The better part: context

marthamarybyheqichina38 As they continued their journey he entered a village where a woman whose name was Martha welcomed him. 39 She had a sister named Mary (who) sat beside the Lord at his feet listening to him speak. 40 Martha, burdened with much serving, came to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? Tell her to help me.” 41 The Lord said to her in reply, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. 42 There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.”

Our pericope (story) has an immediate context:

  • Jesus sending out on mission the 72 other disciples to proclaim the Kingdom of God
  • A scholar of the Law who quizzes Jesus, who in response tells the parable of the Good Samaritan, asking who acted as neighbor?
  • Our passage herein, the oft told story of Martha and Mary
  • Immediately followed by Jesus teaching his disciples to be persistent in prayer

Two weeks previous we studied the pericope of the 72 other disciples who were sent on mission and returned praising God. “23 Turning to the disciples in private he [Jesus] said, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see. 24 For I say to you, many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.” (Luke 10:1-10,12-17). Jesus has thanked the Father for hiding “these things” from “the wise and the learned” (v.21). Last week a “scholar of the law,” whom we would think is wise and learned, comes to test Jesus. In response Jesus tells a parable (the Good Samaritan) in which other wise and learned men, religious leaders of Israel “see” the man in the ditch (vv. 31-32). The question is will they “see” what Jesus desire to reveal to them or will it be hidden from them?

This week we have the well told pericope of Martha and Mary, sisters of Lazarus whom Jesus will raise from the dead.  An interesting contrast is presented with these two texts. The lawyer asks, “What must I do? (v. 25) and he is told twice to “do this” (poieo v.28, v.37; the present tense in Greek would mean “continuously do”). This emphasis on “doing” could easily become the busyness of Martha. This busyness is in contrast to the continual listening of Mary (v.39). In both stories there are unexpected actions — a Samaritan who cares and helps a Jewish man; and a woman who sits as a disciple and listens and learns. The Samaritan is told to “go and do likewise,” while Mary is praised for not going and doing, but rather being present and listening. Looking at these stories together, it suggests that the contrast is not between doing and listening, but between being anxious and not. Green (The Gospel of Luke) notes in a footnote (p. 436) that the contrast is not really between Martha’s doing or service and Mary’s listening, but between “hearing the word” (namely, discipleship) and “anxious” behavior (namely, the antithesis of discipleship).

Culpepper (Luke, New Interpreter’s Bible, 231) makes these observations:

The story of the good Samaritan then develops the meaning of the command to love one’s neighbor, and the story of Mary and Martha highlights the overriding importance of devotion to the Lord’s Word as an expression of one’s love for God. The story of the good Samaritan features “a certain man” (v. 30), while Martha is introduced as “a certain woman” (v. 38). The good Samaritan exemplifies the disciples’ seeing; in a similar way, Mary exemplifies the virtue of hearing (see 10:23-24). Moreover, both the Samaritan and Mary, a woman, represent marginalized persons — unlikely heroes. As a composite, they are model disciples: “those who hear the word of God and do it” (8:21).

All of the above is a continuation of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem (begun in 9:51) – where hospitality had been refused by the Samaritan villagers.  Here in our passage, Jesus and the disciples are welcomed into a home by Martha.

Sources

  • R. Allen Culpepper Luke, vol. 9 in New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary (Nashville, TN.: Abington, 1995)
  • Scripture quotes from New American Bible by Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. © 1991, 1986, 1970
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