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Mary & Martha - Lessons from Two Sisters

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Jesus and His disciples arrived at the home of Lazarus, Mary and Martha about mealtime. It was Martha who invited them in. Nothing is said in the Bible account about the cordial greetings they exchanged, but an important lesson was recorded during that visit that should positively affect us.

Notice the exchange between Jesus and Martha:

“She [Martha] had a sister called Mary, who also sat at Jesus’ feet and heard His word. But Martha was distracted with much serving, and she approached Him and said, ‘Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Therefore tell her to help me.’ And Jesus answered and said to her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things. But one thing is needed, and Mary has chosen that good part, which will not be taken from her’ ” (Luke 10:39-42 Luke 10:39-42 39 And she had a sister called Mary, which also sat at Jesus’ feet, and heard his word. 40 But Martha was encumbered about much serving, and came to him, and said, Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? bid her therefore that she help me. 41 And Jesus answered and said to her, Martha, Martha, you are careful and troubled about many things: 42 But one thing is needful: and Mary has chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.
American King James Version×
).

Scripture doesn’t record whether Jesus’ response made a lasting impression on Martha’s understanding, but we can hope this spiritual lesson—so inseparably linked to our priorities—will favorably impact us.

What did Mary have that Martha needed? What was the “good part” Mary chose? Why will the good part that Mary chose remain hers forever?

In a world filled with distractions, the story of Mary and Martha can help you set your life in order.

Home away from home

The Gospels record that Jesus felt comfortable in the home of Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus. The four weren’t just acquaintances; they were close friends.

Earlier, when Jesus had come to resurrect Lazarus from the dead, He showed great respect and love for Mary and Martha (John 11:3 John 11:3Therefore his sisters sent to him, saying, Lord, behold, he whom you love is sick.
American King James Version×
, John 11:20-39 John 11:20-39 20 Then Martha, as soon as she heard that Jesus was coming, went and met him: but Mary sat still in the house. 21 Then said Martha to Jesus, Lord, if you had been here, my brother had not died. 22 But I know, that even now, whatever you will ask of God, God will give it you. 23 Jesus said to her, Your brother shall rise again. 24 Martha said to him, I know that he shall rise again in the resurrection at the last day. 25 Jesus said to her, I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believes in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: 26 And whoever lives and believes in me shall never die. Believe you this? 27 She said to him, Yes, Lord: I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, which should come into the world. 28 And when she had so said, she went her way, and called Mary her sister secretly, saying, The Master is come, and calls for you. 29 As soon as she heard that, she arose quickly, and came to him. 30 Now Jesus was not yet come into the town, but was in that place where Martha met him. 31 The Jews then which were with her in the house, and comforted her, when they saw Mary, that she rose up hastily and went out, followed her, saying, She goes to the grave to weep there. 32 Then when Mary was come where Jesus was, and saw him, she fell down at his feet, saying to him, Lord, if you had been here, my brother had not died. 33 When Jesus therefore saw her weeping, and the Jews also weeping which came with her, he groaned in the spirit, and was troubled. 34 And said, Where have you laid him? They said to him, Lord, come and see. 35 Jesus wept. 36 Then said the Jews, Behold how he loved him! 37 And some of them said, Could not this man, which opened the eyes of the blind, have caused that even this man should not have died? 38 Jesus therefore again groaning in himself comes to the grave. It was a cave, and a stone lay on it. 39 Jesus said, Take you away the stone. Martha, the sister of him that was dead, said to him, Lord, by this time he stinks: for he has been dead four days.
American King James Version×
). They spoke to Jesus as if He were a part of their immediate family. Jesus was so troubled by their anguish over their brother’s death that He was moved to tears before raising Lazarus to life again (John 11:33 John 11:33When Jesus therefore saw her weeping, and the Jews also weeping which came with her, he groaned in the spirit, and was troubled.
American King James Version×
).

Luke’s account also shows the closeness between Jesus and this family. “Now it happened as they went that He entered a certain village; and a certain woman named Martha welcomed Him into her house” (Luke 10:38 Luke 10:38Now it came to pass, as they went, that he entered into a certain village: and a certain woman named Martha received him into her house.
American King James Version×
). Jesus was at ease with Mary, Martha and Lazarus. Their home, at Bethany just outside Jerusalem, might have been considered Jesus’ home away from home.

But, though Jesus felt a deep affinity for all three, their personalities and perspectives differed.

Martha’s view of life

When we visit friends and relatives we have a good idea of how they think and act. Jesus was no different. He appreciated the differences among His three friends and felt comfortable enough to offer constructive advice as to their priorities.

Martha’s outlook on life was quite different from Mary’s. It is possible that Martha was older and that her age figured into her personality and perspective. Martha’s words and actions depict her as practical and efficient. Nothing is wrong with being practical and efficient if it doesn’t interfere with the more important things in life. If it does, it can become a problem. God recorded important examples for us in Scripture (1 Corinthians 10:11 1 Corinthians 10:11Now all these things happened to them for ensamples: and they are written for our admonition, on whom the ends of the world are come.
American King James Version×
), so we can learn from Martha’s and Mary’s recorded actions.

Martha appears to be the leader and the more hospitable and social of the two: “Now it happened as they went that He entered a certain village; and a certain woman named Martha welcomed Him into her house” (Luke 10:38 Luke 10:38Now it came to pass, as they went, that he entered into a certain village: and a certain woman named Martha received him into her house.
American King James Version×
).

Mary’s outlook

“And she had a sister called Mary, who also sat at Jesus’ feet and heard His word” (Luke 10:39 Luke 10:39And she had a sister called Mary, which also sat at Jesus’ feet, and heard his word.
American King James Version×
). If one were to read no further, one could assume Mary may have been a little lazy, leaving the needs of hospitality and hostess to her gregarious sister. It was Martha who invited Jesus into their home. It was Mary who simply sat at Jesus’ feet, listening to Him talk. Who was the more hospitable, the more sociable? Who was more concerned about serving her Savior, Martha or Mary?

This attitude, outlook and perspective is the kind of approach God desires in all His disciples. Jesus highly regarded Mary’s approach.

Maybe Mary was shy. But we should consider Jesus’ evaluation of Mary’s actions. “But Martha was distracted with much serving, and she approached Him and said, ‘Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Therefore tell her to help me.’ And Jesus answered and said to her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things. But one thing is needed, and Mary has chosen that good part, which will not be taken away from her’ ” (Luke 10:40-42 Luke 10:40-42 40 But Martha was encumbered about much serving, and came to him, and said, Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? bid her therefore that she help me. 41 And Jesus answered and said to her, Martha, Martha, you are careful and troubled about many things: 42 But one thing is needful: and Mary has chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.
American King James Version×
).

To better understand Mary’s actions, let’s read details in John’s account of that same visit.

“Then, six days before the Passover, Jesus [and the disciples] came to Bethany, where Lazarus was who had been dead, whom He had raised from the dead. There they made Him a supper; and Martha served, but Lazarus was one of those who sat at the table with Him. Then Mary took a pound of very costly oil of spikenard, anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped His feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the oil” (John 12:1-3 John 12:1-3 1 Then Jesus six days before the passover came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, which had been dead, whom he raised from the dead. 2 There they made him a supper; and Martha served: but Lazarus was one of them that sat at the table with him. 3 Then took Mary a pound of ointment of spikenard, very costly, and anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped his feet with her hair: and the house was filled with the odor of the ointment.
American King James Version×
).

John emphasizes here that Mary was so humble, convicted and dedicated to Jesus and His teachings that no expense or personal act was too great or demanding for her to honor her Savior. This attitude, outlook and perspective is the kind of approach God desires in all His disciples. Jesus highly regarded Mary’s approach.

It is illuminating to contrast Mary’s reverence with Martha’s demeanor. Martha was so comfortable with Jesus that she openly included Him in her frustration. Her words “Do You not care?” and “My sister has left me to serve alone” show her frustration. For Martha to intimate that Jesus didn’t care whether Mary was not helping shows both a close relationship and considerable forthrightness. Martha didn’t suggest to Jesus that He ask Mary to help her; she told Him directly to “tell her to help me.” Martha put the onus of responsibility for serving a meal, to her the most important of all responsibilities, on Jesus.

Jesus responded forthrightly but tenderly: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things” (Luke 10:41 Luke 10:41And Jesus answered and said to her, Martha, Martha, you are careful and troubled about many things:
American King James Version×
). Martha was fretting over something quite important to her: providing a meal for Jesus and His disciples. But how important was this compared with other priorities?

Choices in life

Jesus continued: “But one thing is needed, and Mary has chosen that good part, which will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:42 Luke 10:42But one thing is needful: and Mary has chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.
American King James Version×
).

Jesus said Mary made a conscious decision between two alternatives: She chose listening to Jesus over preparation of a meal. This may sound strange to those who, like Martha, think meal preparation is more important than visiting. But couldn’t that depend on who the guest is? The most pressing need in Martha’s eyes was that of preparing a meal for Jesus and His disciples. Mary saw this situation differently. She chose to listen to the wisdom of Jesus, her Savior, while she had the opportunity.

People make choices. They are a part of life. The prophet Moses declared: “I call heaven and earth as witnesses today against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both you and your descendants may live” (Deuteronomy 30:19 Deuteronomy 30:19I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both you and your seed may live:
American King James Version×
). Our daily choices affect our lives, and the end result of this life is determined by the choices we make every day. Jesus said Mary chose “that good part.”

The good part we need

We have to make a choice as to whether we seek the good part. Jesus tells us our highest priority in life should be to “seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness …” (Matthew 6:33 Matthew 6:33But seek you first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added to you.
American King James Version×
).

He also gives us guidance in how to do that: “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God” (Luke 4:4 Luke 4:4And Jesus answered him, saying, It is written, That man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God.
American King James Version×
; compare Deuteronomy 8:3 Deuteronomy 8:3And he humbled you, and suffered you to hunger, and fed you with manna, which you knew not, neither did your fathers know; that he might make you know that man does not live by bread only, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of the LORD does man live.
American King James Version×
). He adds, “The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life” (John 6:63 John 6:63It is the spirit that vivifies; the flesh profits nothing: the words that I speak to you, they are spirit, and they are life.
American King James Version×
).

For Mary, Martha, Lazarus and the 12 disciples, the Word of God was in their presence in the person of Jesus Christ (John 1:14-15 John 1:14-15 14 And the Word was made flesh, and dwelled among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth. 15 John bore witness of him, and cried, saying, This was he of whom I spoke, He that comes after me is preferred before me: for he was before me.
American King James Version×
). Apparently Mary knew that Jesus’ words were the most important needs of her life. Jesus recognized this when He reminded Martha that her life was taken up with many secondary needs, but her greatest need was that which Mary acknowledged: the words of eternal life (John 6:68 John 6:68Then Simon Peter answered him, Lord, to whom shall we go? you have the words of eternal life.
American King James Version×
).

The book of Hebrews tells us the importance of hearing and heeding the words of life: “Therefore we must give the more earnest heed to the things we have heard, lest we drift away. For if the word spoken through angels proved steadfast, and every transgression and disobedience received a just reward, how shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation, which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed to us by those who heard Him” (Hebrews 2:1-3 Hebrews 2:1-3 1 Therefore we ought to give the more earnest heed to the things which we have heard, lest at any time we should let them slip. 2 For if the word spoken by angels was steadfast, and every transgression and disobedience received a just recompense of reward; 3 How shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation; which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed to us by them that heard him;
American King James Version×
).

The good part lasts forever

What did Jesus mean when He spoke of “that good part, which will not be taken away from her”? (Luke 10:42 Luke 10:42But one thing is needful: and Mary has chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.
American King James Version×
). The apostle John answers this question: “All that is in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—is not of the Father but is of the world. And the world is passing away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever” (1 John 2:16-17 1 John 2:16-17 16 For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. 17 And the world passes away, and the lust thereof: but he that does the will of God stays for ever.
American King James Version×
; compare 2 Peter 3:10-12 2 Peter 3:10-12 10 But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up. 11 Seeing then that all these things shall be dissolved, what manner of persons ought you to be in all holy conversation and godliness, 12 Looking for and hastening to the coming of the day of God, wherein the heavens being on fire shall be dissolved, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat?
American King James Version×
).

God’s truth and laws will abide forever. Our bodies won’t last forever, for they must be replaced with spirit bodies. The spiritual knowledge we accumulate in this life will be ours forever, never taken away from us. But we must not allow physical needs and duties to consume us.

Like Mary, we need patient faith, that in a world hell-bent on destruction, filled with frivolous trappings and empty, momentary sensual pleasures we can keep the good part forever: “Here is the patience of the saints; here are those who keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus” (Revelation 14:12 Revelation 14:12Here is the patience of the saints: here are they that keep the commandments of God, and the faith of Jesus.
American King James Version×
).

Mary and Martha were Jesus’ good friends. Martha stayed busy supplying her guests with things that made their visit more comfortable. She should be commended for seeing to the important needs of others.

But Jesus commended her sister Mary. Jesus noted, in effect, that Martha stayed busy with form, but that Mary concentrated on substance. He commended Mary for choosing the good part, the holy words, truth and faith of Jesus Christ, which will never be taken from her. We should follow Mary’s example and desire God’s truth above everything else.

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