Though Martha and Mary were sisters, they were of distinct personalities and represented two essential components of Christian life. Martha was the head of the family and was hospitable to Jesus and his disciples whenever Jesus came to their house at her invitation. While Jesus was preaching at her house, she skipped listening to Jesus and kept busy preparing meals for everyone. Mary, the younger sister of Martha, expressed her devotion to Jesus by sitting at his feet to learn from him. She disagreed with Martha’s approach of neglecting to learn from Jesus for household work. Martha considered, according to the Jewish custom, it was men’s role to discuss with the guest while the ladies should prepare the meal and make it ready by the time the master ends his preaching. Lazarus was the youngest in the family and he became famous because Jesus raised him from the tomb on the fourth day after his death. The following gospel passage shows the relevance of listening to the word of God without forsaking Christian charity.
BIBLE TEXT (LUKE 10:38-42)
Martha and Mary
(Lk 10:38) As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he entered a village and a woman called Martha welcomed him to her house. (39) She had a sister named Mary who sat down at the Lord’s feet to listen to his words. (40) Martha, meanwhile, was busy with all the serving she had to do, and at last she said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the serving alone? Tell her to help me.” (41) But the Lord answered, “Martha, Martha, you worry and are troubled about many things, (42) whereas only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen the better part, and it will not be taken away from her.”
Martha, along with her sister Mary and brother Lazarus, lived in the same house in Bethany, a small town near Jerusalem. Since the Bible does not mention the name of any other member in the family, scholars assume Martha was the eldest and was a widow. Mary and Lazarus must be single and below 20 years of age because the Jews used to marry before that age. Both were living with their elder sister, Martha. All the three had high reverence for Jesus. Martha welcomed him to her house whenever he passed through Bethany en route to Jerusalem. The gospels document three of Jesus’ visits to her house that were significant.
1. While teaching at Martha’s house, Jesus justified Mary’s act of sitting by him to learn from him when Martha complained against Mary for not helping her to prepare meals for Jesus and the other guests (Lk 10:38-42).
2. Jesus visiting Martha’s family after the death of Lazarus followed by raising him from the tomb (Jn 11:1-44).
3. Mary anointed Jesus’ feet when he came to their house six days prior to his final Passover observance (Jn 12:1-8).
Martha’s family must be above average in financial status because they had a house large enough to accommodate guests for stays and discussions. Mary could buy “costly perfumed oil made from genuine aromatic nard” (Jn 12:3) worth “three hundred days’ wages” to anoint the feet of Jesus (Jn 12:5). Their source of income is unknown.
The names of the three siblings suggest their role in the events presented in the gospels. Martha is the feminine form of Mar (Lord). So, her name means mistress or head of the household. The name Mary originates from the Hebrew word Miriam that means “bitter, beloved, or drop of the sea.” When Miriam, the sister of Moses, was born, the Israelites had the bitter destiny to throw their male children into the River Nile because of Pharaoh’s order. However, when the Israelites crossed the Red Sea, Mariam was also known as Mara Yam, meaning “Mistress of the Sea.” The Greek name Lazarus derived from the Hebrew word Eleazar, meaning “God has helped.” Thus, Martha was the head of the household, Mary was a beloved disciple of Jesus, and the Son of God helped Lazarus by raising him on the fourth day after his death.
The Catholic Church used to celebrate Martha’s annual feast on 29 July. Pope Francis combined this feast to be observed with that of Mary and Lazarus on the same date from 29 July 2021. Formerly, there was a wrong identification of Mary of Bethany with Mary of Magdala, whose annual feast falls on 22 July. The present understanding is that they are different, and so in 2021, Pope Francis liturgically affirmed the separation of the two. Hence, the Catholic Church celebrates Mary of Bethany’s feast on 29 July along with that of her siblings, Martha and Lazarus.
Martha and Mary
As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he entered a village and a woman called Martha welcomed him to her house (Lk 10:38).
As Jesus and his disciples were on their way
During his public ministry, Jesus had no permanent residence because he was constantly on the move, preaching the gospel and helping the less fortunate. He ministered in the synagogues and public places of various villages and towns. The close disciples, especially the apostles who left everything to follow Jesus, accompanied him. They stayed at the houses of generous people who welcomed them to their residence. When Jesus sent his apostles to preach in the neighbouring villages during his public ministry, he instructed them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave from there” (Mk 6:10). Similarly, when he sent out his seventy-two disciples to preach, he told them, “Stay in the same house and eat and drink what is offered to you, for the labourer deserves his payment. Do not move about from one house to another” (Lk 10:7). Jesus also followed the same policy. Wealthy families had upper rooms in their houses for guests to stay and meet. Jesus used such facilities of his well-wishers for himself and his companions.
he entered a village
Though Luke did not specify the name of the village, according to John, it was Bethany where Martha and her siblings lived (Jn 11:1; 12:1). Bethany was near Jerusalem in Judaea to the south of the Mount of Olives. John reports it as the village of Mary (Jn 11:1) since Mary, the sister of Martha, became popular in the early Church because of her devotion to Jesus and her anointing of Jesus six days prior to his death and burial (Jn 12:1-8).
A woman called Martha welcomed him to her house
Martha invited Jesus to her house and took responsibility as the host to set up the rooms and feed Jesus, his disciples, and others who gathered to listen to his teachings. Her initiative and leadership are clear from her approach to meet and greet Jesus when he came to Bethany on the fourth day after the burial of Lazarus. “When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went to meet him; but Mary sat at home. Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you’” (Jn 11:20-22). Later, when Jesus came to her house for dinner, Martha served while Lazarus reclined at the table with Jesus and Mary anointed his feet with perfumed oil (Jn:1-3). Hence, Martha was an active, responsible, and hospitable woman with leadership qualities.
Hospitality was an important Jewish practice. “You shall treat the alien who resides with you no differently than the natives born among you; you shall love the alien as yourself; for you too were once aliens in the land of Egypt. I, the LORD, am your God” (Lev 19:34). The residents of Jerusalem used to open their houses for free to the pilgrims who came from faraway places to the Temple for worship during the three prominent pilgrim feasts. “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have; God is pleased by sacrifices of that kind” (Heb 13:16). People like Martha offered a warm welcome to Jesus and his disciples to their houses, and Jesus accepted such invitations.
When Jesus arrived at a house as a guest, the news would spread and people from the neighborhood gathered to see, listen, and to obtain favours from him. So, besides the synagogues and public places, Jesus preached the gospel and healed the sick at the houses where he stayed. The families considered it as a privilege for them to have such a dignitary as their guest. They were happy that Jesus was making use of their house as a place of blessing for the public.
Examples of Jesus helping the public at houses are the following:
1. While Jesus was at Simon Peter’s house in Capernaum, people brought their sick people. He cured them all, including Peter’s mother-in-law (Mt 8:14-17; Mk 1:29-34; Lk 4:38-41).
2. After calling Matthew to be his disciple, Jesus dined at his house with other publicans. There he justified his mingling with sinners (Mt 9:9-13).
3. At the invitation of Simon the Pharisee, he went to his house as a guest and forgave the sins of a woman who anointed his feet (Lk 7:36-50).
4. Jesus went to the house of Zacchaeus and facilitated his conversion (Lk 19:1-10).
5. Towards the end of his ministry, Jesus went as guest at the house of Simon, the leper, in Bethany. He let a woman anoint his head with oil and justified her action when Judas Iscariot criticized her for spending big money on it (Mt 26:6-13).
There were also other houses where Jesus visited preaching and resolving the issues of people who were in distress. The houses were places of intimacy compared to synagogues and public places. Visits of Jesus at Martha’s house involved preaching, raising Lazarus from the tomb, and allowing Mary to anoint him before his death.
(39) She had a sister named Mary who sat down at the Lord’s feet to listen to his words.
While Martha, as mistress of the house, was hectic with the household chores related to hospitality, her younger sister Mary was engrossed in listening to the inspiring words of Jesus. Sitting at the feet of the dignified guest as a disciple to learn from him was also an excellent sign of hospitality. Like Mary, there were other women devoted to Jesus. “Accompanying him were the Twelve and some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities, Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, Susanna, and many others who provided for them out of their resources” (Lk 8:1b–3).
Sitting at the feet of a teacher was the ancient posture of a disciple expressing submissiveness and humility (Deut 33:3; 2 Kgs 4:38; Lk 2:46; Lk 8:35). Paul’s education was “at the feet of Gamaliel” (Acts 22:3). It implies the receptivity of the teaching with due respect and submission to the instructor. In a male-dominant society, Mary was behaving like a male disciple sitting and learning from the master, thus breaking the traditional practice of study being reserved to men. She preferred to make use of the excellent opportunity to gain knowledge directly from Jesus than keeping herself busy with work along with Martha. That Jesus supported Mary’s act is clear from his response to Martha’s complaint against Mary.
(40) Martha, meanwhile, was busy with all the serving she had to do, and at last she said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the serving alone? Tell her to help me.”
Martha, meanwhile, was busy with all the serving she had to do
While Jesus was teaching on the kingdom of God, which was essential for Martha also to listen, she disregarded it. As the head of the family, her concern was how she could feed the people who came as her guests. Since everyone present was sitting around to learn from what he taught, Martha was alone and busy with preparing food and setting up the dishes. She expected her sister Mary to help her and impatiently waited for it. But Mary ignored Martha’s demand to assist her. Jesus also might have thought that his host Martha did not care for his teachings that were vital for her also to inherit eternal life.
Martha became impatient after long hours of arduous work by herself to prepare the meal. She had the good intention of offering the best treats possible for all the people gathered at her house with Jesus. She was hesitant to interrupt Jesus’ discourse. She might have given signs to Mary to leave from the master’s presence to join her in the work. However, Mary might have disregarded it because of her keen interest in Jesus’ teaching. Martha was upset because even Jesus, who might have noticed her situation, did not seem to care to send Mary to help her. So, she said to Jesus, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the serving alone?” Thus, she took a bold step to complain to Jesus, interrupting his discourse after probably a long and impatient wait.
“Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the serving alone? Tell her to help me”
Martha’s request was reasonable. According to the traditional way of treating guests, only the men were supposed to sit in discussions with the guest while the women prepared the meal. Jesus’ concern was not the food, but the spiritual nourishment he was offering for all present. He quite likely must have wished that Martha also would halt her work and listen to the life-giving word of God.
(41) But the Lord answered, “Martha, Martha, you worry and are troubled about many things,
The twofold calling of Martha’s name was expressive of Jesus’ tenderness in addressing her. Jesus was known to have the practice of calling the name twice elsewhere. During the Last Supper, Jesus addressed Peter, calling his name twice: “Simon, Simon, behold Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, but I have prayed that your own faith may not fail” (Lk 22:3132a). At the conversion of Saul, Jesus addressed him, asking, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4)
Jesus was not criticizing Martha, but was teaching her how to prioritize Christian virtues. Jesus also promoted charity and hospitality. However, it should not take precedence over listening to the word of God. Though Jesus appreciated Martha’s hospitality, she failed to listen to his important teachings. Her concern at that instant was feeding Jesus and his followers respectably. Since Jesus was teaching on serious matters concerning spiritual nourishment, Martha also must have sat at the feet of Jesus along with Mary and learned from him. But Jesus made use of this opportunity to teach Martha and all present of the importance of listening to the word of God as part of their devotionalism and then put into practice the commandment of love.
Jesus taught, “As for you, do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not worry anymore. All the nations of the world seek for these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, seek his kingdom, and these other things will be given you besides” (Lk 12:29-31). “Do not work for food that perishes but for food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him the Father, God, has set his seal” (Jn 6:27).
The message of Jesus to Martha and the other listeners was that the worries of worldly needs should not prevent them from their loyalty to God. There is a time for everything: a time to listen to the word of God, a time for prayer, praise and worship, and a time to serve others for the love of God. Martha was doing exemplary service, but at a wrong time. She ought to have been listening to Jesus while he was preaching at her house.
(42) “… whereas only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen the better part, and it will not be taken away from her.”
By sitting at the feet of Jesus, Mary was becoming a disciple of Jesus. Martha missed that precious opportunity because of her anxiety about hospitality. Complying with her urge for seeking Mary’s help would cause Mary to miss such an opportunity herself too. So, Jesus asserted that Mary had taken the better part, and which he did not want to take away from her. Jesus appreciated the hospitality of Martha, but probably felt that she could wait until Jesus had ended his discourse, so that both the sisters could actively take part in the discourse of Jesus and then attend to the food. In the process, contrary to Jewish tradition, Jesus was actually promoting women’s discipleship.
There are worldly people who do fantastic service to family and community alike with lack of faith in God. Christian charity should be essentially based on the love of God and the teachings of the Church. Other services are humanitarian but not Christian. At the Last Judgement, Jesus would say to those at his right, “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Mt 25:40). So, Christian service should be an offshoot of our love of God, seeing His image in the people we serve.
Though Martha was offering Jesus and his followers service out of sincere love, she was apparently disrespecting him by ignoring his teaching. She missed spending valuable time to listen to Jesus by being involved in worldly hospitality. When Mary chose the better part, Martha opted for the less significant action. Her priority ought to have been affection for Jesus and service occurring later because of that devotion.
What Jesus was doing was, offering a reminder of what he taught during the Sermon on the Mount – “So do not worry and say, ‘What are we to eat?’ or ‘What are we to drink?’ or ‘What are we to wear?’ All these things the pagans seek. Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides” (Mt 6: 31-33). Mary had chosen that part by seeking the kingdom of God through Jesus. Christian charity should develop out of faith formation and devotion to God. As Paul wrote to Timothy, “Avoid profane and silly myths. Train yourself for devotion, for, while physical training is of limited value, devotion is valuable in every respect, since it holds a promise of life both for the present and for the future” (1 Tim 4:7-8). Mary had availed of the nourishment for eternal life from Jesus, which neither God nor anyone else will take away from her.
Service, out of devotion to God, along with willingness to listen to the person we serve, is the best approach. We should see the face of God in the suffering and serve them out of our love of God. Humanitarian service is of temporal value, whereas service out of devotion to God is worth eternal reward. God had assigned time for worship and time for service. There was God-assigned Sabbath observance and scripture study time, also religious feasts, and periods of fasting. Neglecting any of this for the purpose of service is baseless for a religious person.
Mary chose the better part by sitting at the feet of Jesus. Indirectly, Jesus was presenting Mary as a role model for Martha and inviting her to sit at his feet to learn from him. Martha was behaving like a host occupied only with serving food for the guest without listening to the dignitary who had an important matter to share with her. Jesus would want Mary to help Martha after his important discourse at that critical time. Jesus was not criticizing Martha per se but helping her and his listeners to understand the importance of giving priority to relating with God and then expressing devotion through service to those in need.
Because of Martha’s hospitality, she is the patron saint of cooks, homemakers, and restaurant servers. And as a family, Martha, Mary, and Lazarus are patron saints of siblings!
1. Martha, Mary, and Lazarus were siblings who were hospitable to Jesus and made friends with him. They offered their home to Jesus and his disciples for a temporary stay and teaching.
Jesus favoured them with his great miracle of raising Lazarus from the tomb. Is Jesus the Lord and friend of our family?
2. Mary represents devotion to Jesus and interest in scripture study. Martha exemplifies Christian charity. While appreciating both, Jesus preferred Mary’s approach of giving priority to devotion even as he acknowledged the service that Martha offered. Christian charity should grow out of our devotion to God. Unlike secular people who do humanitarian services devoid of faith in God, let us devote time to worship, scripture study, and charity.
3. Martha welcomed Jesus to her house whenever he passed through Bethany. Along with her siblings, Martha offered hospitality to Jesus and his companions. Let us invite Jesus to our lives through the reception of Holy Communion during Holy Mass and seize every opportunity to study the Bible like retreats and Bible courses, apart from a personal study of the Bible.
4. Like Martha and her siblings, who served those who accompanied Jesus, let us serve others in need out of our devotion to Jesus.
5. Just as Martha thought that she was right and Mary was wrong, we might also misjudge ourselves and others. Just as Martha learned from Jesus that Mary was right, and hence Martha was the one to change, let us also be careful in our assumptions. Often, we judge people with the yardstick of our worldly values. God will teach us the best Christian approach by listening to the word of God.
6. When there was a shortage of wine at the wedding at Cana, Jesus helped the host by working his first miracle. When Jesus’ audience was hungry and there was a lack of food, Jesus multiplied the food in hand to feed them all. Let us seek the kingdom first, and then God will work wonders with our limited resources.
7. A combination of the personality of Martha and Mary will make us perfect Christians. Let us strike a balance between devotion to God and service to others in our lives.
8. Let us evaluate our lives on the basis of what Mother Teresa said and practised: “Faith is a gift of God. Without it, there would be no life. And our work, to be fruitful, and to be all for God, and to be beautiful, has to be built on faith — faith in Christ, who has said, I was hungry, I was naked, I was sick, and I was homeless, and you ministered to me. On these words of His, our work is based.” She added, “The work we do is nothing more than a means of transforming our love for
Christ into something concrete.”