; (b) with condoning Mary's wrongdoing; and (c) with failing to concede "his error" of not ordering Mary to help her. Martha's conduct was hardly proper. If she thought that Mary wasn't following a "womanly role," how much more so was Martha failing to conform to that role.

Jesus' Response: Six Realizations (vv. 41–42)

While Jesus' response to Martha's stormy protest doesn't detail all that was wrong, it does inform us of the primary problems. Let's look closely to Jesus' words to Martha.

1. -- Jesus didn't respond to Martha's anger in anger. It would have been easy for Jesus to make a scorching or sarcastic response to Martha, but none can be seen. Our Lord's response is truly gracious while his rebuke is gentle. The compassionate personality that drew Mary to Jesus' feet is that which characterizes Jesus' response to Sister Martha.

2. -- Jesus found Martha's charges wrong on every count. Martha's tears and her rebuke of Jesus, no matter how strongly put, don't put Jesus on the defensive. He made no attempt to clear himself, he defended Mary's decision as the better one, and he found Martha's outburst unjustified. Angry accusations and outbursts often point to deeper problems to which our Lord's words will point.

3. -- Jesus' response refused to superimpose a stereotypical "woman's role" model on Mary and Martha. Nothing in Jesus' words deals with them as being women. Mary wasn't simply allowed to sit at Jesus' feet to learn, she was commended for it. Martha wasn't forbidden or rebuked for her serving fixation, but was for insisting that Mary do likewise. Jesus dealt with these two, not as women but as individuals.

4. -- Jesus dealt more with the sisters' attitudes than their actions. Martha was rebuked for her wrong attitudes of being "worried and upset." Mary was motivated by love, gratitude, and pure joy, while Martha was being run by distress and consternation, which wasn't an appropriate way to serve her Lord.

5. -- Jesus exposed a problem with Martha's priorities. Mary chose what was "needed" and "better" (v. 42); Martha was frazzled and frustrated by "many things"( v. 41). Seemingly, the "better thing" was abiding in Christ, drawing strength and instruction at the feet of the Master. One element of discipleship is being a learner, which is what Mary had chosen to do. Martha was preoccupied with "working" for Jesus while Mary was preoccupied with learning his ministry.

6. -- Jesus exposed the problem of responsibilities. Martha had greatly overstepped her areas of responsibility. She'd extended her responsibility to "many things," including feeling responsible to direct Mary's ministry and dictate our Lord's responsibilities (by demanding that he correct Mary). Martha had assumed responsibility for Mary while ignoring her own accountability.

Martha and Mary: The Meaning

The New Testament has much to say about the priority of the Word of God in the life of the Christian and the church. We believers, as his disciple Mary did, are to intentionally sit at Jesus' feet to personally meditate on his Word. As one of his disciples, how often, and how personally, do you read, study, and meditate on God's Word?

Luke, by means of this incident, illustrates what true discipleship is. Its essence is not our "service rendered to Christ," but our "finding sustenance in Christ." It's not "being a Martha," but "being a Mary." Discipleship isn't so much a teeth-gritting "devotion to duty," as much as it's a joyful "devotion to and dependence on Christ."

Our "Martha and Mary" story teaches us those priorities that characterize our Lord, as well as his true disciples. One priority is our "being sustained and strengthened by the Word of God," as opposed to our finding strength from earthly sustenance, namely food. When tempted by Satan (4:1–4), the Lord Jesus told to command stones to become bread; our Lord's response was, "It is written: 'Man does not live on bread alone.'" Later in that same chapter (4:42–44), when the disciples found Jesus praying alone, they urged him to return to the place where he'd been, for many were waiting for him to heal them. Jesus' reply expressed the priority of proclaiming the Word of God rather than meeting man's physical needs.

Martha was wrong to measure her significance in terms of her service. She felt that her vital service for Jesus entitled her to demand that Mary help her, even if that meant that neither sister would be able to learn at the Savior's feet. Martha was so aggressive in responding that she accused the Lord of erring by not giving her the "support" she needed in her efforts ministering. The kitchen was one area under Martha's authority. By preparing meals and offering hospitality, Martha saw herself as having value to others. When Jesus' actions threatened her ability to "perform," she strongly reacted, since she believed her ministry to be of ultimate value to her. She couldn't put it aside for anything, not even to learn at Jesus' feet nor to allow Mary to do so.

Fellow disciples: Don't allow your ministry to master you as Martha had. Try to have a Mary heart in a Martha world. Our Master is to become our ministry, as Jesus was for Mary. There's no better place to be, no place we're more welcome to be, than at the feet of our Lord Jesus. When we fall at his feet, we acknowledge his majesty, power, and goodness, as well as our need. Falling at his feet, we rightly reflect the response of the creature to the Creator. We're always welcome at his feet. May you come to his feet now, like Mary, in humility, dependence, and adoration, for it is he and he alone who welcomes and saves sinners, urging them to learn from him whose yoke is easy and whose burden is light.

It Makes You Wonder . . .
  • Q. 1  In what ways do you sometimes find yourself preoccupied and bothered as Martha was? On what should you refocus?
  • Q. 2  What patterns and practices could you institute in your daily life to make you less like Martha and more like Mary?

This Week's Passage
Luke 10:38–42 (Lukas)

New International Version (NIV)
[To view it in a different version, click here; also listen to chapter 10.]

At the Home of Martha and Mary

38As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. 39She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet listening to what he said. 40But 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!"

41"Martha, Martha," the Lord answered, "you are worried and upset about many things, 42but few things are needed — or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her."