Rev. Rebecca Heilman
(Luke 10:38-42)

“Where do you find yourself in this story?” This is a question my professor would ask after every narrative we read in my class. This simple question, of “where do you see yourself in the story” would stretch my self-awareness. There were days when I felt lower than low identifying with the troubled disciples. And there were those pompous days where I identified with Jesus. I never really liked those days either. Then there were those days that I didn’t see myself in the story at all. So I ask you as you listen to Luke 10, where do you find yourself in this story today? Starting with Verse 38, Luke writes about Mary and Martha, 38 Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39 She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 40 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.” 41 But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42 there is need of only one thing.[l] Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” Friends, The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Pray with me. Humble us, Lord, humble our spirit to hear your words.
In your name we pray, Amen.

I am the youngest of three. And because I am the youngest, I learned everything from my older brother and sister. My life was…pretty easy…as the youngest. Sorry, all you older siblings out there! When my little feet couldn’t keep up with my siblings, my brother would carry me on his shoulders. And when I couldn’t form words, no worries, my sister was so good at talking, she talked for me and for my brother too. And so, because I observed and learn everything from my older siblings, who argued like all siblings, I learned to mimic how to tattle-tell even before I could form my own words. There’s a story that my mom likes to tell of me being around a year and a half years old, running up to her, shaking my little finger and pointing the other finger at my siblings mimicking the motions and the tone of a tattle-tell with random, incomprehensible sounds. I just couldn’t help myself. I’m a natural rule follower and when my siblings stepped out of line, I never hesitated to let my parents know. Thank goodness it’s not so much that way anymore with my sibling relationships.

So, when we got to this story of Mary and Martha in my seminary class, I remember discussing and joking that I am a Martha living in a Mary world and that this story pushes and pulls at me in all sorts of directions. I am Martha through and through. Not only in how we perceive her to be a tattle tell, but also, because she is a worker bee. You haven’t really gotten to know me well in this sense yet. When it’s time to run an event or a program, it’s all hands-on deck, I am ready to work and I expect everyone else to do that as well. So, this is not a story I enjoy, I’ll be honest, and maybe some you feel that way too. Martha is not portrayed well. One woman is belittled over the other for her work, not to mention, a sister is up against another sister, at least at the initial read. But the initial read is not fair to either Mary or Martha. For if we compare the two siblings, as we so often do, we do little service to both women and to the interpretation of this text.

Context is everything to this story if we are to understand it clearly. At the beginning of this chapter, chapter 10, Jesus sends out around 70 disciples in pairs to every town and place to do God’s ministry. And then just a few verses later, Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan where there is the act of doing; doing good and loving service to one’s neighbor. When Jesus finishes the story, he says, “Go and do likewise.” And they are sent off again to do, do, do.

And so Jesus and those with him, went on their way to do, and it’s here, where they were welcomed by Martha into her home. Yes, Martha’s home! This already links us back to the beginning of the chapter, for the “work of Jesus and his disciples, and the mission they are on, clearly depended on the hospitality extended to them by people like Martha and Mary.” This visit with Martha and Mary is more than a pit stop. It’s more than a place for nourishment, for rest. By Martha “welcoming” or “receiving” Jesus into her home, Martha embraces Jesus’ mission. Her welcoming Jesus with hospitality was her way of showing her openness to the Word of God and work of God that is about to take place. And as we read, Martha demonstrates this openness and welcome to God’s mission by “doing” tasks to make the visit more comfortable and Mary, Mary demonstrates it differently.

Mary shows a different type of hospitality. Mary is sitting at Jesus’ feet, which already shows that Jesus brings a sort of liberation to women at that time because women were not allowed to study the Torah. The Greek says, Mary was listening, ekouen,
which is the imperfect tense to show that Mary was listening with intense concentration. Her entire self was present with God’s words. She was soaking it in as if she was a sponge. And so with Martha opening the doors of her home and Mary intensely listening to Jesus, Adele Reinhartz, a theologian, suggests, “we have come upon Martha and Mary in the very act of conversion.”

And the story continues, Mary’s intense concentration to Jesus’s Words is in contrast with Martha’s distraction of many tasks or translated more literally as “much service.” Martha is distracted from the act of conversion. She is pulled away, quite busy, she is overburdened by this “much service”. And I don’t mean to go into multiple Greek lessons today, but these Greek words are key to interpreting the text. The word “service” in Greek is diakonia and it’s a bit controversial in its meaning. The word diakonia or “service” can be associated with food service, such as preparing a meal, serving the food, but it can also mean “Christian ministry”. The controversy here is how do we translate this word and how do we view Martha in this story? When you lay out how often this word, diakonia or “service” has been used in the New Testament, you find that it is used more as a word for Christian service or ministry than for the alternative translation of food service. This passage does not place Martha in the kitchen. Absolutely not. Frances Taylor Gench, a theologian, enlightens her readers to it’s possible, “interpreters may have projected into the story their own assumptions about women’s roles.” It’s possible, that Martha is engaged with a more “eucharistic table service and proclamation of the word” instead of the service of food. A powerful statement that Martha, busy Martha, is actually doing the work of God. But regardless of whether it’s food preparation or ministry itself, Martha is distracted and goes to Jesus to say, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”

Jesus responds to Martha’s words of complaint about her sister’s lack of helping with “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset by many things…” It’s common for the author of Luke to write like this, using names twice. Luke does this to call the person to Jesus’s attention and then to imply a gentle reprimand. Another way of saying it is, “Martha, my beloved Martha, you are worried and upset by many things…” And here’s the kicker that is easy to miss, Jesus is not reprimanding Martha for her service, her ministry, or even her serving at all, Jesus is reprimanding Martha about the way her ministry has been done with fuss and agitation.

As you may well know, probably from all the late-night committee meetings, or emergency Room in the Inn calls, or when the sound in the sanctuary messes up, or when you receive another phone call from your pastor about a building issue, or when another person experiencing homelessness comes up to you for help, or when the Friendship Garden is overgrown, or when we can’t get in touch with a teacher at Nations Ford, or when the prayer list is so long and full of people we absolutely adore, or when the Sermon feels like it’s never going to end, as you know from all of this…ministry can be exhausting. It can be so so filling, and then it can be absolutely draining. It can be joyful and it can tug at our heart strings, then it can be time consuming. It can be communal and full of laughter and shoulders to cry on and then it can be just meetings after meetings after meetings. And so in those moments of ministry that we all know quite well, we are likely to find ourselves like Martha, distracted, anxious, and depleted by too many tasks. And let us not forget, on top of all that we do here, there are the many detractions in our everyday lives – the debilitating and horrific breaking news, the bill that may need to wait one more week until it can be paid, the parent or spouse or child that needs our constant watch, or the doctor that delivers soul-stopping news. Distractions like social media and distractions like that last-minute email before bed. Distractions like making a to-do list and then getting too distracted to even check it off. Maybe we get to that point where we ask with fuss and agitation, why do we even do this? Why do we do this to ourselves? Why is ministry important? What’s the point of all of this church stuff?

Martha understands those questions. She is burned out by her ministry and Jesus is concerned for her soul and how she is currently doing her ministry. He may be suggesting that there is a time to rest, find rejuvenation, find that passion again, reflect on why we do this, and then always, always listen to and for God’s words. Turid Karlsen Seim says, “It can thus be claimed that the fundamental antithesis is not between hearing and serving [in this story], but between hearing and agitated toil.” God through Jesus is calling Martha to attention. God is calling Martha to self-awareness so that she can continue to do God’s work without experiencing burnout. God is calling Martha to listen for the why and listen for the Word, with a capital “W”. For the Word of God informs our why.

The story of Mary and Martha reminds us to find time spent in silence. It reminds us to listen at Jesus’ feet and thereby engaging ourselves in the Word of God that empowers, centers and sustains our own service. And so here, it’s not sister against sister. It’s not one woman placed over another woman. It’s about finding the balance of hearing and doing and taking care of one’s self while serving God and the people of this world. Even John Calvin points out when interpreting this text that Mary is not going to sit at Jesus’ feet forever! She will get up and go back to her ministry! Jesus may have pointed out that Mary picked the good service for that day by sitting and listening, but it’s not the whole service. Remember, at the beginning of the chapter, Jesus sent people out in pairs to do God’s work and then after the parable of the Good Samaritan, he said to “Go and do likewise”.

This passage and the passages leading up to it, show that we need both Marthas and Marys. And then we need to find the balance of both Martha and Mary within ourselves in order to live out a life of discipleship and feel whole along the way. Fred Craddock writes. “If we censor Martha too harshly, she may abandon serving altogether, and if we commend Mary too profusely, she may sit there forever. There is a time to go and do; there is a time to listen and reflect. Knowing which and when is a matter of spiritual discernment. If we were to ask Jesus which example applies to us, the Samaritan or Mary, his answer would probably be, Yes.”

Pray with me. Loving God, we believe, help our unbelief. Amen.


[1] Frances Taylor Gench, Back to the Well: Women’s Encounters with Jesus in the Gospels (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 57.
[2] Gench, 60.
[3] Gench, 60.
[4] Gench, 60.
[5] Gench, 60.
[6] Gench, 80.
[7] Fred B. Craddock, Luke (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Peaching) (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990), 152.