38 Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 40But 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.’ 41But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42there is need of only one thing.* Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’
“As they went on their way”; Luke does not set this story in a particular time-frame, nor does he name the village (John says that the sisters lived in Bethany with their brother Lazarus). For Luke, it is how the sisters respond to a visit from Jesus that is important. Martha welcomes him, including his disciples, to her home. And then she gets very busy; there is food to prepare; she must make sure the servants are washing everyone’s feet; there are beds to arrange. A myriad of tasks have Martha pre-occupied, distracted. They are necessary tasks, but her total absorption with doing them perfectly – that is overkill. She is, perhaps, seeking to impress her important guest?
But Martha’s sister, Mary, doesn’t care if there is dust, or if the table is set and arranged perfectly. She wants to hear every word Jesus says, and so she sits at his feet and listens. That angers Martha, who, after all, expects help from her sister for all the many tasks she has to do, and she comes to Jesus, asking him to tell her sister to get up and help!
Interesting, isn’t it, that yesterday a young man asked Jesus to tell his brother to share the inheritance, and now the next story is about a woman asking Jesus to tell her sister to help with the housework? Is Luke, by his arrangement of these stories, saying something to us about getting along with our brothers and sisters? Notice as well, in neither of these stories does Jesus accede to the wishes of the questioner – he does not tell the brother to share the inheritance, nor does he tell Mary to help with the housework.
Jesus tells Martha that she is worried and distracted by many things, but only one thing is really needed. Mary has chosen the better part, he says, and it will not be taken from her. It was an unusual thing that Mary had chosen. In their society, women worked behind the scenes, serving. Mary chose to sit at the feet of the Master, as disciples (male disciples) and boys in the synagogue schools did, listening and learning. And Jesus allows it! Jesus permits Mary to break the gender roles assigned in her society, to learn and to absorb all that he is saying. Martha was thinking of Mary as being lazy, not doing her part, breaking the rules, and it made her angry. Jesus saw that Mary was absorbing his words, worshiping, learning as she had never been given opportunity to do. He loved seeing that excitement about learning – every teacher knows what that feels like, to see the spark and excitement of really learning in a student – and he wasn’t about to put a damper on it.
We are often asked to consider taking time away, time for learning and growth, as Mary did – and that is one essential message of the story – remembering that the time spent listening to Jesus, time in prayer and contemplation, is more important than our busy-work. But Mary was also a rebel, who chose for herself a role that would have been scorned in her society, and we should remember that as well.