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Many Things

Luke 10:38 -- 42

This passage is one of the gems of the New Testament. We shall see in it a hidden beauty.

Now as they were traveling along, He entered a village; and a woman named Martha welcomed Him into her home. She had a sister called Mary, who was seated at the Lord's feet, listening to His word. 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." But the Lord answered and said to her, "Martha, Martha, you are worried and bothered about so many things; but only one thing is necessary, for Mary has chosen the good part, which shall not be taken away from her."

(Luk 10:38-42 NASB)


Every now and then you come upon a passage in which the study of the original Greek lights up the lesson. This is such a passage.


Names, in the Bible, were not simply labels used to tell one person from another. They meant something, if only your parents’ contempt for yet another child.

  • The name Martha comes from a Persian word which made it into Greek. It means “mistress.” It’s very appropriate. You’ll note that Martha had a sister, Mary (probably younger) and a brother. Their parents evidently left Martha in charge; normally the house would go to Lazarus. She is rather obviously a doer.
  • Mary is a Greek form of the Hebrew name Miriam. Miriam, in Hebrew, means “rebelliously.” We can picture Mary as the bratty little sister who always shoved the work off on Martha, then went out to flirt with the boys. She’s figured out how to stick Martha with the cooking, at least.

Three verbs are used to describe Martha in this passage, and in them is the secret of the lesson – at least at first.

Martha is distracted – other translations use such words as encumbered, worried, upset or pulled away. That last is a very insightful translation. The Greek word used is composed of two other Greek words. One is the root of our word perimeter; the other means “to pull.” Taken together, they mean “pulled away from the center.”

That’s instructive; for Christ is the center, and Martha is being pulled away from him by the chores of hospitality.

Martha is also worried. This word is used in several other places in the New Testament, with both positive and negative emphasis:

  • It’s the word used when Christ tells us to take no thought for the morrow.[1]
  • It’s also the word used when he tells us not to worry about what to say when we’re up in front of the judge for being a Christian.[2]
  • Paul uses it when he mentions that those who are single can spend more time on Christ because they don’t have to worry about their spouses.[3]
  • It’s not always a negative; Paul also uses it to command us to take care of each other in the church.[4]
  • He also uses it to command us to be anxious about nothing, pray about everything.[5]

You get the idea. It’s not just having cares or problems; it’s the mental load that this carries. It you’re going to carry such a load, do so for God’s purposes only.

Christ then tells Mary that she is bothered (the NIV has “upset.”) This word carries with it a meaning of a noisy commotion. You can almost picture Martha in the kitchen, things boiling over, fire going out, dishes dropped – the bustle of kitchen work. Other translations of this word include “commotion”[6], “noisy disorder”[7], “uproar”[8] and “troubled.”[9]

The simple lesson is this: Martha is distracted by things of lesser importance. Mary is not. Score: Mary 1, Martha 0. Go forth and listen.

But things are not always so simple as they seem.


To understand the deeper significance of this passage, we need first to examine what was then taught about hospitality.

The God of Abraham

To the Jew of this time, the name Abraham would be greatly honored as the patriarch of the nation. He was known as the friend of God; he was studied as a great example for the pious. Abraham was noted for his hospitality; indeed, entertaining angels within his tents. Hospitality, then, would be noted as a great virtue.

The nature of hospitality

From the Bible and other records, we can see the nature of hospitality as practiced at this time:

  • It was considered an obligation of a host. God sent a guest; only a fool would treat God’s guest rudely.
  • It was considered the right of a traveler. Notice that in his instructions to the seventy that Christ did not tell them to beg for hospitality; he assumed that as travelers they would get it automatically.
  • As can be seen from Abraham’s example, hospitality was offered with great formal courtesy.[10] Abraham’s feast is offered to the angels as a little water and a piece of bread – the oriental courtesy showing in the self deprecation.
  • When done properly, a bond of friendship develops between the traveler and his host. It is hard to eat together (though this was not always done) and remain enemies.

Moreover, Christ himself acclaims hospitality as a great virtue. You recall the seventy being sent out to live off the hospitality of others; you should also recall that he said that anyone who gave such a cup of cold water in Christ’s name would in no way lose his reward.

The early church reflected this attitude, too.

  • Hospitality was commanded – you never know who might show up.[11]
  • Could it be a burden? Yes – but a burden we are to bear without complaint.[12]
  • It was so important that the list of qualifications Paul gives for an elder in the church includes the practice of hospitality.[13]
Natural Motivation

One may always argue that the spiritual is more important than the physical, and therefore Martha should have known better. Good things in the spiritual realm are of profit for eternity; good things in the physical realm tend to last only a lifetime. More than that, the practice of good things in the spiritual yields greater gains – but cost us more in mental effort. (No pain, no gain).

If you think not, consider this: is it not the case in your own life, and the lives of those around you, that they will persist in doing good deeds physically long after they have ceased to do good deeds spiritually? In fact, we prefer to do good physically; we quit the spiritual more quickly.


  • One reason is this: we’re sinners. In the spiritual exercises (e.g., prayer) we meet the pure righteousness of God. We’d just as soon not bring the subject up.
  • Another reason is that we feel unworthy. I feel good when I do something tangible for others; I feel unworthy talking to God.
  • Finally, sometimes we’re just too worried and distracted to pray.

We know, of course, that the “spiritual only” life is a fraud; faith without works is dead. If we let our prayer be the excuse by which we avoid the practice of the faith, we are indeed merely hearers of the word, not doers.

In short, dear reader, I submit to you that by all that she knew, Martha was right. Therefore we may conclude that what she knew (at the time) was inadequate. So what was it that she learned later?

The Supremacy of Christ

Let me put it this way: Martha assumed, implicitly, that Jesus would agree with her. She approaches him in the tone of voice that say he has missed something. It is sufficient for her to bring the problem to the teacher’s notice, and he will resolve it. She’s not asking; she’s telling.

Perhaps an illustration would make it clearer. Suppose we were obliged to hold our class meetings in various people’s homes. As we rotated through the various homes, the lady of the house would naturally feel herself obliged to provide hospitality; she would also feel it only fair that others pitch in. Some would excuse themselves from the lesson, having other things to do, especially in terms of ministry (someone’s got to watch the little kids.) Certainly your teacher would not feel offended at any of this; and this would seem perfectly appropriate.

So you see it is not a case of “listening to teaching is better than working in the kitchen.” It has nothing to do with the teaching – and everything to do with the person of the teacher. This teacher is not Lord; that Teacher is.

So the issue is really the lordship of Jesus Christ. He tells the Jews of the time that he is Lord of the Sabbath – and remember that keeping the Sabbath is one of the Ten Commandments. Here is a man whose mere presence overrides the most sacred obligations of the Jewish faith. He is Lord of the Sabbath; evidently he is Lord of Hospitality too.

Mary’s reaction

Later, near the end of Christ’s ministry on earth, Mary is the one who anoints him for burial. She is the spiritual one; her service is an act of devotion, the highest form of sacrifice. The broken jar of alabaster symbolizes the broken and contrite heart, the ever acceptable sacrifice to God.

When Lazarus dies, it is Mary who stays in the house, and must be called to the Lord’s side by Martha. Mary is the one whom the neighbors come to comfort – the one everyone knows will take it hard. Hers is the emotional side of faith.

Martha’s reaction

When Lazarus dies, John’s Gospel records for us that Jesus loved “Martha, her sister and Lazarus.”[14] People are listed in the order of importance at this time; you can see where Martha is in Jesus’ affections. Why? Because of what Martha now knows:

She *said to Him, "Yes, Lord; I have believed that You are the Christ, the Son of God, even He who comes into the world."

(Joh 11:27 NASB)

She is the first to make the good confession of faith – the foundation of Christianity. Our foundation is not “what” but “who” – Jesus the Christ, the Son of the Living God.

At the tomb of Lazarus, she is still the worker; she is the one who calls Mary to come to the site. She is the one whom all look to when Jesus tells them to roll away the stone. She is the doer – but a doer in faith.

Our reaction

Mary reacted to Jesus in her own way; emotional, totally devoted, wanting nothing more than to sit at the Master’s feet. (Incidentally, the phrasing used here means not only at his feet, but also by his side. She’s in the front row). Martha picks up the work; her devotion is shown in service – but it is grounded in a clear understanding of who Jesus is. In their own ways, each shows us what it is to love Christ with all heart, soul, mind and strength.

But these are not given to us merely for our amusement, nor even our comprehension – Mary and Martha are given to us as examples. The important question is, what is our reaction to Jesus Christ? Who do you say that He is?

[1] Matthew 6:25

[2] Matthew 10:19

[3] 1 Corinthians 7:32-34

[4] 1 Corinthians 12:25

[5] Philippians 4:6

[6] Mark 5:39, in connection with the paid mourners

[7] Matthew 9:23, referring to flute players at a funeral

[8] Acts 17:5, where the city of Ephesus is in an uproar over the silversmith’s claims

[9] Acts 20:10

[10] Genesis 18:1-10

[11] Hebrews 13:2

[12] 1 Peter 4:9

[13] 1 Timothy 3:2

[14] John 11:5

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