A short text that is preached frequently enough. What are we confident of as
we read our text with fresh eyes and ears?
1. Jesus is on a journey with his disciples to Jerusalem that begins in Luke
9:51. This journey is to his death and the coming of the kingdom. In our text
the disciples have no presence.
2. The preceding story in Luke, the good Samaritan parable (Luke 10:30ff),
depicts an unlikely individual who hears/sees and acts. The relationship to our
text is not specific but we know that Luke, in both cases, is using traditions
that are peculiar to Luke. They are not found in Matthew or Mark.
3. Martha welcomes Jesus as a guest. Her sister Mary (not Mary Magdalene) is
present. The Gospel of John 11:1-12:8 has another set of stories regarding
these two women. One needs to carefully separate Luke's and John's stories of
these women without necessarily keeping them utterly separated. They are
afterall different stories and serving different purposes in the two
4. Referring to Jesus with the title Lord 3 times in these few verses
emphasizes the importance of Jesus role in the story. The fact that Mary sits
at the Lord's feet further points to the recognition of the authoritative role
5. Martha's role of service is pitted over against Mary's characterization of
doing the right thing by her listening. Although service as an indication of
leadership is important to Luke's gospel (see especially Luke 22:24-27) Mary's
responses to Jesus visit is regarded as more appropriate on this occasion. This
interest in appropriate service reminds us that Jesus comes to serve and not to
be served (Luke 12:35-38).
6. Martha is portrayed as self-absorbed, note her references to herself three
times. She also indirectly is "instructing" Jesus to get Mary to help her when
the emphasis is on Jesus instruction regarding the coming kingdom. She is said
to be "distracted" and "worried."
7. The Martha and Mary story ends and Luke has Jesus teaching about prayer
and continuing to deal with matters of the kingdom.
These are fairly basic descriptive points about the text. Once we extend
these points to implications for us in the 21st century there are several
reminders I would give.
First, I think there is no way to make this text into something that supports
the contemplative life as opposed to the life of action. Given Luke's depiction
of Jesus as on the way to his death we must remember the urgency that was
inherent in Luke's story. Listening to the Lord was certainly a key element and
so the reminder about our distractions is something we need to hear.
Distraction and worry are not qualities that help us shape a positive life of
Second, the focus of this text surely cannot be that we need to rid the
church of our Marthas. Luther over reacted in favor of the Marys when he said,
"Martha your work must be punished and regarded for nothing….I do not want any
work but Mary’s and that is faith." Dorothee Soelle's The Silent Cry: Mysticism
and Resistance, says that Meister Eckhart (1260-1327), a Dominican mystic,
turned this story around. He places the still uncompleted Mary at the beginning
of the spiritual life while the the active Martha is much further ahead. He
said, "Martha feared that her sister would remain stuck in her feelings of
well-being and in sweetness." Meister Eckhart identifies himself with the
activist Martha. He says, "...Christ spoke to her and said, ‘Set your mind at
ease, Martha, she too has chosen the better part. This [viz. Mary's inaction]
will come to an end in her . . . hand she will be blessed like you!"