The Story of Mary and Martha

How did Jesus know Mary, Martha and Lazarus? Mary and Martha (and their brother Lazarus) were some of Jesus’ closest friends.  John 11:5 (NIV) tells us “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.”  The story of Mary and Martha gives us amazing insight into their personalities and teaches us some important lessons.

The Story of Mary and Martha- Mary, Martha and Jesus in a home setting- portrait by J Vermeer

This family believed Jesus was the Messiah and saw Him bring their brother back to life. Jesus spent some of his last days on earth in their comfortable home.  I wanted to write a blog post on sisters, and these two women caught my eye. 

Jesus Visits Mary and Martha

Mary and Martha Scripture

“As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him.  She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. 

But all the preparations that had to be made distracted Martha.  She came to him and asked, ‘Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself?  Tell her to help me!’ 

‘Martha, Martha’, the Lord answered, ‘you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed.  Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.’”  Luke 10:38-42 (NIV)

What jumps out at you from this conversation?  I haven’t studied this story extensively, so my first reaction is Wow! That takes a lot of nerve to get snappy with the Messiah when you’re having a tiff with your sis!

But I get it, Martha.  I’ve been on the receiving end of doing the lion’s share of the kitchen work while others sit around. It doesn’t seem fair.  Maybe Martha had already asked Mary to help, and she ignored her.  (We’ll never know.)

Either way, there are great lessons to learn from these sisters.

Martha of the Bible

“Martha opened her home to him.” V 38.

Mary and Martha lived in the town of Bethany; just a couple of miles east of Jerusalem.  Martha was the one who graciously invites her dear friend Jesus and His disciples into her home.

There was no “calling ahead”, so I assume they just showed up on her doorstep! Martha’s gift of hospitality shows what a giving person she was.

What did Martha do in the Bible?  The verse states the home belongs to her, which makes her the head of the household.  It is also large enough to accommodate Jesus and his disciples for lodging, and she had enough food to feed them all.  This hints at some degree of affluence. 

Some believe Martha was the older sister, and perhaps she was used to being “in charge.” (I’m an older sister… we sometimes have a reputation!)

Martha shows her courageous side by having a close friendship with Jesus and housing Him.  It was dangerous to associate too closely with Him, as the authorities were trying to find a way to kill Jesus. (John 7: 25-32)

She was willing to face the consequences, however, and let everyone know of her devotion to Him.

“Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made.” v40a.

Jesus was teaching and speaking to the gathered group. Meanwhile, Martha was busy making sure her guests were comfortable and well fed.

We should commend her for her gift of service in seeing to the needs of others.  Domestic work would have been the norm for women in her time.  She was simply doing what was expected of her.

Martha and Mary

Martha had a sister, Mary, who instead of helping her with the domestic chores was sitting “at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said.” v39.

Martha, possibly hot and tired from cooking and cleaning, went to Jesus and said, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself?  Tell her to help me!” v40b.

Apparently, Martha was so comfortable with Jesus that she has no problem venting her frustration.  She didn’t ask Jesus what His opinion was, she boldly told him what to do!  We could kindly call her behavior outspoken and straightforward.

Martha wanted Mary to behave in the traditional woman’s role.  It was unthinkable for a woman to sit at the feet of a rabbi and listen to him teach.  Girls stayed in the home, illiterate, while the boys went to school. 

Women could only congregate in the Women’s Court of the Temple, nowhere near the men. So for Mary to plop down at the feet of Jesus and listen to his teaching among a group of men was remarkable!

The Story of Mary and Martha- table setting with flowers in vasePin me for later!

Mary of Bethany

We see very little of this Mary in the Bible. A common question that comes up is Mary and Martha the same as Mary Magdalene? 

This Mary shouldn’t be confused with Mary Magdalene. On the occasions we do see her, Mary of Bethany is always in the same place- at the feet of Jesus.

Mary at the Feet of Jesus:

•Luke mentions her as sitting at Jesus’ feet and listening to His Word.

•When Jesus returns to their home after her brother Lazarus died, she went to Jesus and “fell at his feet.” (John 11:32 NIV).

•Just six days before the Passover, Mary was present at a dinner given in Jesus’ honor.  Again, with Martha serving (!), Mary took an expensive perfume and poured it on Jesus’ feet.  She sat and wiped his feet with her long hair.

Mary seems to have a deeply spiritual side.  She is willing to forego the traditions of the day to learn all she could of Jesus’ teaching.  (For all we know, she may have even encouraged Martha to join her!)

She fell at His feet for comfort when she was in deep grief.

She showed her deep love, reverence, and worship of Jesus by honoring Him with an expensive gift of perfume.

Why did Jesus say Martha, Martha?

“Martha, Martha, the Lord answered, you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed.  Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” vv41-42.

Jesus repeated Martha’s name with a calming, tender patience.  It upset Martha that something she considered of utmost importance- preparing food and caring for Jesus and His disciples- was left solely up to her.

Mary, however, prioritized listening to Jesus over domestic chores.  Jesus was ignoring the traditional role of women and encouraging Mary’s desire to listen and learn.

He didn’t say that Martha’s service was unimportant.  Jesus made it clear that service to others is an important part of His ministry.

But He wanted Martha to realize two important truths. First, being His disciple and learning about His teachings come first.  All other things are secondary.

Second, Jesus gently reminds her she was “worried and upset about many things.”  Martha’s desire to be a superb hostess caused her anxiety, hard feelings towards her sister, and an outburst towards Jesus.

Had she calmly gone to Jesus with her dilemma, He would have advised her and helped her work it out. This was a much-needed lesson for me!

Philippians 4:6- verse on white background with dark pink print with pink flowering scroll on edges

Lessons from Mary and Martha

Martha vs Mary?

There is much written about the “battle of the sisters” in this story. I would like to think it is not about a battle or rivalry, but a look into two personalities that are both valuable and full of God-honoring purpose.

Consider these two Bible verses:

“Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.”  Romans 12:13 NIV

“Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling.” 1 Peter 4:9 NIV

Clearly, Martha had the gift of hospitality.  It does not come naturally to all, and it may not have been Mary’s strong suite.

And these two:

“It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God.’” Luke 4:4 NKJV

“The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life.”  John 6:63 NKJV.

I’d love to add an exclamation point to that John verse, but it’s not in the text!

Mary chose what was “better”–listening to the life-giving words of Jesus.  Mary was not being lazy.  She simply was prioritizing correctly at that point in time.

What Can We Learn from Mary and Martha?

We probably all have a bit of both Mary and Martha inside of us.

•Our priorities, however, matter.  It is essential that we make time to sit at the feet of Jesus!

•Do not let our busy lives and acts of service get in the way of spending time in His Word.

•Anxiety doesn’t solve problems; Jesus does.

•Acts of service/hospitality are a mark of discipleship.  But they should come from a heart overflowing with Jesus’ love which we develop by studying His Word.  Fill up, listen and learn, and grow strong in His Word.

The story of Mary and Martha shows us two women who Jesus loved dearly.  But He would rather have you sitting at His feet while He feeds you before you go out in the world to preform acts of service in His name. 

May we see from this story He desires the worship of Mary and the work of Martha in the correct balance!

Blessings of Balance!

AnnMarie

Photo Credits: Johannes Vermeer, Pixabay

 

 

 

 

 

50 thoughts on “The Story of Mary and Martha”

  1. Thank-you so much for this wonderful blog AnnMarie. I am about to preach on the “death of Lazarus” on Sunday morning and was surfing for background information on Mary and Martha. I just happened to see your blog and couldn’t help but read it and the comments that followed.
    I am a “Martha” by nature. I love to work and keep busy throughout the day. I believe it to be a gift that God gave all “Martha’s” so that the work He has set aside for us, would get done. You know the saying… if you want something done… give it to a busy person.
    But the lesson that Jesus leaves for we “Martha’s”, is that we need to strike a balance between the work that He has imparted to us and the time we need to rest in His care and teaching. This is a great struggle for me and for the many who have commented this article.
    We need to remember that Jesus fed 5,000 men (or 15,000 people – estimated), with 2 fish and 5 loaves of bread. After such a miraculous effort in such a big crowd, could a feeding of the few in Mary and Martha’s home be much of a challenge to Jesus?
    Sometimes, we Martha’s need to remember, “Let Go, Let God”!
    If God came to my home in physical human manifestation, I would hope that the last thing I would to do is prepare a meal like Martha. Mary had it right by sitting at the feet of the Master, while He feed her and those around her with the Bread of Life!

    1. I love your insights! I hadn’t thought of Jesus feeding the guests in Mary and Martha’s home, but then again, all of us “Martha’s” wouldn’t have Jesus’ words to help us understand what is most important! I’m also a nurse, so I think the “servant” or helping aspect, along with my Mom’s Martha nature shaped mine as well. Saying Yes to Jesus and no to the many servant opportunities that get in the way of sitting at His feet is a great lesson!

  2. I always struggle with this particular story as at my church I am always “Martha”, making the refreshments and washing up! ALWAYS! Someone has to do it and I confess I feel for Martha in the story.

    1. You are not alone, Linda! I have heard from so many others with this same sentiment- me included! Digging into this story helped me understand the priorities Jesus was speaking of. What if Martha had the same desire/priority as Mary to listen and learn from Him? What if she had gone to Him with her concerns about feeding the people in her home vs sitting at His feet? I think He would have soothed her concerns, maybe rallied everyone to help out later, or solve the issue in a way that helped her feel content with spending time with Him.
      I found myself in your situation at a previous church. It was very small, and there was a small pool of volunteers to pick from. I was always being asked to help in various ways that began to make me feel overwhelmed. It wasn’t until I said “I’m sorry, no” to a request that I realized I was in control of my actions. Jesus doesn’t want us to worry or feel taken advantage of! God bless you for your service to your church!

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  5. Thank you for your insight on this controversial topic. I think Jesus did not meant to say we need to stop our daily chores completely but to give our priorities to his word over other things that distract us. Mary seems lazy just because she is sitting under his feet but it only shows her full, undevided attention to her lord and savior.

    1. I believe you are exactly right. He knows we have occupations, families, and other responsibilities that need our attention. But in all those things we can still worship, praise, and pray. We do need to prioritize His Word over distractions. God Bless you!

    2. I have always found Jesus’ reply to Martha very difficult if not impossible. We would all like to sit at the feet of Jesus and listen to Him whilst another person works hard, alone, to feed several people. This is not an ‘either or’ situation. In my opinion this is an occasion when everyone should have dealt with the preparations together and then sat to eat and learn together. I have been in this situation myself and would not allow it to happen on my watch. I have to do the intercessions in Church this week around this passage and I am struggling to bring any conviction to my words.

      1. I can totally relate to your feelings, as I had them too! I believe you are on the right track with everyone coming together to help. What if Martha had come to Jesus differently with her concerns? She says to Him ” “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” Jesus immediately sees that Martha is upset. He gently reminds she is worrying when there was no need to do so (a good reminder for all of us.) He also wanted her to know that being His disciple and learning of His teachings should rise above all else in our lives.

        Martha was more concerned about her hostess activities than hearing His words. What if she had come to Him with the dilemma of wanting to be taught as well, but was concerned about preparing a meal? Might Jesus have worked it out? I believe so!
        Martha’s #1 desire and concern was to be the best hostess (her priority.) That led to hard feelings against Mary and an outburst to Jesus. How would you deal with the situation now that you know Martha’s approach was in error? God bless you!

    1. The only mention by name of these sisters is in this story and in the raising of Lazarus. While we know many things about their relationship, there are many we do not!

  6. Thank you so much for your time and effort put into this little study. I am a youth pastor preaching this Sunday about DOING and I loved your perspective and balance you brought out in this. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still probably going to raise my voice and say “YOU GOT TO BE DOING NOT JUST LEARNING!”
    THANKS SO MUCH
    Greg

    1. LOL! That’s awesome Greg! Faith without works is dead, right? Hope your sermon goes well- I loved my time spent with youth, especially teenagers. God bless you!!!

  7. I came across your website by accident and I must admit I was intrigued by it. First you should know that I am a man. I’m sure you know that it is not only women who have this problem of balancing the work that must be done and spending time in the word. To get a slightly different perspective on this may I suggest that you read Rudyard Kipling‘s poem the Sons of Martha. May I suggest that without Martha Jesus may never have been invited into their home to begin with.Also the work that Martha did in preparation enabled Merry to sit at the feet of Christ and listen to Him speak. Martha’s error was that she complained about the situation to Christ. True service is rendered graciously and without complaint. In short, yes it is wonderful to be able to sit at the feet of Christ and listen to him teach but at the same time someone has to do the work required.

    1. Hello Rick! I have a fair amount of men who follow my blog, so welcome! This blog wasn’t my idea, but God’s, who put it on my heart. It is really my goal to take a passage of scripture and apply it’s spiritual truth in a way that is understood and hopefully, internalized by all who read it. Thanks so much for the poem- I had never heard of it! Obviously, Kipling knew his Bible! Being somewhat of a “worker bee” Martha myself, I thought she had a valid point. But it is Jesus who sets our priorities straight by telling us that the things of the spirit should come first. Thanks for your perspective!

  8. I’m a Martha, by no choice of my own. I’ve had to give up my retirement, time with my husband, children and grandchildren to care for my elderly 96 yr old mother with no help from my sister. She is Mary. I would love to be able to be Mary too but if I sit at Jesus feet would it please him that I leave my Mother uncared for? I feel bad for Martha in this story that she was left with all the burden to do all the work preparing and feeding everyone all by herself. I’m sad Jesus taught us that it was ok for Martha to have all the burden and ok for lazy Mary to not be responsible to help. She picked the best part, to sit at Jesus feet. But poor Martha couldn’t as she was burdened with all the responsiblity to care for everyones needs.

    1. My sister and I were in a somewhat similar situation with our Dad, but the “Mary” was some of our brothers. I lived out of state, so did all the phone/doctor/appointment chores, flying in for visits. My sister did the “day-to-day” hard work, and eventually at the expense of her health. So I’m concerned for you in that aspect. I would urge you to google “help with caring for aged parents” and see what comes up for your area. Visiting angels may be able to give you some respite. I’m glad you are using technology to “feed your soul” which is exactly what Jesus is talking about in this story.
      No, Jesus would not be pleased to have your mother uncared for. I feel bad for Martha too! Jesus didn’t say it was ok for Martha to carry all the burden. The point of the story is that Martha “was distracted” away from being filled by Jesus even though her acts of service were necessary. That’s why she got frustrated. Martha’s service was important work (as is yours). I see a caring, giving, loving daughter willing to go above and beyond for their aging parent, and Jesus does too. He doesn’t want you frustrated like Martha. There is nothing wrong with working hard for Jesus, but He wants you to “sit at His feet” (fill up with His love, concern, care, teachings, care, comfort, etc) so that when you serve, you won’t be so frustrated. I know that when I get frustrated in this way (I’m a “Martha”), listening to Christian music while I work soothes my soul. Mini prayer times, a quick blog or Bible verse to read also help me center back on His love for me. Sitting at His feet doesn’t actually mean you actually have to sit! (but it sure is nice…)- it just means taking the time to commune with Him!
      I do hope that you reach out and get some help. I’m not good at asking for help, but the internet certainly makes it easy to try! You will be in my thoughts and prayers!

    2. Oh SCL, I hope you hear my heart in this… Jesus corrected Martha on judging her sister, yes, but when you see that Martha served everone after Lazarus is raised from the dead, you can begin to recognize service as a form of worship as well! What you do is most definitly pleasing to the Lord, as long as you can release it to Him as an act of worship. He loves you and is honored that you are honoring your mother. He is glorified in sacrificial offerings. It is hard live in a world of people who are only interested in self-care. Jesus asked us to take up His cross, which means making choices that lead us to surrendering to His will. For a greater good. YOU, SCL, have chosen what is good in this situation. Know that your Father delights in you and says “Well done, good and faithful servant” as you care for your mother. I pray you are able to steal time away to have Jesus wash over you with His love.

  9. Wow this has really touched me. My name is Martha so I can relate with Martha in the Bible. Iam always out there being a giver while not making time to hear the word of God so that He can guide me on this spiritual journey. I really thank God for using you to assit me. What you shared is so profound. May the almighty God continue bless you.

    1. Hi Martha! I’m a “Martha-type” raised by a family of women who were “Martha’s” too! I’m so glad this post spoke to you and appreciate your encouraging words. They mean a lot! Blessings to you on your spiritual journey to incorporate a little “Mary” into your life!

    1. I was a single mom of 2, Iza, so I hear you!!! I was also raised around quite a few “Martha’s”, so I came by it naturally. I love sitting at His feet and taking in His Word 🙂

    1. Thank you Salem- it is a privilege and honor to share God’s Word- I am glad He sent it to you! Blessings!

  10. Thank you for this! My sister and I are teaching a lesson today on the Holy Spirit and sisterhood. We are using Mary and Martha for our scripture base. This has helped me for the lesson.

    1. This is awesome! God promises “so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.” Isaiah 55:11. He wanted you to have this! Thanks so much for encouraging me in this way. I pray your lesson touches hearts!

      1. Greetings Musa! I actually have a few men who follow my site, so you are not alone! When God pressed upon my heart to start a Bible Study blog, I addressed it to busy women, but it truly is for anyone. God Bless you!

    1. I couldn’t agree more! Finding that balance can be tricky! I like to be the “worker bee”, and find it hard to let go. I’m learning though…

  11. Amen!!! Glory to God the most High!

    Thank you for your this post. It’s a powerful reality in our lives and a great reflection!

    Hebrews 3:13 – But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called “Today,” so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.

    Blessings,
    Michael

    1. Thank you so much for the encouragement Michael! All glory to God who guides and directs me with His great love each day. You are a blessing to me in this ministry with your kind words.

  12. This was Godsent! Thank you for letting God use you to capture what I needed to hear about slowing down and putting God first before I serve in his name.

    1. This brings me such joy, Bridget! I too needed to hear these words, so I’m glad I’m not alone 🙂 Thanks for taking the time to give me this encouragement- I always hit “send” with the prayer that our faithful God will get the post into the eyes of those who need it. He is so good! Blessings to you Bridget!

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