A Lesson in Priorities
Luke 10:38, 39 says,
38 Now as they were traveling along, He entered a certain village; and a woman named Martha welcomed Him into her home. 39 And she had a sister called Mary, who moreover was listening [ekouen, “continuing to listen”] to the Lord’s word, seated at His feet.
This story, most say, took place in Bethany, where we know that Mary, Martha, and Lazarus had a residence (John 12:1). Bethany was a village just outside of Jerusalem, but there is no internal evidence from Luke’s account that this story took place in Bethany. I believe it is more likely that this incident took place at their other residence in Magdala. At any rate, Luke does not say, and so the precise location is not part of the story.
Mary Magdalene herself was first mentioned by name in Luke 8:2 as one of the women who often followed Jesus in His travels. Yet it is likely she had been the “sinner” in Luke 7:37 who had ministered to him when Simon the Pharisee had been so rude. On that occasion, Luke chose to allow her to remain nameless, no doubt out of respect for her.
Luke 10:38 is the first that we hear of Martha. In fact, it is the only story where Luke mentions Martha. He ignores Lazarus entirely, as do all of the other gospel writers except John. (The Lazarus of Luke 16 is only a character in one of Jesus’ parables.)
Neither Matthew nor Mark say anything of Martha or Lazarus. In fact, they mention Mary Magdalene only as a witness of the resurrection of Christ. John’s account of Lazarus being raised from the dead occurs just two weeks before Jesus was crucified. Luke alone sheds light on Jesus’ earlier association with the family. Later historians have rendered fuller accounts, which I recounted earlier in Book 3.
Hospitality was a very important factor in Mideast culture. So Luke 10:40 says,
40 But Martha was distracted with all her preparations; and she came up to Him, and said, “Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to do all the serving alone? Then tell her to help me.”
Martha was preparing a meal for more than just Jesus, we know, because verse 38 says “they” entered Martha’s house. No doubt it indicates that Martha was preparing this meal for thirteen hungry visitors in addition to the household. This indeed would have been a lot of work for one woman to do, but because they were a wealthy family, we may assume that she probably had help from servants.
Her frustration, perhaps, was more from the fact that she too would have liked to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen to Him teach, as Mary was doing. But someone had to do the work, or else they would all go hungry. The pressure that she felt to provide good hospitality finally exploded. Mary obviously would not listen to her. She had tried earlier to get Mary to help her, but Mary continued to listen to Jesus, as verse 39 says. So she actually accused Jesus of not caring that she had to work alone.
“Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to do all the serving alone?”
“Yes, Martha, I do care.”
“Then tell her to help me.”
Luke 10:41, 42 then concludes Jesus’ answer:
41 But the Lord answered and said to her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and bothered [periespato, “pulled away, torn apart, overburdened”] about so many things; 42 but only a few things are necessary, really only one, for Mary has chosen the good part, which shall not be taken away from her.”
In speaking her name twice, Jesus affectionately and gently implied, “Calm down.” He did not chastise her for her good work, but showed that He and His disciples did not require a feast. Simple hospitality would do. They were not like those who expected to be treated with great honor and dignity befitting their positions. Jesus had to remind Martha that they were just ordinary, humble men, even though they had an extraordinary message. Their needs were few. Their message was vital.
His answer really focused upon priorities. We are not told specifically what Jesus was discussing with Mary, but it was obviously important. This was probably not a general teaching session, but was focused upon her particular situation and need. Jesus’ priority is also seen in John 4:31-34,
31 In the meanwhile the disciples were requesting Him, saying, “Rabbi, eat.” 32 But He said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” … 34 Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me, and to accomplish His work.”
In other words, Jesus placed greater value on eating the word than upon eating food. Martha’s hospitality was not put down, but rather it shows that Jesus did not require her to spend so much time on food at the expense of time spent feeding on the word.
It appears that Luke’s purpose for this story was to illustrate the instruction to the seventy found in Luke 10:4, “greet no one on the way,” and also Luke 10:8, “eat what is set before you.” Verse 4 meant “do not be distracted from your mission.” Verse 8 told them to appreciate and be thankful for what was offered them, however plain or humble the food was.
In other words, Jesus practiced what He preached. Though Martha wanted to prepare a meal that rich people expected, Jesus placed higher priority upon teaching the word and meeting the needs of the people.