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Women of the Bible

Mary and Martha

Luke 10:38-42; John 11,12

Lesson audio

The comparison between Mary and Martha has been a topic of sermons and lessons for many years. The differences are really not either-or, but both-and.

In The Kitchen

Luk 10:38-42 NASB Now as they were traveling along, He entered a village; and a woman named Martha welcomed Him into her home. (39) She had a sister called Mary, who was seated at the Lord's feet, listening to His word. (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." (41) But the Lord answered and said to her, "Martha, Martha, you are worried and bothered about so many things; (42) but only one thing is necessary, for Mary has chosen the good part, which shall not be taken away from her."

About Hospitality

As pleasant as hospitality is today, we must remember that in the ancient world it was much more important.

  • It was considered a sacred obligation. The concept of a hotel, or restaurant, was little known in the ancient world. The most common example they would give for that was a house of prostitution. An inn was often not much more. Therefore decent people sought out a home in which to stay the night. They would plant themselves in the town square and wait for someone to take them in for the night. (One suspects that news from afar paid the bill).
  • The most ancient of the patriarchs, Abraham, had set this as an example – while entertaining angels without knowing it at first.[1] The thought that you too might be entertaining angels made for good hospitality. Besides, don’t you always throw a party for visitors from afar?
  • It was socially expected, almost to the point of being a “right” of a traveler. When Christ sent out the seventy, He did not say “if you find a house” but “whatever house you enter.”

So what about Martha? There are three verbs in this passage which tell us everything:

  • 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 for “take no thought for the morrow”, but also that we are to “take care” of each other in the church. 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.  It’s not too much of a stretch to think that there are things boiling over on the stove.
The supremacy of Christ

The key to understanding Martha in this passage may be found in the fact that she tells Christ to have Mary help. We often get the idea that listening to the speaker (teachers love this) is better than working in the kitchen. That, I submit, is not the problem at all. This rebuke entirely turns on the fact that Mary is listening, face to face, to Jesus, the Christ, the Son of the Living God. It’s not what Mary could be doing – it’s Who she’s listening to. His presence overrides the law of hospitality.


Joh 11:1-44 NASB Now a certain man was sick, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. (2) It was the Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment, and wiped His feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was sick. (3) So the sisters sent word to Him, saying, "Lord, behold, he whom You love is sick." (4) But when Jesus heard this, He said, "This sickness is not to end in death, but for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified by it." (5) Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. (6) So when He heard that he was sick, He then stayed two days longer in the place where He was. (7) Then after this He *said to the disciples, "Let us go to Judea again." (8) The disciples *said to Him, "Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone You, and are You going there again?" (9) Jesus answered, "Are there not twelve hours in the day? If anyone walks in the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. (10) "But if anyone walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him." (11) This He said, and after that He *said to them, "Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I go, so that I may awaken him out of sleep." (12) The disciples then said to Him, "Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover." (13) Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that He was speaking of literal sleep. (14) So Jesus then said to them plainly, "Lazarus is dead, (15) and I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, so that you may believe; but let us go to him." (16) Therefore Thomas, who is called Didymus, said to his fellow disciples, "Let us also go, so that we may die with Him." (17) So when Jesus came, He found that he had already been in the tomb four days. (18) Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, about two miles off; (19) and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary, to console them concerning their brother. (20) Martha therefore, when she heard that Jesus was coming, went to meet Him, but Mary stayed at the house. (21) Martha then said to Jesus, "Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died. (22) "Even now I know that whatever You ask of God, God will give You." (23) Jesus *said to her, "Your brother will rise again." (24) Martha *said to Him, "I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day." (25) Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, (26) and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die. Do you believe this?" (27) 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." (28) When she had said this, she went away and called Mary her sister, saying secretly, "The Teacher is here and is calling for you." (29) And when she heard it, she *got up quickly and was coming to Him. (30) Now Jesus had not yet come into the village, but was still in the place where Martha met Him. (31) Then the Jews who were with her in the house, and consoling her, when they saw that Mary got up quickly and went out, they followed her, supposing that she was going to the tomb to weep there. (32) Therefore, when Mary came where Jesus was, she saw Him, and fell at His feet, saying to Him, "Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died." (33) When Jesus therefore saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, He was deeply moved in spirit and was troubled, (34) and said, "Where have you laid him?" They *said to Him, "Lord, come and see." (35) Jesus wept. (36) So the Jews were saying, "See how He loved him!" (37) But some of them said, "Could not this man, who opened the eyes of the blind man, have kept this man also from dying?" (38) So Jesus, again being deeply moved within, *came to the tomb. Now it was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. (39) Jesus *said, "Remove the stone." Martha, the sister of the deceased, *said to Him, "Lord, by this time there will be a stench, for he has been dead four days." (40) Jesus *said to her, "Did I not say to you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?" (41) So they removed the stone. Then Jesus raised His eyes, and said, "Father, I thank You that You have heard Me. (42) "I knew that You always hear Me; but because of the people standing around I said it, so that they may believe that You sent Me." (43) When He had said these things, He cried out with a loud voice, "Lazarus, come forth." (44) The man who had died came forth, bound hand and foot with wrappings, and his face was wrapped around with a cloth. Jesus *said to them, "Unbind him, and let him go."

Mary stays home

The first salient fact in this narrative is this: Mary stayed home. We see the results here:

  • Mary is comforted by her friends, but is without comfort from Jesus.
  • Christ actually has to call her to His side; she’s not moving.
  • She reproaches Jesus for not being there. Unlike Martha, however, her statements stops with the reproach.

She has been rewarded for her faith before. She now relies upon it alone. Perhaps she was feeling spiritual that day.

Martha meets the Christ

Martha, on the other hand, knows she’d better be doing something. Perhaps she learned from her rebuke; I suspect that she was just the kind of person who was always doing something. See her reward:

  • Mary has only friends; Martha obtains comfort from the Lord Himself. He quickly reminds her that death is not final.
  • She too says, “If only…” but follows it with “yet even now…”. Action must have its roots in faith, but those who do the faith grow stronger for it.
  • She shows us why: there is nothing wrong with her understanding of Who He is – now. She makes the great confession.
Work out your own salvation

The reversal of roles seems to us to be contradictory in some ways. But that is the nature of the faith. At one and the same time we say, “faith alone,” and then say “faith without works is dead.” Paul combines the two for us this way:

Php 2:12-13 NASB So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; (13) for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.

Anointing His feet

Joh 12:1-8 NASB Jesus, therefore, six days before the Passover, came to Bethany where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. (2) So they made Him a supper there, and Martha was serving; but Lazarus was one of those reclining at the table with Him. (3) Mary then took a pound of very costly perfume of pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped His feet with her hair; and the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. (4) But Judas Iscariot, one of His disciples, who was intending to betray Him, *said, (5) "Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and given to poor people?" (6) Now he said this, not because he was concerned about the poor, but because he was a thief, and as he had the money box, he used to pilfer what was put into it. (7) Therefore Jesus said, "Let her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of My burial. (8) "For you always have the poor with you, but you do not always have Me."

Sacrificial worship

It is worth noting that Martha raises no objections – this time. Perhaps she has thought it through; perhaps she has seen that Mary must be Mary and Martha remain Martha. Here is Mary’s hour; she is worshiping her Lord with complete abandon.

Consider, for the moment, the word “pure.” In the Greek that is pistici, which comes from the same root word used for “faith.” That’s the kind of worship she is giving to Christ: pure.

It’s also a “no holds barred” worship. Note that the act itself immediately provokes negative feedback – from Judas in particular, but (from Mark’s account) the other disciples as well.

You’ve seen it before. Think about your last worship service – particularly in song. Eyes closed, hands in the air, singing with all their strength. Maybe they’re not musicians, perhaps even tone-deaf, but their Lord is getting all of the best they have and are.

Devotional giving

Remember the widow’s two small coins? That’s devotional giving.

  • The world sees it as a waste. Why would you do that?
  • It’s always possible to give less, or not at all. Social pressure, if anything, says “don’t be extravagant.”
  • The giver sees it as costly – but worth it.

Mary shows the same thing here. It’s a waste, it’s extravagant – it is a gift to the Lord. The heart broken before Jesus sees the perfume broken as the obvious next step.

Sacrificial Living

If you practice sacrificial worship long enough, you will soon find yourself in sacrificial living. It is a life style that puts Christ first:

  • The poor are always with us – and are the special concern of the Christian. If you live for Christ, holding to His forgiveness, it is natural to pass that forgiveness (and blessing) on.[2]
  • Your gift is something that really is a sacrifice; you would not offer a gift to God (for such are your gifts to the poor) that costs you nothing.[3]
  • When challenged, you know what the standard is for living and dying – the Cross.

[1] Genesis 18:1-10

[2] See Matthew 25:31-46

[3] 1 Chronicles 21:24

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