This is one of four meals that Luke tells us about on Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. Here, Jesus enters “a certain village” – it doesn’t matter which one, but the Gospel according to John tells us that it’s Bethany.
A woman named Martha welcomes him into her home. She has no husband living with her, just her sister Mary, and maybe her brother Lazarus, who is not part of this story, which occurs only in Luke’s Gospel. Luke wants us to know that Martha is an independent woman of means. Elsewhere, she is portrayed as one who supports Jesus’ ministry financially.
Her sister Mary sits at the feet of Jesus, symbolizing her status as a disciple, a role usually reserved for men. As a disciple, she has left everything in order to follow Jesus.
Now remember where we are – first century Israel, not twenty-first century Massachusetts. What both women are doing is unheard of and would be quite shocking – radical, even – to the first hearers of the story. It was meant to shock, or the lesson would be lost. This is typical – Jesus continually turns the world upside-down and challenges us to see familiar things in new ways. Nothing is ever exactly what it seems, and expectations are often shattered.
This is a story about extremes. Martha’s distractions are rooted in the real world. But her obsession with getting her work done before she can allow herself to hear the Word of the Lord has thrown her life into disorder. Her cares block her path to her devotion to Jesus. She never seems to be at home, so to speak, in the presence of God. But Mary, by setting aside everything else, exemplifies the commandment to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind. She delights being in God’s presence. Jesus says there is really only one thing, and Mary has chosen it. Apart from this, nothing matters, even ministry.
Concern for the realities of life is valid, of course, but Luke doesn’t provide an easy answer to the problem. Instead, he maintains the tension between two extreme and opposing truths: Martha’s real-world concerns and Mary’s complete devotion.
But in John’s Gospel, Martha, who serves, shows greater faith in Jesus than does Mary, the disciple. Mary devotes her life to listening to what Jesus is saying because her faith – her trust and reliance in Jesus – needs nurturing; it’s growing. Martha, on the other hand, overwhelmed by her ministry of service, shows great faith in Jesus. Maybe Luke wants to shine a light on why we do what we do in the Lord’s name.
As it happens, in the passage immediately before today’s reading, Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan. That story and today’s story about Martha and Mary go hand in hand; in fact, we should probably always read them together, because one story teaches us about love for the neighbor who needs our help and the other teaches about love for and devotion to God. And these happen to be the two greatest commandments.
The story of the Samaritan teaches us to open our hearts to those in need, and today’s story reminds us that there is also a time to listen and reflect, to love God with our entire being. There’s a collective lesson, and a balance to strike, between the two.
Luke (and also John in his Gospel) uses Martha as the symbol of dedicated service and Mary as the symbol of dedicated discipleship. It’s hard work either way.
The two stories also expose the injustice of social barriers, barriers that put people into categories, barriers that restrict and oppress various groups in a society. To love God with all our heart and our neighbors as ourselves means we must reject society’s rules and restrictions in favor of God’s kingdom, a kingdom without boundaries and distinctions between its members. God’s rules are radically different from society’s rules; this is one reason why Jesus’ teachings all seem to flip the world upside-down – because it needs flipping!
Daniel Migliore reminds us that, united in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, we are one community, members of one body and mutually dependent on one another.
Our challenge, as disciples of Jesus, is to balance our real-life distractions with our place at the feet of the Lord; to not only “go and do” as God’s servants but to also sit and listen and learn, and to recognize, resist, and break down the barriers that society creates in order to exclude and separate one group from another, or to prevent us from hearing the Word of God. Luke has packed so much into just a few verses of Gospel.
And Jesus hasn’t made it easy for us. We are forced to make up our own minds about how to resolve our work life with our spiritual life, and in how we build the beloved community in a world-flipping faith. Jesus challenges us to live our faith to its fullest. He doesn’t expect us to be comfortable in it. But we need to hear the Word of God; we cannot survive without it.
There is need of only one thing: service and devotion together, with faith-building devotion being first. Love the Lord first. Love the Lord always. And take delight in the Lord. Choose the better part, as the song in Psalm 84:1-3 says:
How lovely is your dwelling place, O God!
My soul yearns, even faints, to be in your courts.
My heart, my whole body sings for joy to the living God.
Even the sparrow finds a home at your altars, wherever they may be – even the sparrow.
Daniel L. Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Erdmans Publishing Co., 2004), 229.