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.

  • Steve

    Hi Matt,

    Another take on the parable of the Good Samaritan, “Only God is Good, Including Samaritans,” here:

    Thanks for your blog, it is helpful.


  • Matt


    Thanks for the link. I agree that the first point of the parable is to show us that we cannot become right with God through our works. That’s clear for all the reasons you give, and the parallel with the rich young ruler is right on.

    However, having encountered and confessed our inability to keep the law and looking to the gospel for justification instead, the gospel then frees us to obey the law. So this is, secondarily, a lesson for Christian ethics: we are indeed to be like the Samaritan. We will not do it perfectly, and it is not the means to justification, but having been justified, this is how we are to live.

    This is born out by the fact that the NT authors quote “love your neighbor as yourself” as normative for Christians all over the place — Romans 13:8-10; Gal 5:14; James 2:8. And the good Samaritan is the best exposition of what loving your neighbor as yourself actually means.

    You seem to make this point at the end. But you seem to downplay the importance of this parable for Christian ethics. I don’t think it’s necessary to do that. It can be a both/and here: the first purpose of this parable, as with the Law, is to lead us to despair of being accepted by our obedience and drive us to the gospel. Then, having been accepted by God apart from works, the law (and this parable) shows us how to live — and we start to live that way, however imperfectly, because the gospel frees us to obey the law.

    I think you’d agree with all of that; I just think your post seems to downplay it too much at the start.

  • Steve

    Thanks, Matt (though, just to clarify, it is not my post), but I appreciate your thoughtful interaction.

    Yes, I agree on the “third use of the Law” (i.e., the ethics), as it were. Though in our current climate, I find it often necessary to emphasize Jesus’ main point (“first use”) before moving on to its application in a life of repentance. This is why I appreciated that post.

    There are still a lot of self-justifying lawyers running around!

    Thank you again for your work here, Matt. Press on.

  • Matt

    Amen! I agree.

  • Dan

    Hi Matt–great post! I tend to think that an important point in the Gospels when it comes to showing mercy (this also shows up when the disciples are concerned about the woman pouring perfume on Jesus’ feet) is this: We must be careful not to love anything–even very good things like showing mercy–more than we love Jesus.

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