Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38–42, ESV)
“Christus im Hause der Martha,” by Georg Friedrich Stettner (17th century). © Public domain
Many people are familiar with the story of Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead. While Lazarus gives us the most vivid illustration of resurrection (besides that of Jesus Himself), it was Lazarus’ sister Martha who would first hear Jesus’ declaration that “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25).
Lazarus had two sisters: Martha and Mary. Like many siblings, they seem like very opposite personalities. Yet, through them, we see the two sides of a disciple of Jesus.
Martha appears to be pragmatic and active. When Jesus came to town, she did what the woman of the house usually did in those days: Prepared a meal for the guests, provided food, and made certain everybody was comfortable. The men may sit around discussing theology and the great questions of life, or listening to the esteemed rabbi. A woman’s place was in the kitchen, and Martha embraced that role and excelled therein. However, her pursuit of excellence got the best of her; she became distracted, anxious, and troubled, even though she was in the presence of the Prince of Peace.
Mary, on the other hand, chose a different response to Jesus’ visit. She sat at His feet, as a disciple, listening to every word He said. Somehow, we always find Mary at Jesus’ feet [when Jesus arrived to raise Lazarus from the dead (John 11:32); anointing His feet with expensive ointment (John 12:3; contrary to a common misunderstanding, this was not Mary Magdalene)]. This is the place of submission, where a student seeks knowledge from a teacher, and where a worshipper kneels before God Himself.
Martha had chosen the role of a servant. She followed the normal conventions of society and fulfilled the customary expectations. Mary defied the norms of her day (assuming a position that was normally reserved for men), because in her heart, she was a worshipper. Martha showed her devotion to Jesus by meeting material needs; Mary showed her devotion by showering Jesus with attention, even affection. Mary may have seemed almost brazen in her radical devotion to Jesus, and may perhaps deserve the title of the world’s first “Jesus freak.”
Christian biographer James Kiefer summarizes the sisters by writing, “On the basis of these incidents, many Christian writers have seen Mary as representing Contemplation (prayer and devotion), and Martha as representing Action (good works, helping others); or love of God and love of neighbor respectively.”
Jesus said Mary’s life of contemplation is the better choice. This does not eliminate the need for people like Martha. Perhaps, though, the Marthas of the world should take a cue from the Marys. Contemplation, prayer, and devotion come first, and give direction and momentum to action, good works, and service. Why do we pray? Why do we study the Bible? Why do we worship Jesus? Because, in His presence, we receive direction for our lives. Prayer should not be separated from “real life.” Instead, it should be the foundation on which we build our lives, built upon by works of service to Christ and those whom He loves and came to save. The dichotomy between faith and works (see James 2:14–26) finds cohesiveness when someone begins the day by praying like Mary, and brings the joy and peace of Christ’s love into the rest of their day. Then, one can serve like Martha without becoming distracted, anxious, or troubled. When a Mary rises from the feet of Jesus and brings His presence into the world by serving others like Martha would, discipleship is complete.
This post copyright © 2016 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.
2 responses to “The Two Sides of Discipleship—Luke 10:38–42”
[…] to mind, especially as the first person Jesus spoke to after His resurrection. Lazarus’ sisters, Martha and Mary, played prominent roles in His ministry as well. We can assume that Jesus wanted these ladies to be […]
[…] with very different personalities. I have written previously about how they reflected the “two sides of discipleship.” Mary was a worshipper, one who preferred to spend time at Jesus’ feet, hearing His […]