Even Christians Collide


The Point:  Conflict can arise because of different priorities.

Hospitality:  Luke 10:38.

[38]  Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house.  [ESV]

Martha and Mary lived with their brother, Lazarus, in the small village of Bethany. That was within easy walking distance of Jerusalem, about two miles southeast of the Temple’s eastern gate. Both Luke and John recorded that Jesus enjoyed hospitality in the home of this family. He went there on at least three crucial occasions in the gospels. Bethany was apparently a regular stop for Him in His travels, and this family’s home seems to have become a welcome hub for Jesus during His visits to Judea. Martha and Mary make a fascinating pair – very different in many ways, but alike in one vital respect: both of them loved Christ. Everything praiseworthy about them was in one way of another centered on Him. Martha and Mary became cherished personal friends of Jesus during His earthly ministry. Moreover, He had a profound love for their family [John 11:5]. We are not told how this particular household became so intimate with Jesus. Since no family ties are ever mentioned between Jesus’ relatives and the Bethany clan, it seems likely that Martha and Mary were simply two of the many people who heard Jesus teach early in His ministry, extended Him hospitality, and built a relationship with Him that way. In whatever way this relationship began, it obviously developed into a warm and deeply personal fellowship. It is clear from Luke’s description that Jesus made Himself at home in their house. The fact that Jesus actively cultivated such friendships sheds light on the kind of man He was. It also helps explain how He managed to have an itinerant ministry in Judea without ever becoming a homeless indigent, even though He maintained no permanent dwelling of His own. Apparently, people like Martha and Mary regularly welcomed Him into their homes and families, and He was clearly at home among His many friends. Certainly hospitality was a special hallmark of this family. Martha in particular is portrayed everywhere as a meticulous hostess. She was probably the older sister. Scripture gives three significant accounts of Jesus’ interaction with this family. First, Luke 10:38-42 describes a minor conflict between Martha and Mary over how best to show their devotion to Christ. That is where we initially meet Martha and Mary in the New Testament. This is where the contrasting personalities of these two are seen most clearly. A second close-up glimpse at the lives of these two women comes in John 11. Virtually the entire chapter is devoted to a description of how their brother Lazarus died and was brought back to life by Christ. Jesus’ personal dealings with Martha and Mary in this scene highlighted their individual characteristics. John gave very detailed and poignant descriptions of how deeply the sisters were distressed over their loss, how Jesus ministered to them in their grief, how He mourned with them in a profound and personal way, and how He gloriously raised Lazarus from the dead at the very climax of the funeral. More than any other act of Jesus, that one dramatic and very public miracle was what finally sealed the Jewish leaders’ determination to put Him to death because they knew that if He could raise the dead, people would follow Him, and the leaders would lose their power base [John 11:45-57]. They obstinately refused to consider that His power to give life was proof that He was exactly who He claimed to be: God the Son. Martha and Mary seemed to understand that Jesus had put Himself in jeopardy in order to give them back the life of their brother. In fact, the full depth of Mary’s gratitude and understanding was revealed in a third and final account where both of these women appeared together one more time. John 12 (with parallel accounts in Matthew 26:6-13 and Mark 14:3-9) records how Mary anointed the feet of Jesus with costly ointment and wiped His feet with her hair. Although both Matthew and Mark described the event, neither of them mentioned Mary’s name in this context. It was nonetheless clear that they were describing the same incident we read about in John 12. Both Matthew 26:12 and John 12:7 indicated that Mary, in some sense, understood that she was anointing Jesus for burial. She must have strongly suspected that her brother’s resurrection would drive Jesus’ enemies to a white-hot hatred, and they would be determined to put Him to death [John 11:53-54]. Jesus Himself had gone to the relative safety of Ephraim right after the raising of Lazarus, but Passover brought Him back to Jerusalem [John 11:55-56]. Mary (and probably Martha as well) seemed to grasp more clearly than anyone how imminent the threat to Jesus was. That surely intensified their sense of debt and gratitude toward Him, as reflected in Mary’s act of worship. Back to the famous incident described at the end of Luke 10 when Jesus gave Martha a mild rebuke and a strong lesson about where her real priorities ought to lie. Martha seemed to be the elder of the two sisters. Luke’s description of her behavior is one of the things that supports the idea that these three siblings were still young adults. Martha’s complaint sounds callow and girlish. Jesus’ reply, though containing a mild rebuke, has an almost grandfatherly tone to it. Jesus had apparently come at Martha’s invitation. She was the one who welcomed Him in, signifying that she was the actual master of ceremonies in this house. She was plainly the one in charge of the household. Martha fussed over her hostessing duties. She wanted everything to be just right. She was a conscientious and considerate hostess, and these were admirable traits. Much in her behavior was commendable. Note the way Jesus came across in this scene. He was the perfect houseguest. He instantly made Himself at home. He enjoyed the fellowship and conversation, and as always, His contribution to the discussion was instructive and enlightening. No doubt His disciples were asking Him questions, and He was giving answers that were thought-provoking, authoritative, and utterly edifying. Mary’s instinct was to sit at His feet and listen. Martha, ever the fastidious one, went right to work with her preparations.

The Two Sisters:  Luke 10:39-40.

[39]  And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. [40]  But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me."  [ESV]

While Martha was busy getting everything ready for dinner, Mary was also attending to Jesus – not in the kitchen, but in the living room. From the moment she heard that Jesus was coming, one thought had consumed her. Unlike Martha, this thought did not concern what she could do for Jesus, but what Jesus could do for her. He could teach her His Word, drawing her deeper into a relationship with Him. Mary wanted to know Jesus, and as He taught, she was the very model of attention. Mary sat in the front row, right at Jesus’ feet. She did not want to miss a word; she wanted to hear everything her Teacher said. To sit at someone’s feet implies not only attention, but also submission. Mary was ready to listen, ready to learn, and ready to believe. While Martha was busy preparing a banquet, Mary was already having one – she was feasting on the word of Christ. Unfortunately, this heartwarming scene of gracious hospitality and theological instruction was soon disturbed by the storm that was building in Martha’s heart. As Jesus went on teaching, Martha became increasingly agitated, until finally the storm cloud burst and the angry words came pouring out: Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve along? Tell her then to help me. There was nothing wrong with what Martha was doing, but there were some problems with her attitude. We should give them careful notice because these problems are all too common in people who work hard for the Lord. It is possible to serve the Lord, as Martha did, and yet do it in a very unattractive way. Martha was guilty of at least three sins. One was distraction. As Luke tells us, she was distracted with much serving. Martha was guilty of inattention to the word of Christ. Martha had lost her focus, and it was her service, of all things, that distracted her attention away from Jesus. With her strong sense of duty, Martha had a long list of all the things she had to do. They were all things she wanted to do for Jesus, but she got so caught up in doing them that she lost sight of Jesus Himself. Martha’s ministry was keeping her from Jesus. Distraction soon gives way to self-pity which is her second sin. The more Martha thought about all the things that had to be done – at least according to her own high standards for hospitality – the more overwhelmed she began to feel. As she continued slaving away in the kitchen, she began to feel sorry for herself. We know the feeling, because like Martha, we start sulking whenever we feel that we are the ones doing all of the work. We think more and more about how hard we are working; little by little, our feelings of self-pity take over. Soon we have stopped serving Jesus at all. We are serving ourselves, and thinking only about what our ministry is or is not doing for us. Self-pity inevitably gives rise to resentment, the third sin. In her resentment, Martha self-righteously assumed that her sister ought to be serving Jesus the same way that she was. This attitude is common in the church, especially among people who think they are working hard in Christian ministry. We assume that others should have the same priority that we have, and we look disapprovingly on their lack of commitment. By this point Martha’s attitude was more than unattractive; it was ugly. She had stopped serving and started scolding. She interrupted Jesus and interfered with her sister’s relationship with her Savior. This is where the unattractive attitudes in our own service to Christ will lead. It may not seem all that serious to neglect the Word of God. At first we can hardly tell the difference it makes not to read our Bibles or to pray. But soon a subtle self-pity creeps in. Rather than rejoicing in the promises of God, we feel sorry for ourselves because of the difficulties we are facing. We are increasingly critical, finding fault with others for what they are doing or not doing for us. Before long we will be trying to tell God His business. This will all happen when in our service for Jesus we get distracted from Jesus.

Choosing the Best:  Luke 10:41-42.

[41]  But the Lord answered her, "Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, [42]  but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her."  [ESV]

Jesus’ reply must have utterly startled Martha. It did not seem to have occurred to her that she might be the one in the wrong, but the little scene earned her the gentlest of admonitions from Jesus. Luke’s account ends there, so we are probably safe to conclude that the message penetrated straight to Martha’s heart and had exactly the sanctifying effect Christ’s words always have on those who love Him. Indeed, in the later incident recorded in John 12, where Mary anointed Jesus’ feet, Martha once again is seen in the role of server. But this time Judas was the one who complained. Martha wisely seems to have held her peace this time. She no longer seemed resentful of Mary’s devotion to Christ. Martha herself loved Christ no less than Mary did.

Some important lessons emerge from Jesus’ reprimand of Martha. Jesus’ gentle admonition to Martha is first of all a reminder that we should honor others over ourselves. In the Luke 10 account, Martha’s external behavior at first appeared to be true servanthood. She was the one who put on the apron and went to work in the task of serving others. But her treatment of Mary soon revealed a serious defect in her servant’s heart. She allowed herself to become censorious and sharp-tongued. Such words in front of other guests were certain to humiliate Mary. Martha either gave no thought to the hurtful effect of her words on her sister, or she simply did not care. Furthermore, Martha was wrong in her judgment of Mary. She assumed Mary was being lazy. In reality, Mary was the one whose heart was in the right place. Her motives and desires were more commendable than Martha’s. Martha’s behavior shows how subtly and sinfully human pride can corrupt even the best of our actions. What Martha was doing was by no means a bad thing. She was waiting on Christ and her other guests. In a very practical and functional sense, she was acting as servant to all, just as Christ has so often commanded. She no doubt began with the best of motives and the noblest of intentions. But the moment she stopped listening to Christ and made something other than Him the focus of her heart and attention, her perspective became very self-centered. At that point, even her service to Christ became tainted with self-absorption and spoiled by a very uncharitable failure to assume the best of her sister. Martha was showing an attitude of sinful pride that made her susceptible to several other kinds of evil as well: anger, resentment, jealousy, distrust, a critical spirit, judgmentalism, and unkindness. All of that flared up in Martha in a matter of minutes. Worst of all, Martha’s words impugned the Lord Himself: Lord, do you not care … [Luke 10:40]. Did she really imagine that He did not care? She certainly knew better. Jesus’ love for all three members of this family was obvious to all [John 11:5]. But Martha’s thoughts and feelings had become too self-focused. She turned her attention from Christ and began watching Mary with a critical eye. Naturally, it began to ruin the whole evening for Martha. Mary, by contrast, was so consumed with thoughts of Christ that she became completely oblivious to everything else. She sat at His feet and listened to Him intently, absorbing His every word and nuance. She was by no means being lazy. She simply understood the true importance of this occasion. The Son of God Himself was a guest in her home. Listening to Him and worshiping Him were at that moment the very best use of Mary’s energies and the one right place for her to focus her attention. Mary’s temperament seemed naturally more contemplative than Martha’s. Mary seemed to be able to discern Jesus’ true meaning even better than any of the twelve disciples. Her gesture of anointing Him in preparation for His burial at the beginning of that final week in Jerusalem shows a remarkably mature understanding. That was the fruit of her willingness to sit still, listen, and ponder. It was the very thing that always made Mary such a sharp contrast to Martha, whose first inclination was usually to act – or react. Martha had a lot in common with Peter in that regard. It is interesting to read this narrative and try to imagine how the average woman might respond if placed in a situation like Martha’s. Many women would probably be inclined to sympathize with Martha, not Mary. In normal circumstances, any older sister would think it obligatory for the younger sister to help in serving a meal to guests. What Martha expected Mary to do was, in itself, perfectly fine and good. Nevertheless, what Mary was doing was better still. She had chosen the good portion. She had discovered the one thing needful: true worship and devotion of one’s heart and full attention to Christ. That was a higher priority even than service, and the good part she had chosen would not be taken away from her, even for the sake of something as gracious and beneficial as helping

The second lesson is that Jesus’ reprimand establishes worship as the highest of all priorities for every Christian. Nothing, including even service rendered to Christ, is more important than listening to Him and honoring Him with our hearts. Remember what Jesus told the Samaritan woman at the well: God is seeking true worshipers [John 4:23]. Christ had found one in Mary. He would not affirm Martha’s reprimand of her, because it was Mary, not Martha, who properly understood that worship is a higher duty to Christ than service rendered on His behalf. It is a danger, even for people who love Christ, that we not become so concerned with doing things for Him that we begin to neglect hearing Him and remembering what He has done for us. We must never allow our service for Christ to crowd out our worship of Him. The moment our works become more important to us than our worship, we have turned the true spiritual priorities on their heads. Whenever you elevate good deeds over sound doctrine and true worship, you ruin the works too. Doing good works for the works’ sake has a tendency to exalt self and depreciate the work of Christ. Good deeds, human charity, and acts of kindness are crucial expressions of real faith, but they must flow from a true reliance on God’s redemption and His righteousness. A third vital spiritual principle goes hand in hand with the priority of worship over service and is so closely related to it that the two actually overlap. This third principle is the truth that what we believe is ultimately more crucial than what we do. Martha’s much serving was a distraction [40] from the one thing [42] that was really needed – listening to and learning from Jesus. Proper good works always flow from faith and are the fruit of it. What we do is vital, because that is the evidence that our faith is living and real. But faith must come first and is the only viable foundation for true and lasting good works. Martha seems to have forgotten these things momentarily. She was acting as if Christ needed her work for Him more than she needed His work on her behalf. Rather than humbly fixing her faith on the vital importance of Christ’s work for sinners, she was thinking too much in terms of what she could do for Him.


Questions for Discussion:

1.         We meet Martha and Mary three times in the New Testament: Luke 10:38-42; John 11:1-44; 12:1-8. What do we learn about these two women from these passages?

2.         What mistake did Martha make in Luke 10:38-42? How does Martha’s behavior reveal the effects of her mistake? Note at least three sins that Martha was guilty of.

3.         What important lessons can we learn from this passage concerning honoring others over ourselves; priority of worship over service; and the relationship between faith and works?


Luke, volume 2, Darrell Bock, ECNT, Baker.

Luke, volume 1, Philip Ryken, P&R Publishing.

Twelve Extraordinary Women, John Macarthur, Nelson.

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