The Point of the Story of Mary and Martha
Have you ever noticed that the story of Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42) comes right after the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37)?
There is a purpose in that — the authors of the gospels arranged their material very carefully, with thought and intention.
The connection between the two is not hard to see. The story of Mary and Martha is intended, in part, to correct a possible misunderstanding of the parable of the Good Samaritan.
The parable of the Good Samaritan tells us how we are to be as Christians — we are to show mercy to others whenever the opportunity is before us, and indeed we are to seek out opportunities to do good and serve. We are to “go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37), just as the Samaritan did. This is what it means to “love your neighbor as yourself” (v. 27).
But we could mis-apply that by allowing true service to transform into mere busyness. This is what we see with Mary and Martha. Mary “sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching” (v. 39). Martha, on the other hand, “was distracted with much serving” (v. 40). When Martha asked Jesus to rebuke Mary and help her serve, Jesus said “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her” (vv. 41-42).
The lesson: Do indeed be radical in doing good, just like the Good Samaritan (v. 37). But don’t take this to mean that you should be scrambling around frantically, over-committing yourself and becoming over busy. We ought to sacrifice and endure hardship. But don’t let your service to others distract you from the ultimate reason for your service, which is Jesus himself.
Serve, but don’t be frantic. Sacrifice and go out of your way, but don’t neglect devoted time to worship and prayer and reading the Bible. The point of seeing these things together here in Luke 10 is that there is enough time for both. Don’t let your service turn into frenetic anxiety.
And here’s one other thought: We also see here that God values — indeed, requires — both action and thought. Radical action for good is illustrated in the Good Samaritan. And deep consideration of the teaching of Jesus is modeled in the story of Mary and Martha. Don’t play doing and thinking off against one another. Do both. There is time for both and, ironically, each serves the other.