Mary and Martha: A Conundrum of Contrasts, Part 1

Luke 10:38-42 (ESV)

38 Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. 39 And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. 40 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.” 41 But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, 42 but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.”

There are two very obvious contrasts between Mary and Martha. First, there is the difference in activity. Martha was preparing and serving dinner. She was working hard. She was probably moving around and was spending a lot of time on her feet. Mary, on the other hand, was sitting down and listening. She was not very active at all. She was at rest. She was most certainly not helping her sister Martha.

The second major contrast is in Jesus’ evaluation of both Mary and Martha. Jesus is clear that what Mary is doing is better than what Martha is doing. It is almost as if he rebukes Martha for what she is doing.

These two contrasts raise a question in our minds: why did Jesus praise Mary over Martha? This runs counter to our expectations. On the surface, we would have the tendency to think that what Martha was doing was better. Somebody has to get dinner, or else they would go hungry. Somebody has to make the necessary preparations for their honored guest. Martha is the servant-hearted, diligent, responsible one. Mary is just being lazy.

Luke purposefully does not provide much in the way of explanation. His account of this event is very minimalistic. Did Martha ask more questions? Did Jesus say more than what is recorded? What is Luke’s take on this event?

Luke is not trying to provide us with easy answers. He has given us a conundrum. It is a problem that we must wrestle with, and as we wrestle with it, we learn much more than Luke would have had space to lay out for us in detail.

So I’d like you to join me in the mental arena as we wrestle with this problem together. I’ll be posting more on this story. Feel free to reply with your own thoughts.

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