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  • Mariah Martin

Mary and Martha: A Lesson in Efficiency

Luke 10:38-42

Raise your hand if you identify with Mary in this story.

Raise your hand if you identify with Martha.

I am a Mary, through and through.

To be honest, I will take any excuse to get out of work.

Especially doing the dishes.

I try to avoid stressful and anxiety-producing situations like the plague.

If I could get away with not being helpful and instead pursuing creature comforts like lying in bed or doing nothing…I totally would.

Obviously my conscience and my desire to create and maintain strong relationships don’t allow me to do this, but my lazy spirit is very much alive and well.

I fear that, by admitting to and naming my laziness, then I will lose respect.

Maybe even a few of you are sitting there wondering, “why did we hire her again?”

A lazy preacher?

That is practically unheard of.

A preacher who won’t drown herself in busyness and tasks to the point of anxiety induced panic attacks and total burnout???

What have we done. Clearly we picked the wrong pastor.

As a working woman, a pastor, an American, it should be my religious, gendered, and civic duty to pull myself up by my bootstraps and work until I am bleeding, exhausted, or dead.

But if I am perceived as someone who doesn’t work hard and isn’t stressed

then I am perceived as spoiled, ungrateful, undeserving, entitled,

and all of the other nasty millennial stereotypes you can think of.

We wear stress and exhaustion as banners of pride,

as gold stars proving to the world that we are worthy of the respect that a good hardworking American deserves.

If I were in Mary and Martha’s house and Jesus came in for a visit,

there is no way I would be doing anything other than sitting my behind down at Jesus’ feet and soaking up some good ol’ rabbinic wisdom.

Mary would be left stranded in her work,

whatever she was doing, whether that was preparing a meal or performing some other discipleship, ministerial duty, while Mary and I relaxed and learned.

So why does Jesus seemingly affirm this inhospitable, un-American, unladylike, frankly lazy behavior?

Why didn’t Jesus tell Mary to pull her self up by her bootstraps and join in on the work….I mean other than the fact that Jesus was the farthest you could be from your average 21st century white American striving for the American dream….

Jesus’ puzzling interaction with Martha is very much that, a puzzle.

I read from more than ten commentaries and articles,

trying to figure out this confusing text.

I wanted to find out exactly why Jesus seemingly affirmed Mary and rebuffed or scolded Martha.

Pretty much every commentary had a different answer.

I am going to, almost rapid fire,

clue you in on some of the explanations I got.

--Jesus was oppressing Martha’s sense of agency and reinforcing the gender norm for women to be silent and learn from men.

--No, no, Jesus was empowering Mary and Martha by freeing them from the expectation to serve men and instead join his ministry and learn and serve with him as one of his disciples.

--Jesus wasn’t discouraging Martha’s hospitality but rather the anxious, distracted manner in which she was going about it.

--No, no Jesus wasn’t discouraging hospitality and hard work, but didn’t want Martha to force Mary to join in. Jesus was trying to preserve Mary’s free will to “choose the better portion”.

So what do we do with this story, which seems so simple, yet is clearly very complicated once you dig into it??

First of all we need to embrace the reality that there are more than two types of people in the world.

I had you raise your hands and pick if you were a Mary or a Martha,

but the more likely reality is that we are all a mixture of both.

Especially depending on our stage in life, our current circumstances, or our mood.

For example while my inclination would be to be like Mary, I also have an almost obsessive focus-mode that possesses me when I start a task that I feel excited about.

I call this “go-mode” inspired by my very Martha-like friend.

How do you think I managed to write this sermon?

Not by lying in bed---although admittedly I did wear the most comfortable clothing that I could pull off while writing in public.

We all have a Mary and a Martha inside of us.

And that is ok.

If you have a sister, a sibling, or any sort of important relationship in your life,

then you know that life is a lot easier when accept them as they are

—resisting the urge to force them to do what you want them to do.

It is an inconvenient reality of relationships that we can’t make anyone do anything we want them to do or be anyone that they aren’t.

Those are the easy takeaways from this text.

There is no “good sister” or “bad sister” we all have a mixture of both.

And we can’t control others.

We could stop with these two perfectly good lessons.

But I can’t help but feel like there is more to be uncovered.

We haven’t looked into the last part of the story.

What does Jesus mean when he says “there is need for only one thing”?

What does he mean by the “better part” sometimes translated as “better portion”?

To find out we need to take a step back.

Zoom out a bit and look at the context of this story in Luke.

The story immediately before this one is when Jesus tells a lawyer what the greatest commandment is.

The lawyer wanted a short-cut, a “life-hack” so to say, in order to find salvation without messing with all of the 613 laws in the Hebrew Bible.

But Jesus, being his clever self, basically tells the man that he has to follow all of the laws for they are all summed up by the Greatest Commandment,

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.”

Pushing further the lawyer asks Jesus who exactly is his neighbor,

and Jesus responds by telling the story of the good Samaritan,

you know, the one about the injured man who lay dying in the street and only the outcast, the “other”, the foe to the Jews, the Samaritan, chooses to stop and go out of his way to help the man left for dead.

A fun fact about Luke, the author of this gospel and Acts, is that he was a big fan of pairs.

Not the fruit, p a i r, as in two.

He would often link two stories together---usually one story featuring a man as the main character, the other featuring a woman.

For example, Luke links together the parable of the lost sheep and the parable of the lost coin.

The story of the good Samaritan and the story of Mary and Martha fit this rhetorical pattern of pairs.

But the stories have opposing messages.

One is an active model of discipleship and the other is contemplative.

One is go and do the other stay and be.

One is an example for how to love your neighbor and the other gives us an example of how to love God.

Sound familiar?

Love the lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and love your neighbor as yourself.

That clever, genius Luke laid it all out for us yet we are so busy pitting ourselves against one another as “Mary’s” vs “Martha’s” that we miss the whole point.

This story is not a dig at hard work.

It is not a dig at women’s roles within ministry.

This story is not shaming Martha’s hospitality.

This story is a beautiful example of how to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.

To make the Martha’s of the world happy, Jesus was not scolding Martha, far from it actually---Jesus was telling Martha the most efficient way to love him in that moment.

This is a story about efficiency.

Not in work, but in love.

It is a story showing us how to love well.

Mary was trying to show her love for Jesus, but her effort was misplaced.

This lesson on efficiency isn’t ‘how to work hard like Martha’ this is a lesson on how to love someone the way they want to be loved.

Have people heard of the book called the “5 Love Languages” by Gary Chapman?

This book says that, just like people speak different languages,

we all have a language that we use to express and receive love.

And we each have a dominant language that we are most comfortable with and best at giving and receiving.

The five love languages are:

1. Gifts

2. Words of Affirmation

3. Touch

4. Quality Time

5. Acts of Service

I believe that, in the story of Mary and Martha, Jesus is giving a lesson in love languages.

The whole point of learning your own love language and the love language of others is to love more efficiently.

To be able to recognize an expression of love.

To better ask for what we need.

Ex: Flowers vs compliments

We are not going to feel loved or appreciated fully if our partner is not speaking our love language.

In this story Luke provided an example of how to love God.

We see Jesus, not reprimanding an already anxious Martha, but gently inviting her to love him the way that he wanted to be loved in that moment.

Not the way that she thought she was expected to or “should” love him.

Martha was trying to show love through acts of service, but Jesus wanted to receive love through quality time.

He was saying, “fine you can work hard, but work hard while sitting next to me and spending time with me, work hard at growing our friendship, work hard at listening well.”

There is no shortcut or love “hack”.

We must take the time to learn how we are best loved and how others are best loved.

Yes, Jesus asked us to love our neighbor as ourselves,

but that meant that we need to learn how to love ourselves and then learn how to love our neighbor.

We love our neighbor as ourselves,

but maybe not in the same way that we love ourselves.

And in order to love God we must spend time at Jesus’ feet listening, soaking up the presence of our teacher, leader, savior, and creator.

One difficulty we run into when we try to take time to love one another or spend time with God is the voice inside our head that tells us we are wasting time.

“There are dishes that need to be done, why am I helping my best friend hold a funeral for her cat?”

“Laundry needs to be folded, who am I to sit and enjoy this tea and quiet time with God?”

Yes, I struggle with motivation to do the dishes and I might be prone to laziness, but I don’t struggle to prioritize relationships.

If you cat dies, I will be the first to write a eulogy about its precious life.

If you want someone to sit with, drink tea, and talk about…anything, I will be there.

Maybe if we pause our anxious, distracted attempts to prove that we are the best and hardest worker, woman, American, disciple---then we will hear God beckoning us to come, sit, listen.

Jesus gave Mary the gift of permission to set down her work and join him in the Holy task of sitting in the presence of one another.

And we see in Jesus that it is ok to take the time to receive, to cherish this gift. To say yes to God’s call. To sit at Jesus’ feet. To be lazy with our Lord.

When we take the time to love efficiently, to love well, then we will truly know and embody the one thing, the good portion---the greatest commandment.

To love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and love your neighbor as yourself. (the way they need to be loved)…I added that last bit.

It looks like we have work to do. So lets get busy…or not…whatever works for you.


Works Consulted

Abingdon New Testament

Robert C. Tannehill

Martha, You Don’t have to be Mary

Sandra McCracken

Interpretation Luke

Fred B. Craddock

Raised From Obscurity: A Narratival and Theological Study of the Women in Luke Acts

Greg D. Forbes

Scott D. Harrower

The New Testament Library


A Commentary by John T. Carroll

Searching the Scriptures: A Feminist Commentary

Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza

Africa Bible Commentary

Back to the Well: Women’s encounters with Jesus in the Gospels

Frances Taylor Gench

Jordan-Lake, Joy. “Jesus Makes Me Nervous: Mary, Martha and Me.” The Christian Century 111, no. 22 (July 27, 1994): 711–12. McCracken, Sandra. “Martha, You Dont Have to Be Mary: In Luke’s Famous Sister Rivalry,

Jesus Isn’t Warning against Busyness. He’s Inviting Us to Something Better.” Christianity Today 62, no. 4 (May 2018): 28–28.

Tinker, Melvin. “Friends: The One with Jesus, Martha, and Mary; An Answer to Kierkegaard.” Themelios 36, no. 3 (November 2011): 457–67.

Painting by He Qi

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