Two Kinds of Discipleship: A Reflection on Mary and Martha in Luke 10:38–42

At times it is good for us to reflect on how we are going to go about walking the path before us. Such decisions are plentiful in our lives. When our son was born, there were thoughts about “the kind of parents” we purposed to be. Sometimes the way forward provides numerous options. As my dad likes to say, “There’s more than one way to skin a cat.” However, we also know that sometimes life, including the Christian life, provides us a fork in the road.

In Luke 10:38–42, we see an almost parabolic course taken by two sisters in their relationship with Jesus. In this familiar passage, Martha and Mary find themselves with Jesus as their guest. It is worth asking what in the world this passage has to do with the broader ministry of Jesus, and—frankly—what does it have to do with us? We know the Scriptures recount this with something much more in mind than to highlight the personality differences of these two sisters. I believe the purpose of this passage is to highlight two very different ways of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. This contrast we see in the examples of Martha and Mary.

The Way of Martha

“Martha welcomed him into her house.” (v. 38) No doubt Martha was full of hospitable zeal. It’s not every day you have the Messiah-King as your guest of honor, and this pious Jewish woman only hoped to be a worthy host. You probably have a Martha in your life. Maybe you are her. She (or he) is hospitable, hard-working, laser-focused on what needs to get done, and makes a mean turkey at Thanksgiving.

Now, I don’t want to be too hard on Martha. She has gotten a bad rap over the years. In John’s Gospel, after all, we are reminded that “Jesus loved Martha” (Jn 11:5). Furthermore, in the same account she displays a great deal of faith and hope in the midst of her brother Lazarus’ death (see Jn 11:22-27).

We need these folks, the Martha-types in the church. No one can argue that they know how to get things done. The problem is that such folks often feel this pressure and are overtly aware of what they perceive as everyone else’s lack of effort. We can picture Martha’s frenzied efforts when verse 40 states, “But Martha was distracted with much serving.”

This is what we see happening in verse 40 when “she went up to [Jesus] and said, Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.’” We can picture Martha’s frustration, contempt, and anxiety, and many of us identify with her. We feel the weight of what needs to get done and, indeed, there is always more to do!

What’s wrong with Martha’s frenzied pace, and trying to get Jesus to light a fire under Mary? The problem is that it misses the heart of discipleship, in which we do not first and foremost serve Jesus. He has come to serve us. Mark 10:45 states, “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” To miss the true heart of discipleship is to miss the mission of Jesus laid out in Luke 4:18-19,

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.    

If this is true, then whatever we have in mind for discipleship will likely have to be radically reimagined. Jesus “chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide.” (John 15:16) Galatians 5:22 tells us that this fruit includes “love, joy, peace, patience,” whereas according to verse 41 of our passage we see what Martha chose led her to be “anxious and troubled about many things.” Martha’s intentions were good, and ours may be as well, but we need a better way of being a disciple.

The Way of Mary

Mary’s better way is rooted in sitting “at the Lord’s feet and listening to his teaching.” This Jesus calls “the good portion, which will not be taken away.” In this I believe we are given a picture of the core of what being a disciple of Jesus is all about. It is not about us busying ourselves to ensure his approval, but it is about receiving his words. James 1:21 says to “receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.” This is a vital place at the feet of Jesus, and hearing his word has great effects. According to the Apostle Paul, “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” (Romans 10:17) This “word of Christ” creates faith and is at the same time received by faith. It works powerfully to save and bears fruit in our lives, as Jesus declares in John 15:3-5,

Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.

What word has such power? Has such a mighty effect yet comes to us so simply? It is nothing other than the good news of Jesus and the justification he freely gives: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith’” (Romans 1:16–17).

 This powerful message about and from Jesus is the touchstone of our discipleship because from it and by it the Holy Spirit gives us all that we need as disciples. “Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith—just as Abraham ‘believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness’?” (Galatians 3:5–6)

Ultimately, I think Martha got it. Just like Nicodemus, Peter, the disciples on the road to Emmaus, and you and me, Jesus needed to clarify that discipleship with this Rabbi was going to be very different from our natural understanding. Martha would go on to keep serving. It was her gift (see John 12:1–8) but now it was from a place of rest, from trusting and receiving from the Lord himself and all of his grace. He continually cared for her and supplied every bit of the love and mercy that she needed. He did this for her, and continues to do this for us, because as he said, “I am among you as one who serves.” (Luke 22:27)

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Nick Davis

Nick Davis is an ordination candidate in the Anglican Diocese of the Rocky Mountains. He earned his B.S. in Family Studies and Human Development from The University of Arizona and his Master of Divinity from Westminster Seminary California. He lives in Phoenix, AZ with his wife Janet and their baby boy Dallas.

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