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 rose him from the tomb on the fourth day after his death. Today’s gospel passage shows the relevance of listening to the word of God without forsaking the 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 any other member in that 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 a high reverence for Jesus. Martha welcomed him to her house whenever he passed through Bethany enroute Jerusalem. The gospels document three of Jesus’ visit to her house that were significant.
Martha’s family must be above average in financial status because they had a house large enough to accommodate guests for stay and discussion. 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 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 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 the beloved disciples 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 July 29. Pope Francis combined this feast with that of Mary and Lazarus on the same date from July 29, 2021. Formerly, there was a wrong identification of Mary of Bethany with Mary of Magdala, whose annual feast falls on July 22. 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 July 29 along with her siblings, Martha and Lazarus.
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.
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 the neighboring 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 laborer 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.
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 Judea 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 passion (Jn 12:1-8).
A woman called Martha welcomed him to her house.
Since Martha was the eldest in the family, she was the head of the house. So, Luke reports it as Martha’s house. She invited Jesus to her house and took the 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 homes 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 Jesus and to get favors 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.
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 works of 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 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 reserved only for male. She preferred to make use of the excellent opportunity to gain knowledge directly from Jesus than keeping herself busy with the works Martha was engaged in. 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 ignored it. Her concern was how she could feed the people who came as her guest. Since everyone present was sitting at the feet of Jesus and learning from him, Martha was alone and busy with preparing food and setting up the dishes. She was impatiently waiting for her sister Mary to help her. But Mary disregarded Martha’s demand to assist her at that time. Jesus also might have been thinking that his host Martha was not caring for his teachings that are vital for her also to inherit the eternal life.
Martha became impatient after long hours of arduous work by herself to prepare the meal. She had the good intention to offer the best treat 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 feet to join her in the work. However, Mary was disregarding it because of her keen interest in the Jesus’ teaching. Martha was upset even Jesus who might have noticed her worries was not sending Mary to help her. That was why she said, “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 Jesus interrupting his discourse after 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 demand was reasonable. According to the traditional way of treating the guests, men were supposed to discuss with the guest while the women prepare the meal. Jesus’ concern was not the food, but the spiritual nourishment he was serving for all present. He wished Martha also to 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 two-fold calling of Martha’s name was expressive of Jesus’ tenderness in addressing her. Jesus had 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 22:31-32a). 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 the 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 what Jesus was teaching. Her concern at that instant was feeding Jesus and his followers respectably. Since Jesus was teaching serious matters on spiritual nourishment, Martha also must have sat at the feet of Jesus along with Mary and learn from him. Jesus made use of that opportunity to teach Martha and all the listeners the importance of listening to the word of God as a part of their devotion 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 the 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 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 to do praise and worship, and a time to serve others on behalf of the love of God. Martha was doing an exemplary service, but at a wrong time. She had to listen 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 to her urge for Mary’s help would cause missing such as an opportunity for Mary also. So, Jesus said, Mary has taken the better part, and he did not want to take that away from her. Jesus appreciated the hospitality of Martha, but she could wait for that until Jesus ends his discourse, so both the sisters could actively take part in the discourse of Jesus and then do the food service. Contrary to the Jewish tradition, Jesus was promoting women’s discipleship.
There are worldly people who do fantastic service to their family and community with lack of faith in God. The Christian charity should be based on the love of God and teachings of the church. Other services are humanitarian but not Christian. At the last judgement, Jesus would say to those who are 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 outcome from the love of God, seeing His image in the people we serve.
Though Martha was offering service for Jesus and his followers out of her love, she was disrespecting him by ignoring his teaching at that time. She missed the valuable time to listen to Jesus by involving in worldly hospitality. When Mary chose the better part, Martha opted the less significant action. Her priority must be affection to Jesus at that time and service must evolve later as a result of that devotion.
Jesus was reminding 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. 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 accepted 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 people and serve them out of the love of God. Humanitarian service is of temporal value, whereas the service out of devotion to God is worth eternal reward. God had assigned time for worship and time for service. There were God-assigned Sabbath observance, scripture study time, religious feasts, and periods of fasting. Neglecting them for 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 in serving food for the guest without listening to the dignitary who had 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 but helping her and his listeners to understand the priority they should have to relate with God and then express the devotion through the service of those in need.
Because of Martha’s hospitality, she is the patron saint of cooks, homemakers, and restaurant servers. Martha, Mary, and Lazarus are patron saints of siblings.