Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him 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.’ But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’ (NRSV).
There is tension between Martha and Mary.
Well, perhaps it is more accurate to say there is tension from Martha towards Mary. The sitting sister seems oblivious to Martha’s rising sense of injustice. Indeed, Mary says absolutely nothing throughout this whole narrative.
Mary’s only action is to listen to Jesus.
From the opening line it would seem Martha is an hospitable person. She generously opens her home to Jesus. He is ‘welcomed’. Jesus, in an unknown town, has found a place of grace, rest, and shelter. Luke has introduced Martha as the prefect host.
But, her sister, Mary is introduced in the position of disciple: she is sitting ‘at the Lord’s feet’. Perhaps Mary is hearing for the first time one of Jesus’ creative parables. Does Jesus recount one of the miracles? Does he tell stories from his adventurous, mysterious life? Is he speaking of salvation? We are not told.
But whatever Jesus’ content, Mary is captivated.
In contrast, Martha is twice described as ‘distracted’ and once as ‘worried’. She is doing all the ‘work’ of preparation. She has a long list of ‘tasks’ to complete. Surely listening to these stories can, unlike these chores, wait?
And, like her list, her sense of injustice is growing. It reaches even to the point of articulation: ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her to help me.’ Martha is not only frustrated with Mary. She has also noticed Jesus’ indifference: ‘…do you not care…?’
Yes, he does. But not about the ‘many things’ that fill Martha with concern. He sees with a staggering clarity: ‘…there is need of only one thing.’
It is almost as though Jesus believes Martha is under the false impression that she is welcoming him. It is fairly understandable – after all she gave the invite, opened her home, and is now cooking and cleaning.
But it just might be more accurate to suggest that Jesus, in travelling to her town, is seeking not to receive her hospitality, but to give his.
And it may be that Martha – more than wanting her sister to join her – really wants to join her sister.
Luke’s account ends abruptly. Our writer believes Jesus’ assurance that Mary’s decision to listen to Jesus will not be denied her is enough. Maybe he ends it here because this is the high point, the pinnacle, of the account.
Even so, it is a nice thought that Martha did stop, sit, and listen. If she did, it just may have resulted in a simpler – but exponentially more memorable – stay for all.