Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at

Luke 10.38-42
Proper 11 - Year C

Other texts:


The Martha and Mary text (Luke 10:38-42) should not be studied apart from the lawyer's question and the parable of the Good Samaritan that precedes it (Luke 10:25-37). Significant contrasts are presented. The lawyer is told twice to "continually do this" or "keep on doing this" (28 & 37 -- present tense in Greek = continual or repeated actions) -- which could easily become the busy-ness of Martha -- especially when she uses traditional words for "service" or "ministry" -- diakonia/diakoneo both used in v. 40 ("tasks" and "do work" in NRSV) -- in contrast to the "continual listening" (imperfect in Greek = continual or repeated actions in the past) of Mary (v. 39). 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). Is worrying an indication of unbelief or lack of trust in God? Is it possible not to worry when a child is supposed to call when s/he arrives at the destination, and hours after the estimated time of arrival there is no phone call? (When that happened to us with our 20-something son, we called the highway patrol. We called the sheriff's department. As they predicted, there was nothing wrong except a forgetful child, but that didn't keep us from worrying and praying for seven hours when he seemed "lost".) Is it possible not to worry when the money in the checking account is not enough to cover the bills -- whether an individual, family, or church? How do we combat worry and anxiety? Telling someone, "Don't worry," just keeps their mind on worrying. (It's like telling someone, "Don't think of a big, blue elephant." What immediately comes to mind?) It seems to me that encouraging thankfulness helps drive away worries. Fill one's mind with thanksgiving for what has happened, rather than worry about what might happen.

Besides this contrast, in both stories there are unexpected actions -- a Samaritan who cares and helps (presumably a Jewish man in need); and a woman who sits and listens and learns as a disciple. First century, Jewish society, would not have expected either person to be praised for their actions.

Culpepper (Luke, New Interpreter's Bible) 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). [p. 231]

As Jesus told the disciples, they are to stay and eat in people's homes, so Jesus is doing in our text. Sometimes they and their message will be welcomed (10:5-8), sometimes not (9:52-53; 10:10-12).

Martha welcomes Jesus and his group. She demonstrates the proper response of hospitality -- of setting food before the disciples, but as Tannehill (Luke) notes:

In 10:5-9 receiving the messengers seemed equivalent to receiving the message. The story of Martha and Mary adds a qualification to that simple assumption: The task of hospitality may actually distract one from the message. Hospitality was very important to the early church, but this story cautions that preoccupation with arrangements can lead one to lose contact with the community's real purpose. This is especially apparent when a woman cannot graciously allow a sister to spend time listening to the Lord's word. [p. 187]


Some contrasts within our text:

Mary is sitting beside Jesus at his feet

Martha stands over Jesus (a more literal meaning of ephistemai in v. 40, translated "come" in NRSV). While this word can simply mean "to stand near or by," it also carries the idea of "to stand or be over" and even "to oppose". There is a sense that Martha is opposing what Jesus and Mary are doing. Mary should be doing something else -- namely, helping Martha be a good hostess -- doing the proper "womanly" duties.

Do men serve on the altar guild? Are women (or children) allowed to usher? I've known congregations that only allowed boys to be acolytes. Do our congregations continue some of the gender-based stereotypes?

Mary was listening to Jesus' word or logic or message (logos in the singular)

Martha speaks to Jesus.

Culpepper simply states it: "Martha presumes to tell Jesus what he should do; Mary lets Jesus tell her what she should do."

Yet, as we shall see next week, Jesus is clear about the importance of persistence in prayer, e.g., the friend at midnight (11:5-8), the widow before the judge (18:1-8). Telling God repeatedly what we want God to do is not necessarily bad! However, Martha's words, like the Pharisee's prayer in Luke 18:9-14, indicate flaws in their motivations.

Green (The Gospel of Luke) makes some interesting observations:

Though v 38 suggested nothing negative about the nature of Martha's welcome, it is with respect to her hospitality that she is contrasted with Mary. Here and in v 41, she is characterized as one who serves, normally a positive quality in Luke, but whose service is marked by distractions and worry that conflict with the growth and expression of authentic faith (see 8:14; 12:22, 26). Indeed, Martha's address to Jesus takes an unexpected, perhaps unconscious turn; while she engages in the irony of self-betrayal, her attempt to win Jesus' support in a struggle against her sister ends in self-indictment. The nature of hospitality for which Jesus seeks is realized in attending to one's guest, yet Martha's speech is centered on "me"-talk (3 times). Though she refers to Jesus as "Lord," she is concerned to engage his assistance in her plans, not to learn from him his. [pp. 436-7]

This theme is likely to be an important one in many congregations where the concern is maintenance -- where there is a lot of "us"-talk couched in the language of outreach. For example, I've often heard council members say something like, "We need to grow so that we will have enough money to pay our bills." This that sentence really about evangelism or about a corporate "me"? An indication of corporate self-centeredness?


"be distracted" (NRSV) in v. 40 is perispaomai in Greek, a word used only here in the NT. Perhaps most literally this word means "to be pulled from all directions" -- spaomai = "to be pulled" + peri = "from around"

What are the opposing forces pulling at Martha? What are opposing forces pulling at our lives? How do we put the important things first? The popularity of the book First Things First, by Covey, et. al., and The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren, indicates that it is a growing need among our people to learn how to determine their priorities and then to actually make them priorities in their weekly schedules.

Related to this, how many ministers state that preaching is one of their highest priorities, yet would their weekly schedules indicate that sermon preparation is actually a top priority?


There are three Greek words that have similar meanings of inner anxiety:

Martha's works use some important church words:

While these words have a meaning of "waiting on tables" or "serving guests" -- they also became technical terms for Christian service or ministry. The words have been transliterated into English as "deacon" and related terms. When can even our "religious" service or ministry become the too anxious busy-work of Martha? For example, a pastor who is unwilling to take a day of rest. Or a friend of mine volunteered for all kinds of different church related boards and committees and did an excellent job. She often talked about the priority of her family, four young children four years apart. But it was like being hit with a baseball bat when someone told her, "Every time you say 'yes' to one of these volunteer positions, you are saying 'no' to your family."

Martha's work is certainly important. I spent time traveling with gospel teams. Almost always we relied on the hospitality of strangers for our "bed and board." Her work is commendable. Her anxiety and compulsion about it is not.

We end our liturgy with, "Go in peace. Serve the Lord." Some have suggested that we should be charged to "serve our neighbor" instead. Serving others is certainly not a bad thing. Anxiety is not healthy. Perhaps that's why there is a statement about peace in this dismissal. We should experience peace and joy in our serving.

Jesus doesn't criticize Martha for her "service," but for her worries and anxieties about many things -- a life that is being pulled in too many directions. We don't live by bread alone -- dinner can be a little late or a little burnt. Jesus doesn't need an elaborate multi-course feast. Everything doesn't have to be quite perfect. When is enough enough? Yet, at the same time, I can be quickly offended by sloppiness in worship or other church programs. Everything doesn't have to be perfect, but neither should we strive for mediocrity or seek to "just get by".

Perhaps, also, Jesus may be criticizing her for "opposing" his radical departure from the cultural norm by treating Mary, a female, as a disciple.

From Craddock (Luke, Interpretation Commentary):

If we censure Martha too harshly, she may abandon serving altogether, and if we commend Mary too profusely, she may sit there forever. There is a time to go and do; there is a time to listen and reflect. Knowing which and when is a matter of spiritual discernment. If we were to ask Jesus which example applies to us, the Samaritan or Mary, his answer would probably be Yes.

The lawyer in the preceding story was skilled in scripture but had trouble really hearing the Word of God. He is given the example of a Samaritan who does the Word of God -- someone the lawyer wouldn't have expected to properly understand scriptures.

Martha was so anxious about doing that she had trouble hearing the word of God. She is given the example of Mary -- a woman who should have been working in the kitchen just as hard as Martha -- and Jesus should have known better. Proper rabbis do not let women to sit at their feet and be disciples.

There is a time to "go and do" and a time to "sit and listen". Can we help our people understand the importance to their faith of coming to church or even committee meetings to "sit and listen" -- and not to do? Yet, at the same time, to have them take seriously our dismissal of "Go in peace. Serve the Lord." Their lives after the "sitting and listening" of corporate worship means continuing to worship God by lives of active service. In addition, there are "experts" who talk about the need to get rid of committees who sit around and talk about what needs to be done, and replace them task forces, or ministry teams, or ad hoc committees -- a group whose primary job is to do something, not sit in meetings.


The Greek for "one" can be either masculine -- a need for one person (Jesus); or neuter -- a need for one thing -- receiving the Word from Jesus.I checked on Luke's other uses of the word for "need" (chreia) and its related verb (chrezo).

A few verses that may relate:

"Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick." (Lu 5:31) -- People without needs don't need Jesus.

"For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well. (Lu 12:30-31)

"Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance." (Lu 15:7) -- One of our needs is to repent -- and we know that Jesus can "cure" the sickness of our sin.

The thought struck me that Martha expresses her "need" to Jesus, namely more help in the kitchen. She asks him to do something about it. How might her need be different than Mary's need? If Mary were to ask Jesus for something, what might it be? What were her needs that Jesus was meeting?

Possible application: What are the needs of the people in our churches and communities? While we are to listen to them state their needs, which ones should we ignore as not being necessary? Which ones do we try and meet? When should we question their assessment of their own needs and tell them what they "really need" and then try to provide it (e.g., total trust in Jesus)? How do we provide people the opportunity to do what Mary is doing? How can we encourage our faithful church volunteers to stop doing for a while -- to sit, listen, learn, and grow in their understanding of the faith and personal discipleship? In contrast to the picture of Mary "needing" to learn at Jesus' feet, every time this word for needs is used in Acts, it seems to refer to physical "needs" (Ac 2:45; 4:35; 6:3; 20:34; 28:10).

If one would want to add a possible humorous touch to this theme, the only time Jesus uses the word in terms of his own needs is in reference to the colt (Lu 19:31, 34). Perhaps this is a time when we don't need to try and emulate our Lord. I don't think I need a donkey. I'm pretty sure that I don't want one.


I have thought of relating Mary's actions with sabbath rest -- a time to stop doing -- and as Luther defines the commandment: "We are to fear and love God, so that we do not despise preaching or God’s Word, but instead keep that Word holy and gladly hear and learn it."

In Power Surge: Six Marks of Discipleship for a Changing Church, Mike Foss includes these paragraphs, with an application from our text.

As important as the practice of the marks of discipleship are to every Christian, it is remarkable to see their effect on leaders in the church. Most pastors and lay professional staff entered the ministry of the church because of deeply felt experiences of the forgiving, redeeming presence of God in their lives. The call to ministry is experienced as grace; the response to the call is experienced as grace. Most workers in the church begin with the strong desire to "render service with enthusiasm, as to the Lord" (Ephesians 6:7), and their ministry is motivated by the experience of a lived relationship with Christ.

But, in a membership-driven church, it is often not long before the demands of a chaplaincy ministry shift the focus from mission to the member and from God to the "business" of the church. The result -- either clergy and staff burn out or become small, ineffectual, and turned in on themselves. The need to continually and personally care for the members, provide the services they seek, always be on call, and keep the "business" of the church going by resolving conflict and keeping everyone happy to keep the offering flowing -- all this and more drain the energy and distract the souls of clergy and staff from the one thing necessary (Luke 10:41-42). "Worried and distracted by many things," all too many clergy and staff fail to tend to their own spirituality and end up losing the joy of their salvation. The irony is that if pastors and staff would spend sufficient time looking to their own spiritual growth and teaching others how to do the same, rather than exhausting themselves in an impossible chaplaincy ministry to the whole membership, everyone's needs would be taken care of. The community of disciples would see to it. [pp. 107-8]

In the last couple of churches, I always tried to begin our council meetings with a brief Bible study -- 20-30 minutes (something more than a quick devotion). It's amazing how much opposition there can be to "gladly hearing and learning God's Word." In fact, I haven't been able to keep such a study on the agenda at this present church. Councils (and committees) often see themselves as concerned with the "business" (which comes from "busy" + "ness") of the church -- and a great concern that meetings don't last tooooooooo long (more than an hour). Sitting and listening and studying is not productive (at least in our industrial mindset). How do we make our council/committee meetings something more than simply business meetings? How (or should) we encourage council members to be spiritual leaders of the faith community more than just managers of the resources? Why do such leadership groups let the worries and distractions of many (important?) things keep them from the one thing that is truly important? And yet, there are many business concerns that need attention in our churches. Bills need to be paid. Toilets need to be fixed. Bread and wine need to be bought or prepared. How do we balance these business matters with sitting and listening?


Some thoughts on the "triangles" in the Martha, Mary, Jesus text. Definitions from Generation to Generation, by Edwin Friedman

An emotional triangle is formed by any three persons or issues.

The basic law of emotional triangles is that when any two parts of a system become uncomfortable with one another, they will 'triangle in' or focus upon a third person, or issue, as a way of stabilizing their own relationship with one another.

In the concept of an emotional triangle, "What Peter says to you about his relationship with Paul has to do with his relationship with you."

Triangle one: Martha appears to be uncomfortable with Mary and "triangles in" Jesus. She doesn't directly ask Mary to help, but puts Jesus in the middle. She tries to get him to share her anxiety about the strained (working) relationship she feels with Mary -- "Don't you care . . . "

Triangle two: Martha appears to be uncomfortable with Jesus and "triangles in" her busy-ness. To paraphrase the third quote above: "What Martha says to Jesus about her relationship with Mary (or her relationship with her "work") has to do with her relationship with Jesus." Her relationship with Jesus seems to be mediated by her "many tasks" = "many ministries." The fact that she complains about Mary not measuring up, probably indicates that she is uncertain about her own "measuring up" before this honored guest.

From Friedman again, "To the extent we can maintain a 'nonanxious presence' in a triangle, such a stance has the potential to modify the anxiety in the others. The problem is to be both nonanxious and present."

I think that Jesus maintains a nonanxious presence. He wouldn't share Martha's anxiety. To the question, "Don't you care . . . ?" He probably would have answered, "No, I don't -- at least not about that!"

I'm certain that one can find all kinds of triangles in the families sitting in the pews as well as in the relationships of the leaders of a congregation


Part of Culpepper's (Luke, New Interpreter's Bible) final "Reflections:"

In its own way, the conjunction of the stories about the good Samaritan and the female disciple voice Jesus' protest against the rules and boundaries set by the culture in which he lived. As they develop seeing and hearing as metaphors for the activity of the kingdom, the twin stories also expose the injustice of social barriers that categorize, restrict, and oppress various groups in any society (Samaritans, victims, women). To love God with all one's heart and one's neighbor as oneself meant then and now that one must often reject society's rules in favor of the codes of the kingdom -- a society without distinctions and boundaries between its members. The rules of that society are just two -- to love God and one's neighbor -- but these rules are so radically different form those of the society in which we live that living by them invariably calls us to disregard all else, break the rules, and follow Jesus' example. [p. 232]

Brian Stoffregen
Faith Lutheran Church, 1000 D St., Marysville, CA 95901