38As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. 39She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the LORD's feet listening to what he said. 40But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, "LORD, don't you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!" 41"Martha, Martha," the LORD answered, "you are worried and upset about many things, 42but few things are needed-or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her."
Since the previous passage in the gospel is the parable of the good Samaritan which emphasizes love of neighbor, this next passage instead highlights love of “the Lord, your God”. Martha and Mary, who happen to be siblings, welcome Jesus into their home, but each one differently.
Mary assumes the posture of a disciple, by sitting beside the Lord at his feet. Her focus is on listening to him speak—literally, “to his word.” She is doing exactly what the voice at the transfiguration said to do: “Listen to him” . She realizes what a blessed opportunity it is to hear what she hears.
Martha, on the other hand, is burdened or “distracted” on account of much serving. Certainly, Martha’s efforts to serve her special guest are all well and good. However, there is already a hint of her shortcoming in the description. Since there is so “much” to do, she is distracted and too busy to pay attention to Jesus’ words. Her concern also leads her to want to take her sister away from Jesus, whom she asks to intervene: Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? She follows up her question, which expects a yes answer, with a command: tell her to help me.
In response, Jesus corrects by affectionately repeating her name: Martha, Martha, then He points out what is wrong with her fretful activity: you are anxious and worried. In the parable of the sower, Jesus had warned that anxieties can, like thorns, choke a person’s response to the word. He later cautions against being anxious and allowing oneself to be weighed down with the anxieties of life. Certainly, Martha’s anxieties spring from her desire to serve Jesus, not from the pursuit of sinful pleasures also mentioned in these other verses. However, Jesus’ teaching about not being anxious has general application.
Second, He explains why Mary’s behavior is proper. Whereas Martha is concerned about many things, Jesus explains that only one thing is necessary: listening to him. In other words, the aspect that takes priority when Jesus is “welcomed” is welcoming—in other words, listening to—his message of salvation, as Mary was doing. This is the better part (“the good portion,”) that Mary, like “good soil”, has chosen.
From early on in Christian history, Martha and Mary have been understood as signifying the active life and the contemplative life. These two dimensions are necessary to the Christian life, therefore we ask you oh God to help us unite these two dimensions of our lives, that the union with you through prayer may overflow into all of our activities, so that they bear fruit. We ask this in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, Amen!