Martha, Martha
Based on Series of Sermons on the Repetition of Name and Titles
preached in PCC Worship Services, Apr 2013 to Feb 2014
Part 1 of 2

We have been considering those passages of scripture which contain name repetitions, and we now come to Luke 10:38-42, where Martha’s name is repeated. Luke is the only gospel writer to record this incident.

In this article, we will make some observations from the text and in the next, some applications.


Verses 38-39a, “Now it came to pass, as they went, that he entered into a certain village: and a certain woman named Martha received him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary…”

Luke does not tell us where Martha’s house is located but elsewhere in John chapter 11, we learn that she and her siblings lived in Bethany, which was about 3 kilometres from Jerusalem.

By saying that Martha received Jesus into her house, Luke is suggesting that Martha was the older of the two sisters and that she was the mistress of the household. This was her house and she was the hostess.    

Again from John’s gospel, we learn that Martha had a brother named Lazarus, who was probably younger than her, and her sister Mary anointed the Lord’s feet with precious ointment and wiped them with her hair just a couple of days before His crucifixion and burial. This family was very dear to the Lord Jesus. John 11:5 says, “Now Jesus loved Martha, and her sister, and Lazarus.”

Verse 39 goes on to tell us something else about Martha’s sister Mary, namely, that she sat at Jesus' feet, and heard his word. Sitting at the feet of a person indicates a place of submission to him, and a posture of discipleship and learning.

In Acts 22:3, the apostle Paul told the Jewish crowd at Jerusalem, “I am verily a man which am a Jew, born in Tarsus, a city in Cilicia, yet brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel.” According to Acts 5:34, Gamaliel was a member of the Sanhedrin and a well-known Pharisee and teacher of the law.

So here in Luke 10:39, Mary takes up the posture of a humble disciple or learner of Jesus. She was very eager and keen to learn from the Master Teacher. The verb “heard” is in the imperfect tense and could be translated “was hearing.” Mary was hearing His words. The idea is one of continual listening and learning. She went on listening to His instruction. 

Now we may not think much of this apart from the fact that Mary was a good student of Jesus. But in light of the historical and cultural situation of the first century, what Mary did was unusual and surprising. In those days, women were generally despised by men and occupied a lowly position in society. Men and women did not usually have conversations, and according to the writings of some rabbis, women were not encouraged to learn the law from rabbis or even from their own fathers.

But Christ went against the culture and practice of the day. Not only did He not despise women, but they had a very important role to play in His life and ministry, and He welcomed and even encouraged them to hear and learn the word of God. Unfortunately, not everyone was pleased that day with Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus to learn of Him.

Verse 40 says, “But Martha was cumbered about much serving, and came to him, and said, Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone? bid her therefore that she help me.”

Perhaps Martha too had been conditioned by the culture to think that it was not a woman’s place to be sitting at the feet of the teacher to learn of him. Rather, her only place ought to have been with her in the kitchen helping out with all the meal preparations.

Luke tells us that Martha had much serving to do. She had a lot to prepare and to do for all the guests who had come to her home and there was no one to help her. She was doing it all by herself. How was she going to get everything ready in good time? It would have been difficult even with Mary helping her but without Mary, it would have been absolutely impossible!

And so she was troubled and upset. She felt that the one who should be helping her had abandoned her to do everything by herself. Mary, her younger sister, had deserted and forsaken her in order to listen to Jesus teach. How could she do that! Her feeling of dissatisfaction and frustration kept growing until it came to a point when she could take it no more. She stopped her work and went right up to Jesus and spoke to Him. She felt she had very good reason to be annoyed and she was justified in expressing that annoyance. She complained to Jesus about her sister abandoning her, saying, “Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone?”

Not only did Martha complain that Mary had deserted her, we can also find, in her words, a complaint against the Lord Himself. “Lord, do you not care…”     The implication is that He was not being sensitive to her situation and predicament. He had allowed Mary to just sit there idly and not help her while she was busily doing everything by herself. And so she addressed the Lord and requested Him to speak to her delinquent and idle sister so that she would take up her rightful position, and perform her rightful duty.

What Martha did and said to the Lord is not too far off from what the disciples did and said while they were in the midst of the storm on the Sea of Galilee. In Mark 4:38, we read, “and they awake him, and say unto him, Master, carest thou not (or don’t you care) that we perish?”

Or to say it in another way, “Master, how can you continue sleeping and leave us to face this terrible storm all alone! We cannot do the work all by ourselves. We will perish and die in it. Aren’t you concerned that we are on the brink of destruction?” The Lord got up, rebuked His disciples for their lack of faith, then rebuked the winds and the sea and calmed it, and finally rebuked His disciples again for their lack of faith.

But coming back to our text, Martha felt herself drowning in all the work that she had to do. She cried out to the Lord to intervene in order to bring her relief, and in the process, she rebuked Him implicitly for His lack of care for her plight and predicament.    

Well, as on the Sea of Galilee, the Lord spoke a word of rebuke in order to still the storm that was raging in Martha’s heart. Verse 41, “And Jesus answered and said unto her, Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things…” Quite clearly, the Lord did not agree with her assessment of what was going on and He gently rebuked her for her wrong attitude and action.

This repetition of her name was a sign of emotion, particularly of tender affection and love for her. Yes, there is no question that the Lord was rebuking Martha, but He did so, not in a harsh or angry way, but with much affection for her and out of genuine concern for her spiritual well-being. Martha was one of His sheep. She had, as it were, wandered off and gone astray even in the very midst of trying to serve Him! And so the Good Shepherd sought to gently and tenderly bring her back to the right path.

“Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things…” The Lord acknowledged that Martha was very anxious and burdened and troubled about many things. It was not simply a case of Martha exaggerating her situation and making it sound worse than it really was. Luke tells us in verse 40 that Martha was cumbered about much serving. That phrase can be translated, “busy or distracted or overburdened with much serving.” She had a lot of preparations to do. She had a lot on her plate, both literally and figuratively! But notice that the Lord did not brush aside her problem or trivialize it as if it was not really an issue. No, He takes her problems and concerns seriously. He treats her with care and sensitivity.

Contrary to what Martha thought and suggested in verse 40 that the Lord did not care about her, the Lord did truly care about her. “Martha, Martha, I know that you are troubled and overburdened about many things.” And so because He cared about her, He went on to give her His word of counsel in verse 42, “But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.”

Now please understand that the Lord was not saying or even suggesting that ministry and service in physical things is not important. The Lord was not saying that things like meal preparations were of no value and that the only thing a person ever needed to do was to hear Him teach. We know that from many other passages of scripture beginning with the one immediately before our text, namely, the parable of the Good Samaritan.

And then beyond that, there is the equally well-known parable of the sheep and the goat in Matthew chapter 25 where the Lord commended the sheep for showing love and care to His people, but rebuked the goats for not doing so. The Lord said to the sheep, “For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me” (Mt 25:35-36) Then when the sheep were surprised and asked the Lord when they ever did such things to Him, the Lord replied, “Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Mt 25:40)

We could go on to cite many more examples of the importance of the Lord’s people ministering to others in physical or outward things. The Lord requires it and He is well-pleased when His people do so.

And so when He told Martha that she ought not to careful and troubled about these things and that Mary had chosen the better part, He was not telling her that meeting the physical needs of others was not important or of no value. Rather, He was telling her that while these things are important, they must never be done at the expense of hearing God’s word. One commentator puts is so well when he says, “Service of the hand cannot supersede service with the ear, since the ear guides the heart and the hand.” In other words, the Lord was teaching Martha that there is indeed to be a proper order and priority in serving Him. Mary had gotten her priorities right. It was not that she was delinquent or negligent or unwilling to do her duties.

In fact, most probably she was serving and ministering at an earlier time based on the words of Martha in verse 40 when she said, “Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone?” I think it is reasonable to imply from that verse that Mary was actually helping Martha until the Lord began His lesson and then she left serving to sit at Jesus’ feet. Mary knew what was the more important of the two things at that particular time. The one thing that was really needful at that time was to sit at the feet of Jesus to learn of Him. Mary understood that and she acted rightly. She chose that good part, that is, she chose what was better, as our Lord said.

And what she had chosen will not be taken away. Why? Because to have the word of God as your portion is to have God as your portion, and both God and His word are eternal and unfailing.  In other words, the person who has God’s word and thus God Himself as his or her portion will never be disappointed or let down. No one and nothing can ever rob that person of what he or she has obtained from Christ.

Martha was wrong in being unhappy with her sister and indeed with the Lord Himself. She had her priorities all wrong. She needed to learn from her younger sister to choose the good portion which will never be taken away from her. She needed to stop for a season and attend to the preaching and teaching of Christ before going back to her work later on.

…to be continued next issue

Linus Chua