Profiles of Faith: Mary & Martha - Lessons from Two Sisters

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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).

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 11:20-39). 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).

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). 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), 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).

Mary's outlook

"And she had a sister called Mary, who also sat at Jesus' feet and heard His word" (Luke 10:39). 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).

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 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). 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).

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). 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).

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; compare Deuteronomy 8:3). He adds, "The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life" (John 6:63).

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). 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).

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).

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). 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; compare 2 Peter 3:10-12).

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).

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.


  • Simon panton

    This is one of my favourite stories for a different reason. Jesus is entering a familys domain not directly his and is comfortable. For those of us that dont feel they belong in their "blood" family to be welcomed into that of their spouse and feel they belong is truely wonderful. Im no longer alone.

  • raj55
    Mary unlike Martha exemplifies the right attitude for Jesus to enter our lives. A non-complaining prayerful heart that is content with the Lord's feet. '... but a little is necessary;nay one is enough.' - ( Luke-10-42 )
  • raj55
    The story of Martha and Mary is essentially a matter of knowing God's will in every moment.Martha is sincere but being self motivated misses the mark whereas Mary being in the presence of Lord never staggers.In fact Martha and Mary are two aspects of every soul that waits for the guidelines of the spirit.Martha is efficient and worldly wise but perhaps lacks the guidelines of the spirit.Jesus intervenes and shows her the right action of the present moment but Mary who had known Love is always right.While bringing up children,this is a good parable.Children who are brought in the school of efficiency minus love tend to be burden to parents in old age.But children who are brought up in love and God's knowledge will be a boon to parents in old age. Prayers.
  • KP3243
    Martha gives one of the greatest professions of faith in all of the Bible on in John 11 - it's very close to Peter's 17 On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. 18 Now Bethany was less than two miles[a] from Jerusalem, 19 and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother. 20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home. 21 “Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.” 23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24 Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; 26 and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27 “Yes, Lord,” she replied, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.”
  • Malachi 3_16-18
    Hi Tammy, Interesting question! I believe only God knows for sure, for only He intimately knows our hearts (I Sam. 16:7). But there's every indication that she could be in the first resurrection. Consider these points: 1)She was one of Jesus' disciples, & a close friend of His (John 11). It was Martha, not Mary, who urgently met Jesus when He went to meet the sisters following Lazarus' death (verse 20). Yes, Martha could be the "Mary" at times. 2)I believe Jesus' words to Martha in Lk. 10 to be words of loving admonition. He is not condemning her, but simply giving her the kind of redirection we all need when our priorities get muddled. Notice He didn't even correct her until she first complained to him; perhaps she was jealous of her sister also 3)When you consider that great patriarchs such as Abraham and David committed sins such as lying, adultery, or murder, & yet repented & are listed among the roll call of the faithful in Hebrews 11, there's no evidence that Martha wouldn't also be among those who are raised up at Jesus' return. Who knows? Perhaps she will embrace her Lord & Master & then say, "What can I bring you to eat?"! Let's wait & see. :)
  • Tammy Walston Vaught
    Jesus may not have been hungry and the other guest may not have been. Christ had something important to say as always and His mere presence should lead us to the topic He would choose. If Martha had waited until the Lord would have asked for food and service she would have done better. Will Martha be in the first or second resurrection?
  • rinosharon
    its not about balancing between the two... the incident shows that nothing in the world should interfere our love for Christ.
  • Marcus5221

    I have always, I guess, related to Martha in the story. In trying to understand I could see the point of Mary placing importance of listening to Jesus over serving. Likewise I could see the importance, of serving (caring for invited guests), which would not occur it one did not do the tasks. Yet, this conflicting view has always concerned me. When does one stop serving, to benefit from listening. Many in church culture have served, to the nth degree, only to burn our, loose families, etc. in the name of serving the church. The fine line between the two examples has not be adequately or accurately presented by ministry in the past within church of God cultures. Finding that proper balance is critical, otherwise two things will happen IMO; 1) one will become discouraged from over serving, 2) one will become bitter because some others are not helping carry the load. Neither option is desirable, so we MUST balance the two examples (Mary and Martha). Thanks you Mr.Aust (M.Brown, GG-Calif)

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