Mary and Martha in the Bible

The story of Mary and Martha is an excellent example of God’s design and his desire for his children. 

God created these two women with notable differences that can help us learn how to honor Jesus with our God-given giftings, too.

God designs each of his children with unique characteristics and wants us to use these traits to bring him glory on earth. 

Sisters Martha and Mary (and their brother Lazarus) were close friends of Jesus and often hosted him in their home in Bethany. 

Jesus found a safe place to eat and rest in their presence, and the three siblings were devoted followers.

The most well-known Bible account of Martha and Mary is found in a scene in which Mary is sitting at the feet of Jesus while Martha prepares a meal for Jesus and his friends. 

Today, we’ll take a closer look at this story.  Then, we’ll unpack the characteristics of these two women and apply their stories to our lives.

woman at the feet of a man rubbing her hair on his feet

The Story of Mary and Martha

In the tenth chapter of Luke’s Gospel, the three siblings, Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, have invited Jesus and his followers into their home for a meal.

Martha is busy preparing the meal and tending to their home while Mary sits at the feet of Jesus. 

Martha’s focus is on serving her guests, while Mary does not seem to be interested in helping and is more focused on enjoying a time of fellowship with the Lord.

Martha approaches Jesus and asks, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” (Luke 10:40, NIV).

“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answers, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:41-42).

This account leads us to wonder, Why does Jesus rebuke Martha?

According to Jesus, when Mary chose to sit at Jesus’ feet, she chose the “better part.” 

Martha was busy preparing the meal and serving their guests.  She was most likely feeling disgruntled and frustrated because her sister wasn’t helping her.

Jesus rebuked Martha because she had a sour attitude about serving others.  He was not rebuking the work of hospitality; instead, he was rebuking Mary’s resentful attitude.

Poor Martha could not see that bitterness was getting in the way of her relationship with the Lord.  Furthermore, by choosing to sit at the Lord’s feet, Mary had chosen a good thing—the best thing: pursuing the presence of Jesus.

Mary’s desire to spend time with the Lord was beautiful.  Perhaps, if Martha had continued her meal preparations with this same devotion to Jesus, she could have chosen the “good part,” too.

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Difference Between Mary and Martha

Martha and Mary had very different personalities.  As we will study shortly, Mary was most likely a deeply emotional woman.  She expressed love through tender acts of devotion and emotional intimacy.

Martha loved Jesus; however, she expressed her love and devotion differently.  She was the kind of woman who showed her love through serving others.  She was quick to open her home to others in warm gestures of hospitality.

Let’s take a moment to look at the stories of these two sisters as we aim to apply this biblical account to our lives. 

Martha’s Story

Martha’s story depicts a woman with a loving heart of service.  We encounter her three times in the Gospels.  Each time, she displays faith and a commitment to good works.

The first encounter with Martha takes place when Jesus visits her home, as we studied together already: Upon entering the home of Martha, Martha busies herself preparing the meal and making sure the guests receive hospitality. 

Despite her begrudging attitude toward Mary, it is clear that Martha cares about her guests.

Our next encounter with Martha takes place after her brother Lazarus has died.  Believing that Jesus is the Son of God, she runs to him and tells him that if he had been present, Lazarus would not have died. 

Martha is clearly a woman of great faith.  She is also present to witness the miracle when Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead.

We find Martha a third time in the Gospel of John when Jesus and his friends enter her home to share a meal.  Again, Martha is busy preparing the meal while her sister, Mary, anoints Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume. 

Martha’s story shows us that she was a devoted follower of Jesus with a servant’s heart.  At times, she allowed the tasks involved with serving to lead her to resentfulness toward others; however, she sincerely wanted to love and serve Jesus.

Mary’s Story

Mary’s story is an interesting one.  To understand her role in Jesus’ ministry and the Bible, it’s important to note that several women named Mary are mentioned in the Gospels. 

Scholars have debated for centuries over whether Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalen are the same person. 

Let’s begin by exploring what we know about Mary of Bethany: Mary of Bethany was the sister of Mary and Lazarus and lived in Bethany (Luke 10:38, 39; John 11:1, 2). 

Mary of Bethany was the woman at Jesus’ feet when her sister, Martha, was angry about her lack of help in the kitchen.

In a different account, in the Gospel of John, Mary of Bethany displays her great love for Jesus by anointing her rabbi’s feet with a pint of pure nard.  This was an expensive perfume that would have taken a year’s wages to purchase.

As the fragrance of the perfume wafts through the room, Judas Iscariot remarks, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages” (John 12:5).

“Leave her alone,” Jesus replies. “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me” (John 12:7-8).

Mary of Bethany consistently portrays a heart of great love and devotion to the Lord.  She showed her love through extravagant acts of love, devotion, loyalty, and emotional intimacy. 

Some scholars believe that Mary Magdalen and Mary of Bethany are the same woman; however, Scripture does not make this clear. 

Mary Magdalen was delivered from seven demons in the eighth chapter of Luke’s Gospel. 

After this healing, Mary became a close follower and supporter of Jesus.  This might have been the same Mary as Mary of Bethany, but we cannot be certain.

Whatever the case, in anointing Jesus with the expensive perfume and sitting at his feet, Mary of Bethany was a devoted follower of Jesus.  She was a woman of great faith, and she cared about Jesus’ honor.

We can follow her example by pursuing Jesus with our whole hearts and seeking intimate connections with him.  This is the “good portion” Jesus spoke of when he commended Mary for her faithfulness. 

Martha and Mary Reflection

We can learn many lessons from the stories of Martha and Mary. 

First, these two women teach us that there are different ways of loving and serving.  Martha served Jesus through the visible good works of meal preparation and extending hospitality

She often acted as the head of the household when it came to meeting the needs of her guests.

These attributes are to be commended.  Martha was task-oriented, and she focused on working hard to make sure others felt comfortable, cared for, and loved.  She expressed her love and devotion through acts of service.

Mary served Jesus through intimate interactions, quiet devotion to him, and listening to him. 

She displayed her love through extravagant acts of adoration and worship.  She stuck close to his side even through the last day of his life and was a devoted follower.

Jesus’ gentle rebuke of Martha in Luke 10 shows us that Jesus was pleased with Mary, who sat at his feet.  Perhaps he would have been pleased with Martha’s service if she had served him without grumbling. 

Many Bible teachers and commentators have criticized Martha for putting service above devotion to Jesus. 

These teachings might even make us feel guilty for leaving our quiet devotional moments with Jesus to undertake the work that fills our days.

Some teachers have said that spending quiet moments at Jesus’ feet is always more important than serving and working with our hands.

While spending set-apart moments basking in Jesus’ presence is important, this is not the primary message in the story of Martha and Mary.  Instead, their story teaches us that the way we pursue our daily work is important.

Martha served her guests with a bad attitude because her sister wasn’t helping.  Instead of joyfully completing the work set before her, she was angry about it.

When Jesus pointed out Mary’s “better portion,” he was referring to more than her posture of sitting at his feet.  He was referring to the attitude of her heart.  She was enjoying his presence.

This same truth applies to our lives today.  We all have work to do every day. 

Whether we are caring for patients, meeting with clients, running businesses, caring for loved ones, or tending to our homes, we can choose to enjoy Jesus’ presence as we joyfully undertake the work, or we can grumble about the work that is set before us.

Like Martha, it can be easy to feel sorry for ourselves, succumb to self-pity, and stomp around making sure everyone near us knows how hard we are working. 

On the other hand, we can complete this work with quiet, joyful, peaceful hearts, and we honor Jesus in the meantime.

I invite you to reflect on your life today. 

If studying the Bible better is on your list of things to do this year, be sure to visit our Bible Study Resources page where you’ll find everything you need to make Bible study a regular part of your daily routine.

Have you been holding onto resentment regarding any part of the work God has called you to undertake?  Perhaps you hold the primary responsibility of cooking, cleaning, and caring for your home. 

What is God showing you about your attitude in this work?

Maybe you’re the caretaker for an elderly loved one or a noisy bunch of children.  At times, this work might feel like a burden. 

What would it look like to refuse to complain or feel sorry for yourself and, instead, enjoy Jesus’ presence while you care for your loved ones?

Jesus is not inviting us to cease all work and spend all of our time “sitting at his feet” in moments of quiet devotion throughout our days. 

Instead, he calls us to offer our bodies as living sacrifices, and this is our spiritual act of worship (see Romans 12:1).

Mary and Martha study questions mockup
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We can worship him while we work by keeping our hearts and minds fixed on him in adoration.  We can soak in the joy of his presence as we remind ourselves that he loves us dearly. 

Jesus has called us to love him with our whole hearts, souls, minds, and strength. 

Even during our busiest days, we can love him by talking to him, thanking him for his goodness, and soaking in the joy we find when we remind ourselves that he is pleased with us.

There is good news for all of us woven into the stories of Martha and Mary.  Jesus loved both of these women.  He appreciated Mary’s devotion to him, but Martha was also known as a woman of faith.

We can remind ourselves of these women when we feel tempted to grumble.  They also set good models for the times when we are tempted to compare our service to the service of others. 

Mary and Martha Bible Study Lesson

Martha thought that her work for the Lord was more important than Mary’s devotion to Jesus, but Jesus made it clear that enjoying his presence was the most important act of all.

Whatever we do, whether we are sitting in quiet places with our Bibles or serving others, we are called to do it with joyful hearts—enjoying Jesus’ presence and living for the glory of God.

Be sure to read more from our Women of the Bible series:

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