The better part: encounter

marthamarybyheqichinaThe Encounters with Jesus. “She [Martha] had a sister named Mary (who) sat beside the Lord at his feet listening to him speak. Mary was listening to Jesus’ word or message (logos in the singular) when “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.”

From the welcome of hospitality, we move to this scene. Culpepper simply states it: “Martha presumes to tell Jesus what he should do; Mary lets Jesus tell her what she should do.” Is that a bad thing?  As we shall see next week (Luke 11:1-13), 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, 436-7) 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[1]; 12:22[2], 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.

Perhaps because of her own anxiety about hospitality, her sense that Mary should be helping, her notion that Mary is out of her proper place in this encounter – or some other anxiety – Martha is attempting to “triangulate” Jesus into her inner anxiety and her anxiety about Mary.

Words for Anxiety. Stoffregen notes that Luke, in the short span of two verses uses three Greek words that have similar meanings of inner anxiety:

  • melei = “do you not care” or “aren’t you concerned or anxious about” v. 40. Jesus is not anxious about the possibility of a late dinner or a simple dinner or even no dinner (he’s already been through the temptation about living on bread only). This is also related to the word used of the Samaritan’s and the innkeeper’s actions of caring for the injured man (epimelo). When are our acts of caring proper responses of loving God and neighbors? When are our acts of caring simply busy-work or co-dependency that hinders our relationships with God and neighbors?

Then from v.41 “you are anxious [merimnas] and worried [turbaze] about many things”

  • merimnas (from merimnaō) = “be anxious, be worried”. This word includes some apprehension about possible dangers or misfortunes. It is the word used repeatedly in Jesus’ “lilies of the field speech” (Luke 12:22-31 and Mt 6:25-34) where it is presented being entangled in the cares of the world in contrast to having faith, i.e., trusting God. In Martha’s mind it would be a disaster if everything isn’t done just right and on time. Anything less than perfection for her is disastrous and makes her a failure.
  • turbaze (from thorubazomai) = “be troubled, distressed, emotionally upset.” This is the only occurrence in the NT of this particular word, but related terms refer to a “riot” or “loud commotion”. It refers to the commotion (weeping and wailing) and related distress at a death. It refers to the riots the Jews instigated to run Paul out of town. Generally the word group refers to the noise that a crowd makes, either as appreciation: “cheers,” “applause;” or the opposite: “groan,” “murmur,” “uproar”. So the word strongly hints at noise besides just the inner turmoil. Don’t we all know people who make sure that everyone else knows about their inner anxieties? Or it could refer to all the demands within Martha, pulling her in all sorts of directions.
  • Notes
  • Luke 10:38 Martha welcomed him: Martha appears only here in Luke’s gospel. In John 11 she, along with Mary, are identified as Lazarus’ sisters
  • Luke 10:39 sat beside the Lord at his feet: it is remarkable for first-century Palestinian Judaism that a woman would assume the posture of a disciple at the master’s feet (see also Luke 8:35; Acts 22:3), and it reveals a characteristic attitude of Jesus toward women in this gospel (see Luke 8:2–3). Throughout Luke-Acts, sitting at the feet indicates an acknowledgement of authority (7:38, 8:35, 41; 17:16; Acts 4:35, 37; 5:2, 22:3) listening to him speak: literally, “listening to his word (logos)” The word Luke uses, logos is used in NT parlance to indicate the word of God. Mary is thus attentive to Jesus and received him as a prophet who spoke the word of God.
  • Luke 10:39-40 Mary who sat…Martha…came to him: Mary is sitting beside Jesus at his feet. Martha stands over Jesus (a more literal meaning of ephistemai in v. 40). 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.
  • Luke 10:40 burdened: the verb perispaō has the sense of “being distracted.”  This verb combined with the Greek pollēn indicates that it was an objective fact she was burdened and not a neurotic obsession on her part.


  • Joel Green, The Gospel of Luke, vol 3 of The New International Commentary on the New Testament ed. Gorden Fee (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 1997)
  • R. Allen Culpepper Luke, vol. 9 in New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary (Nashville, TN.: Abington, 1995)
  • Brian Stoffregen, “Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes” at
  • Gerhard Kittel, Gerhard Friedrich and Geoffrey William Bromiley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 1995)
  • Scripture quotes from New American Bible by Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. © 1991, 1986, 1970

[1] “As for the seed that fell among thorns, they are the ones who have heard, but as they go along, they are choked by the anxieties and riches and pleasures of life, and they fail to produce mature fruit” (Luke 8:14)

[2] “He said to (his) disciples, ‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life and what you will eat, or about your body and what you will wear. For life is more than food and the body more than clothing.’” (Luke 12:22-23)  If even the smallest things are beyond your control, why are you anxious about the rest? (Luke 12:26)

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