Mary & Martha – Lessons from Two Sisters

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.

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