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.
This might be the worst thing Jesus could have said to Martha: Mary has chosen the better part. Your sister has chosen better.
You see, I know about sisters. I have a sister. She has two daughters; I have two daughters. There are lots of sisters in our family. And where there are sisters, there is usually comparison. Sometimes, there is competition. Because sisters — despite sharing a gene pool and family stories and the occasional sweater — are often quite different from one another.
This has been true in my family. Katie, who is two years older than me, has always been the math wiz. She could have passed calculus in her sleep. I passed calculus because Katie happens to be a good tutor. But hand her Shakespeare and her eyes glaze over. That’s always been my thing. Katie was always eager to babysit. I was afraid of babies until I started baptizing them. And, when each of us graduated from college, she moved into a house half-a-mile from my parents while I moved half a world away. While we are close, Katie and I have never been very much alike. But, this we have in common: Neither of us wants to be told the other has chosen the better part.
Like Katie and me, the sisters at the center of our story seem very different from one another:
Martha busies herself with the work of welcome. And, in doing so, she is fulfilling her social role … Not only as a woman, but — more importantly — as a host. In the ancient world, hospitality was a cardinal virtue. We have already seen how critical this practice is to the spread of God’s kingdom. At the beginning of chapter 10, Jesus sent out seventy disciples with this instruction: ‘Carry no money, no food, no change of clothes. Instead, rely on the hospitality of strangers.’ Rely on the hospitality of people like Martha. Yes, Martha is fulfilling her role by opening her home to Jesus, by providing for the needs of her guest.
Mary, on the other hand, is bucking tradition. She is ignoring social custom by assuming the role of Disciple — a role usually reserved for men. In the ancient world, male students would sit at the feet of their male teachers to learn the ways of wisdom. A woman joining their ranks would certainly have raised eyebrows. But here Mary sits, claiming this role for herself.
Throughout this passage, Martha is on her feet. She is flitting around … setting the table, stirring the stew, making sure the wine glasses are full … While Mary sits. Mary sits at the feet of another. As long as Jesus remains in the house, she remains by his side — listening to his teachings, hanging on his every word.
This passage is a study in contrast. In just five verses, Luke paints a picture of two very different sisters. Which is why interpreters throughout history have viewed these women as archetypes representing different approaches to Christianity: the active versus contemplative life; justification by faith versus justification by works. As if a woman can only be one thing. As if a disciple can only be one thing.
As many sisters will tell you (as many siblings regardless of gender will tell you), comparisons can be tricky. What makes them even trickier is when the Savior of the World takes sides: Martha, Martha … Your sister has chosen the better part.
I do not think Jesus is diminishing Martha’s work. That wouldn’t make sense given the witness of Scripture, which — time and again — exhorts the faithful to provide hospitality. Furthermore, when Jesus appears at her doorstep, Martha attends to a particular kind of task. In just five verses, Luke twice describes Martha’s work as diakonia … Service. Table service, to be precise. This is the very ministry to which Stephen and Philip and five others are called in the book of Acts, when it becomes clear that the Twelve can no longer serve a growing community on their own (Acts 6:1-6). It is also the ministry Jesus claims for himself when he breaks the bread and shares the cup, then tells his disciples: “I am among you as one who serves” (Luke 22:27). No, Jesus is not diminishing Martha’s work. So why does he tell her Mary has chosen the better part?
In my estimation, it has nothing to do with Martha’s ministry, but with the way her work has overtaken her life. You see, Martha is distracted by her many tasks. We know the feeling. We are often distracted — our minds darting from grocery lists to weekend plans to an email we forgot to send to the news alert lighting up the screen … all in the span of 60 seconds. Distraction is inevitable in our over-programmed, fast-paced lives. But, for Martha, it’s a bit different. The Greek word that Luke uses can, indeed, mean ‘distracted,’ as it is rendered in our translation. But it can also mean “to be pulled, dragged or drawn away.” Martha’s ministry has pulled, dragged, or drawn her away.
It seems a small distinction, an insignificant detail. Except when you contemplate the scene …
Jesus is on a journey. He’s traveling from Galilee to Jerusalem. And, along the way, this itinerant rabbi stops in cities and countrysides to proclaim the kingdom of God. When Jesus comes to town, the captives are freed, the empty are filled, the lost are found. When Jesus comes to town, lives are transformed. And, now, Jesus has come to “a certain village,” to the home of a woman named Martha. God’s Messiah has decided to pay Martha a visit. He’s knocked on the door, he’s crossed the threshold, he’s sitting in the living room! And where is Martha? … She is being drawn away. Her ministry is pulling her away from Emmanuel, God-with-Us.
But Martha’s sister refuses to miss-out on this moment. For whatever reason, she senses that this guest is different — that this guest is better heard than served. So she takes a seat at the feet of Jesus, in the place of a disciple. While Martha flits about, Mary sits — listening, learning, feasting on the good news Christ brings. While Martha diligently serves her guest, Mary rests in the presence of Christ, experiencing first-hand that the kingdom of God has come near. While Martha is being drawn away from Jesus, Mary is being drawn in; she is being drawn into relationship with the Messiah of God.
It is, indeed, the better part. On this point, Jesus is clear: Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part.
Comparisons can be tricky, especially when the Savior of the World appears to take sides. But what if the Savior of the World is not passing judgment? What if Jesus is not patronizing Martha as he praises Mary? What if this is not a rebuke, but an invitation?
It seems significant that Jesus says Martha’s name twice. He does not repeat names often, even when calling those closest to him. When Jesus summons Lazarus from the grave, he speaks his name only once. When the Resurrected Christ appears to Magdalene beside his own, empty tomb, he says her name once as well. But “Martha” he says twice. And, in this address, we hear echoes of the divine call in Hebrew Scripture … of the voice thundering from burning bush, “Moses, Moses!”; and of the Lord speaking into midnight’s stillness, “Samuel! Samuel!”; and of God whispering to Jacob in visions of night, “Jacob, Jacob.” And — in response to the divine voice calling their names not once, but twice — these ancestors of the faith offered their full attention, saying: “Here I Am” or “Speak, Lord; your servant is listening.”
I wonder how Martha responds. Luke is silent on the matter. As soon as Jesus stops speaking, the curtain falls on this scene. But I like to imagine that Martha hears in his words an invitation … An invitation to join her sister at the feet of Jesus. To listen — as our song says — to the One who is close at hand. To be drawn into relationship with the Messiah of God. I like to imagine that Martha hears in Christ’s words an invitation to choose the better part.
And it is the better part. At least in this moment, when Jesus is sitting in the living room proclaiming a Gospel of freedom and forgiveness. Yes, in this moment, there is need of only one thing — to sit at the feet of Jesus, to be drawn into relationship with Emmanuel, to experience firsthand that the kingdom of God has come near.
But the moment cannot last forever. And these sisters cannot remain at the feet of Jesus. For one thing, the Messiah’s journey must continue. Jesus will leave Martha’s house and travel to other villages, where he will bless little children and heal broken bodies and welcome sinners into the fold. But there’s another reason Mary and Martha cannot stay at his feet, and it’s an important one: No one who dwells in the presence of Jesus, no one who hears God’s life-giving word, can remain unmoved. They must rise to join Christ’s ministry, because — wherever disciples are drawn into this story of grace — acts of service will follow.
As many sisters will tell you, comparisons can be tricky. Especially when they suggest we can know all there is to know based on a single scene in the story of two women. As if Martha only ever served; as if Mary only ever sat. I wonder if we’ve missed the point. What if we’ve become so focused on comparing Mary and Martha — on comparing “the Marys” and “the Marthas” — that we’ve forgotten that both study and service are necessary to the life of faith? After all, love of God finds expression in love of neighbor. And love of neighbor must be rooted in love of God. It’s right there in the text. We need only look back to the story we heard last week: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” the lawyer asks Jesus. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart … soul … strength, and … mind; and your neighbor as yourself.
It’s not ‘either-or’ when it comes to faith. It’s never ‘either-or.’ Which is why — by my reading — Jesus invites Martha to sit. Which is why — I imagine — both sisters rise to join in Jesus’ ministry. This is the rhythm of the Christian life: because service without study cannot be sustained, and study without service is not faithful to the call of Christ. Discipleship demands both.
Let me tell you about two people who embody both dimensions of the Christian life. Their names are Thomas and Betty. But I call them “Achen” and “Kochamma” — terms of endearment for parent-sorts in the south Indian state of Kerala. Achen was my site coordinator during my year of service in Kerala, and he is the person I credit most with my realizing a call to ministry.
Achen is a pastor in the Church of South India, who has long been an outspoken advocate for the poor. He is known throughout his church for demanding justice for those pushed to the margins, for urging the community to care for those struggling to make ends meet.
But home is where Achen and Kochamma quietly practice the faith Achen proclaims from the pulpit. I can’t tell you the number of times I arrived at their house to find one or the other comforting a family in crisis, or making calls to help the man waiting on their porch find work, or sharing a bag of rice with a neighbor in need. The neighborhood knew Achen and Kochamma. They knew of their generosity and care, their boundless compassion for the weary and heavy-laden.
What the neighborhood may not have known is what sustained Achen and Kochamma’s ministry. I knew because I sat at their table most mornings. The dining hall where I lived didn’t serve breakfast until after I needed to be on the bus. So Achen and Kochamma took me in. They prepared breakfast for me every weekday for a year. Table service, if I ever saw it.
Often, when I arrived, Achen and Kochamma were finishing their morning ritual. They’d be sitting at the kitchen table with cups of seasoned tea — still piping hot — immersing themselves in the word of God. It’s how they begin every day: in study and prayer … listening for the divine voice, resting in the presence of Christ. It’s one of the ways they practice a whole-hearted love for God, so that they might love their neighbors as themselves.
This is the rhythm of the Christian life: study and service, service and study. We are called to both: to sit at the feet of Jesus; to rise and join in Christ’s ministry. Given the plight of our neighbors, the brokenness of our world, it is easy to fixate on the tasks at hand: on the mouths that need feeding, the wrongs that need righting. It is easy to fixate on what we must do, on how we must serve. And that is right and good. But do not let the demands draw you away from the one who sustains us, from the one who invites us to sit and rest and feast on the good news. For only after we have taken our place at the feet of Jesus can we rise and witness to all the world: the kingdom of God has come near.
Become aware of God’s presence with joy and gratitude. Become aware of God’s presence with joy. Become aware of God’s presence. Become aware of God. Become aware.
Gracious God, you know there is a mountain of work to be carried out to spread your kingdom throughout the world – feeding people who are hungry like Martha did, visiting people who are lonely, healing people who are ill, comforting people who grieve, standing up for people who are mistreated, assisting those living in poverty, showing children that they are cherished, helping young people grasp the importance of faith – yes, Lord, the list seems endless and the challenges seem countless.
Yet, we will surely fall exhausted if we do not take time to sit at your feet like Mary and nourish our soul with spiritual food. It is easy to become worried and distracted and miss your words of wisdom, of grace, of guidance, of peace.
Remind each of us that we are a child of yours, loved for who we are, blessed by your beautiful creation, and a member of the household of faith.
If we are feeling guilt over wrongs we have committed or right actions we have omitted, we pray that we may accept your forgiveness and seek out and embrace new opportunities to get it right next time.
If anxiety robs us of serenity, help us to breathe deeply, to calm our monkey mind, and drink in your calming spirit of peace.
If exhaustion and weariness have become our normal state, may we rest in your presence and be reenergized by your grace.
If we grieve a loss, and the ground beneath our feet is no longer solid, show us reasons to rejoice and allow gladness to seep back into our soul.
If we are impatient with those around us or jealous of someone in our sphere, we ask that you will bless us with the gifts of patience and kindness so that we may develop a gentle heart.
God, we know that you urge us to act by nudging the world closer to your vision. Yet, we pray that we may never forget that every action draws its lifeblood from sitting at the feet of Jesus and being nourished by him.
Like Mary, may we carve out time each day to sit at the feet of Jesus and hear him say:
“Blessed are you who are hungry, for you will be filled.”
“I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”
“I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, they will live.”
Like Mary, may we soak in the teachings of Jesus and thereby receive the nourishment and the encouragement, the illumination and the inspiration to live the rich and exciting adventure you want us to live. After receiving a transfusion of wisdom and love, may we be bursting with joy, and energized by hope so that we can become partners with you in healing the world and spreading the divine realm on earth.
Now, we join our voices as one and pray the prayer he taught us to pray, saying:
Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever. Amen.
 Jane D. Schaberg and Sharon H. Ringe, “Gospel of Luke,” in Women’s Bible Commentary, edited by Carol A. Newsom, Sharon H. Ringe and Jacqueline E. Lapsley (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), 507.
 Periespato (Luke 10:40). The NRSV also renders another Greek word as “distracted” in 10:41.
 See Exodus 3:4; Genesis 46:2; and 1 Samuel 3:10.
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