A Tale of Two Sisters

Text: Luke 10:38-42

But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to [Jesus] and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” (Luke 10:40)

The story of Mary and Martha is surely one of the best-known in Scripture. Even people who’ve never read the Bible know about it. Yet this well-loved tale contains some surprising (albeit hidden) elements.

On the surface of things, the point of the story is clear: Jesus visits the home of Mary and Martha, and the two sisters make very different choices about how to respond to Jesus’ presence.

One of them—Mary—sits down at his feet and listens to his teaching. The other—Martha—goes off to do some work.

Then Martha comes back into the room, and complains that her sister has left her to do all the work related to the visit. And she asks for Jesus’ support in this squabble with her sibling: “Don’t you care that she has left me to do everything?”

Jesus’ reply, in so many words, is: Mary is doing what is right and proper. In this situation in which the two of you find yourselves, Mary has chosen “the better part.”

Yet, poor Martha is doing exactly what she is supposed to do—the right and proper thing, the hospitable thing. When someone comes to your home to visit, you welcome them and prepare a meal for them.

According to every custom of the day, Mary should be assisting Martha. Instead, she sits down at Jesus’ feet and listens to his teaching.

Now, you have to understand something: in Jesus’ day, a woman was not permitted to fill the role of a disciple. It was unthinkable. Only males could serve as disciples to the great teachers of the day. Only males could discuss with their teacher the meanings and nuances of the Torah. In fact, some rabbis taught that it was better to burn the Torah than to teach it to a woman!

What happens in this story is astonishing, in the context of that time and culture. Of course, Jesus of Nazareth was a controversial figure precisely because—through his teachings and his example—he challenged the social and religious traditions of his day.

So his actions in this text should not be surprising; it is simply important to understand that they are radical. When Martha makes what was by every indication a justifiable protest about the action of her sister, Jesus surprisingly sides with Mary.

So what does this mean for us? What could this antiquated social code have to do with 21st-century people like us? What difference could it possibly make in our lives?

Obviously, the social customs of our day are very different. There is no longer (or at least, there should no longer be) a question about whether or not women have the same rights as men. In our world, Mary’s discipleship would appear entirely appropriate. So, how can this passage speak to us?

I think that two parts of this story are as meaningful today as they were in biblical times. The first has to do with social custom as opposed to what is clearly right and just.

Someone in a study group one time referred to Mary as “the first liberated woman in the Bible.” I think if we read the Hebrew Scriptures carefully, we will find others before her—certainly Rachel and Deborah and Ruth would come to mind.

Jesus, however, was (as far as I know) the first significant male religious teacher in history to recognize the equality of women. This attitude got him into trouble, time and again.

In the gospels, Jesus continually engages women in public conversation, which is against the social and religious code. Men were not supposed to speak to women in public. Jesus did so, and on a regular basis. He turned that religious and social code upside down.

Yeah. Turning the accepted order of things upside down. That, it seems to me, is the theme of chapter 10 of Luke. The story immediately preceding this one is, after all, the parable of the Good Samaritan. In telling that story, Jesus challenged conventional ideas about who should be regarded as a neighbour. And by his actions in today’s gospel passage, Jesus challenges conventional ideas about gender.

So it’s quite a chapter, this 10th chapter of Luke. It contains some pretty radical stuff.

First, Jesus is represented as suggesting that a Samaritan is equal to a Jew in loving one’s neighbour, and then—in the story of Mary and Martha—Jesus says that a woman is equal to a man when it comes to loving God!

So here’s the first lesson for our present day: the lesson of Mary. The lesson of what Mary did right.

The passage suggests that a disciple of Jesus is expected to be in the forefront when it comes to issues of social justice. We are not status quo people! When necessary, we are called to “upset the apple cart” and make it clear that God’s love is not limited to our likes and dislikes, whether personal or national.

God’s reign is over all of Creation, and God’s intention is to one day claim all of Creation. No one will be left out. To use a modern buzzword, Jesus had an inclusive vision.

Now, here’s the second lesson from our gospel text; it concerns the continuing struggle in our own minds as we try to understand this “Mary and Martha” issue. Who’s right? Who’s wrong? Whose side should we be on?

Well, that’s not an easy question. It is made more difficult by the fact that the word in the text which is used to describe Martha’s “work” translates in the Greek as the word “service.” So, the real question is: What’s more important—our devotion or our service?

The text suggests that our devotion is more important. Jesus says to Martha: “there is need of only one thing: Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

There is little question as to how that verse is to be interpreted. But let’s think about that for a moment, and especially about what the text is trying to say to us which can benefit us in our everyday life: “One thing is needed.”

Given the rest of the gospel message, I cannot believe that Jesus is labelling Christian service as unimportant. It would be a serious mistake to take a passage like this one so much out of the context of the entire scriptural canon as to suggest that.

The New Testament, especially, issues a call for discipleship; for each of us—in our own way, using the best of our gifts and talents—to go out into the world to heal and to teach.

Why, then, this text? Well, as I get older, I think I’m beginning to understand.

Like at least a few who are still breathing, I grew up in the 1960s, a revolutionary era of social change—a time when young people, especially, wanted to change the world. There was tremendous energy expended on all of that, to the point where many of my friends found themselves simply burned out—and unable to care much anymore. My generation became disillusioned, angry, and frustrated.

We wanted to change the world, but the world refused to change! At least, it wouldn’t change as quickly as we wanted it to.

The goal was worthy: peace with justice for all people. But it just turned out to be too hard to accomplish—too discouraging. And when the new and better world did not arrive on schedule, all the energy was sapped. For many, there was no way to replenish it.

You see, that’s what Mary knew. And that’s what Jesus knew that Mary knew. Jesus himself had to go to the wilderness now and again—to get away, to pray, to meditate—so that he could be effective in the world. So that he could renew his energy and his spirit. So that he could take advantage of that time with God which rejuvenates the spirit within us.

I have found that virtually impossible to do in the midst of my everyday work. Look: if Jesus needed to get away from it all sometimes, it’s a good bet we will need to do that, too.

As disciples of Jesus, we must find places and spaces to replenish our spirits—to renew our souls. If we don’t, our energy will leave us. Our ability to serve will be compromised. And—like Martha—we will become distracted (and maybe even a little bit cranky).

Today’s passage from Luke invites us to return to the well often—to the wellspring, to our God—when we need to replenish our spirits. And the good news of the gospel is that there is an eternal wellspring available to us—one that never goes dry.

The good news of the gospel is that when we are truly seeking the living water—when we put our entire focus on God—we will certainly find that renewal, and it will give us the strength we need to go on.

That’s the promise. That’s the “better part” of which Jesus speaks in this text. It is essential.

Take time—regularly—to be alone with God. If you do that, your life will be blessed. And no matter what difficulties you face or the challenges before you, you will be given everything you need.

God is faithful. And that really is good news! Thanks be to God for it.


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