Last week’s post examined Jesus and how he managed the dispute between two brothers. Today’s post examines Jesus’ response to the tension between two sisters, Mary and Martha, where Martha complained to Christ that Mary left her to do the work alone (Luke 10:38-42). Although this passage is generally interpreted as the importance of being with Jesus over other things or the importance of a contemplative life over an active one, it also demonstrates how Jesus sought to promote peace between siblings.
The visit took place in Martha’s house. The narrative suggests that Lazarus was not around on this occasion. This is inferred from another visit of Jesus in which the presence of Lazarus was indicated (John 12:1-2). There seems to be confusion about the number of guests that arrived at the house of Martha. The reason is the presence of singular and plural pronouns in the opening text: “Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home” (Luke 10:38). However, considering other parts of the gospels that show Jesus visiting the family with his disciples, it is most likely that Jesus went with his disciples on this occasion, too. (John 11:14-16; John 12:1-6).
Martha and Mary: Two different personalities
Martha and Mary have two different personalities, which played out in their relationship with Jesus and at that visit. As the elder sister, Martha demonstrates leadership and assumes responsibility for her siblings. Mary, on the other hand, is reflective and reserved. For instance, when Jesus was visiting Bethany at the death of Lazarus, Martha went out to welcome Jesus on the way while Mary remained at home. (John 11:20-33). At a supper organised for Jesus and his disciples, Martha did the serving while Mary took a pound of costly ointment of pure nard and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair (John 12:2-3). Therefore, in the passage of study, it is unsurprising that Martha was also committed to serving while Mary sat at the feet of Jesus, listening and reflecting on the word of God.
The Request of Martha
In the request, Martha said to Jesus – “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” This comment shows that Martha concluded that Mary did not want to assist her and that Jesus didn’t bother that Mary had left her alone to prepare a meal for many. There are probable reasons for this comment.
First, Martha may have believed that because Jesus never rebuffed Mary whenever she approached him, he indirectly encouraged Mary not to assist in serving. Second, when a guest is at home, at least one family member stays with the guest while other members prepare refreshments. As Lazarus was probably away, Mary needed to be with the guests while her sister organised the serving. Since Martha enjoyed an active life and it was her house, she wouldn’t have swapped roles with his sister. If Martha had signalled Mary to come for information, Mary would have obeyed, and she would have then asked for assistance in performing a particular culinary activity. Had Martha done this, there would not have been the need to complain. On the other hand, perhaps Martha had tried this, and it failed; therefore, she decided to get Jesus involved.
Third, Martha, perhaps as the eldest, was overbearing, and Mary had learned to avoid possible areas of confrontation. Since Martha loved serving and it was her kitchen, Mary gave her space. On the other hand, it could have been that as Martha loved serving, Mary formed the habit of leaving the serving to her. Perhaps Martha could no longer accept this habit and reported it to Jesus. Perhaps Martha may have gotten tired of working alone and not knowing how to convince her sister to assist her, reported to Jesus.
The Response of Jesus
To Martha’s request, Jesus responded, “ Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things, but few things are needed—indeed only one. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:38). This is another classic response from Jesus that sought to attend to the worry and distraction of Martha as well as promote peace among the two sisters. In this response, Jesus implicitly recognised that Mary and Martha made the right choices, although Mary made a better one.
It would have also discouraged Martha from being hospitable. Therefore, Jesus led Martha to understand that spiritual things were more important to him than food because his mission was spiritual. Putting this attitude succinctly, Jesus declared in another context: “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work” (John 4:33).
On the other hand, if Jesus had rebuked Mary or sent her back as Martha had wanted, he would have consciously pushed away a soul searching for him, an action contrary to his salvific mission of drawing all people to himself (John 12:32).
Nevertheless, one cannot say that Jesus chose the part of peace so that he would continue to enjoy Martha’s hospitality. It is absurd to think that the one who could multiply five loaves and two fish to feed more than five thousand people (Matt 14:13-21), the one who can make a large quantity of fish to gather in a place (Luke 5:5-6), the one who can generate money in the mouth of a fish (Matt 17:27), will sacrifice the truth for food. Jesus acted the way he did to promote peace between Martha and Mary.
Lessons from Jesus
(a) Appreciate the effort of both parties:
In mediation, appreciating the efforts of conflicting parties is fundamental. Jesus appreciated that Martha was good at service and Mary was good at contemplation. Both virtues are essential to being a good host, and Jesus benefited from both. By appreciating their efforts, Jesus prevented envy between the two sisters.
(b) Avoid actions and words that lead to conflict:
By asking Jesus to intervene, Martha wanted Jesus to send Mary to the kitchen. However, this request was inappropriate because this was not the reason why Jesus visited. More importantly, it was not Jesus who invited Mary to sit and listen to him, nor did he tell Martha to go and prepare a meal. Both made their choices, which should be respected. Therefore, Jesus based his response on the choices made by the sisters. By doing so, he avoided creating resentment among any of the sisters.
(c) Keep to the rules guiding your profession or vocation:
Jesus was never unequivocal that he had a spiritual mission. His response to Martha reminded her of his mission on earth. Of course, Martha was a woman of faith. In the context of the death of Lazarus, she said – “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died”, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world” (John 11:21,27). By sticking to his mission, Jesus reduced the misinterpretation of his words and actions.
(d) Focus on the essentials:
While conflict may have ancillary causes, conflict resolution focuses on the fundamental contentious issue. Although Martha knew and professed that Jesus was the Messiah, she somewhat rebuked Jesus for speaking to Mary. In responding, Jesus did not focus on the fact that Martha rebuked him irrespective of his divinity; instead, he focused on the most important thing – being with God. This was why Jesus’ response focused on being with God above other things.
May God continue to help us.🙏🏾
I am a priest of the Catholic Diocese of Okigwe, Nigeria, and an advocate of the indispensable role of religion in contemporary society. My academic background includes degrees in philosophy, theology, education, peace and conflict resolution, religion, and canon law. These studies give me a broad perspective that helps in an existential analysis of the teachings of Jesus Christ and the Catholic Church.