Jesus at the home of Martha and Mary

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Jesus at the home of Martha and Mary by Tintoretto, 16th century

Jesus at the home of Martha and Mary (also referred to as Christ in the House of Martha and by other variant names) refers to a Biblical episode in the life of Jesus which appears only in Luke's Gospel (Luke 10:38–42), immediately after the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37).[1]

Gospel of Luke[edit]

Georg Friedrich Stettner: Christ at the home of Martha and Mary

According to the Gospel of Luke:

As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet listening to what he said. But 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!" "Martha, Martha," the Lord answered, "you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her."


Mary chose listening to the teachings of Jesus over helping her sister prepare food. Jesus responded that she was right because only one thing is needed, "one thing" apparently meaning listening to the teachings of Jesus. This is consistent with Jesus saying that Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God (Matthew 4:4), and The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life, meaning eternal life John 6:63.[2]

To simplify, this is frequently interpreted as spiritual values being more important than material business, such as preparation of food. Two different words describe her distress – "worry", and "distract" – and Luke accordingly doubles her name and uses alliteration to draw attention to her anxious behavior (Greek: Μάρθα Μάρθα μεριμνᾷς, Martha, Martha, merimnas in Luke 10:41).

13th-century mystic Meister Eckhart offered in his sermons a different interpretation, stating that contemplation is not necessarily better than work. Matthew Fox writes, "Compassion and the works born of compassion are themselves acts of contemplation."[3] Eckhart sees Martha as the figure of higher level of perfection.[4] Economist Henry Ergas sees this interpretation as "the uniquely Western sacralisation of hard work, thrift and aspiration".[5]

The German theologian Friedrich Justus Knecht gives the typical interpretation of this passage, writing: "The story of the Good Samaritan gave us an example of the love of our neighbour. In Martha and Mary we have a model of the true love of God. Both sisters loved our Divine Lord, but they showed their love in different ways. Mary was all absorbed, listening to and meditating on His words; and, carried out of herself by her love of Him, she forgot everything else. Martha, on the other hand, was taken up with active work in His service, and could only think of how she might most perfectly minister to His wants. Martha spent herself in her efforts to prepare food for our Lord, while Mary was entirely occupied in being fed by Him... Like Martha we ought to do our best to fulfil the duties of our state of life: but we should not, on this account, neglect to hear and meditate on the divine word. 'These things you ought to have done, and not leave those undone' (Matt. 23:23). Pray and work!"[6]


It is not entirely clear where this story is set, and who the characters in it are. Although there are several similarities between these Mary and Martha and those in John 11–12, no brother called Lazarus appears.[7] Whether this Mary is also the unnamed woman who anointed Jesus's head in Matthew 26 and Mark 14 is not generally agreed.[8] Moreover, scholars generally agree that unnamed sinful woman in Luke 7 is not Mary of Bethany nor Mary Magdalene either,[9] and Luke 7:39 has the sinful woman living in a town (probably Nain, mentioned in 7:11), not in an unnamed village as Martha and Mary do in Luke 10.[a][10]) Jesus was staying in; the precending narrative of the Raising of the son of the widow of Nain (7:11–17) locates Jesus in Nain.[11] Luke 7:11–17 labels Nain a polis three times, in verses 7:11 and 7:12.[12] On the other hand, the unnamed place where Mary and Martha live in Luke 10:38–42 is labelled a 'village' (Greek: κώμη, kómè) in verse 10:38.[13] Luke therefore linguistically connects the sinful woman to a city/town, and distinguishes the unnamed home of Mary and Martha as a village.[14]

Due to the parallels with John 11–12, this unnamed village has traditionally often been identified with the Judean village of Bethany, for example by Poole (1669), Gill (1748), Benson (1857), Jamieson-Fausset-Brown (1871), Ellicott (1878), Barnes (1884), Farrar (1891), and the Pulpit Commentary (1800s).[15] However, Luke 10 appears to be set strictly in Galilee, and thus gives no geographic reason to identify the unnamed village of Martha and Mary with Bethany in Judea.[7] Meyer's NT Commentary (1880 English edition) noted that "Jesus cannot yet be in Bethany (see Luke 13:22, Luke 17:11), where Martha and Mary dwelt (John 11:1; John 12:1 f.)" but supposed that "Luke, because he was unacquainted with the more detailed circumstances of the persons concerned, transposed this incident, which must have occurred in Bethany, and that on an earlier festal journey, not merely to the last journey, but also to some other village, and that a village of Galilee."[15] Burkitt (1931) stated: 'We have a story [in Lk 1037–42] of a pair of sisters, Martha and Mary, who seem to have lived in Galilee. (...) There is nothing to indicate the place or the time: were it not for what we read in the Fourth Gospel it would surely never have occurred to any one to suppose that the sisters lived just outside Jerusalem.'[16] Unlike Meyer, Burkitt concluded that not the author of Luke, but the author of John had '[made] unhistorical use of tradition already in circulation'.[16][17] distinguished the two villages, based on the Galilean context of the chapter in Luke.[14] They posited that the Gospel of John deliberately mixed up several separate stories from the Synoptic Gospels, namely that of the Markan–Matthean anointing of Jesus (for his upcoming death) by an unnamed woman in Bethany (Mark 14 and Matthew 26), the Lukan Jesus' visit to Martha and Mary in an unnamed village (Luke 10), and the Lukan parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16).[7] Esler & Piper argued that author did not strive to give a historically accurate account of what had happened, but instead, for theological purposes, combined various existing narratives in order to construct Lazarus, Mary and Martha of Bethany as a prototypical Christian family, whose example is to be followed by Christians.[7]

George Ogg (1971) proposed a different solution: the author of Luke had two sources for the same journey of Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem. He used source A to write Luke 9:51–10:42 as the main account (ending with Jesus's visit to Mary and Martha's village, identified as Bethany as in John 11–12), and source B to write Luke 17:11–19:28 as either an amplified retelling of A, or a supplement to A. Rather than trying to integrate the two sources into a single account of the journey, the author kept the accounts separate to ensure that the "episodes would be in correct sequence". Lastly, the verses Luke 11:1–17:11 between A and B are not part of Jesus's journey to Jerusalem, Ogg contended: "Essentially Luke xi. 1—xvii. 10 is a record of activities of Jesus during his ministry in Galilee, Phoenicia and the Decapolis and prior to his final departure from Galilee for Jerusalem."[18]

Depictions in art[edit]

The episode is mostly found in art from the Counter-Reformation onwards, especially in the 17th century, when the domestic setting is usually given a realistic depiction, and the subject appears as a single work rather than in cycles of the Life of Christ, or the life of Mary Magdalene. However, it appears in some Ottonian manuscript cycles, including the one in the Pericopes of Henry II (c. 1002–1012), where it is given a hieratic architectural setting. Many paintings show Mary washing, or just having washed, Jesus's feet, recalling the story in John 12.1–8 (which seems to be about Mary of Bethany). Via the story in Luke 7.36–50 (about an unnamed 'sinful woman'), however, Mary of Bethany was often conflated with Mary Magdalene, and this too may be reflected in art.[19] Artists depicting the subject include Velázquez, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Caravaggio and Rubens.

Individual works with articles include:

Depiction in literature[edit]

Rudyard Kipling's poem "The Sons of Martha", Kipling defends people who dedicate themselves to work like Martha.

In his book The Doors of Perception, Aldous Huxley alludes to the story of Mary and Martha, addressing the distinction between what he terms "the way of Mary" and "the way of Martha". Huxley notes that, during his experiences with mescaline, time seems to stand still, and contemplation—the way of Mary—rules the day. Quotidian cares fall to the wayside. In one passage, Huxley writes, "Mescalin opens up the way of Mary, but shuts the door on that of Martha."

In the novel Time Enough for Love by Robert A. Heinlein, the character Minerva says, "I am a Martha, Lazarus, not her sister Mary." This, as a response to another character's attempt to describe her appearance, is a testament to her pride in being practically minded.

In the novel The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood, the women servants of the dystopian society (doing the cooking and cleaning) are called "marthas".

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Luke 7:39 indicates that the sinful woman was living 'in the town/city' (Greek: ἐν τῇ πόλει, en têi pólei


  1. ^ Tyson 1998, p. 271.
  2. ^ Aust 1999.
  3. ^ Cited in Carter 2020, p. 75
  4. ^ Flasch 2015, p. 235.
  5. ^ Ergas 2020.
  6. ^ Knecht 1910.
  7. ^ a b c d Esler & Piper 2006, pp. 49–60
  8. ^ Pakenham 1974, pp. 78–79.
  9. ^ Higgs 2004, p. 144.
  10. ^ "Luke 7:11 translations comparison". Retrieved 27 January 2021.
  11. ^ Esler & Piper 2006, pp. 52–54.
  12. ^ "Luke 7 Study Bible". Retrieved 27 January 2021.
  13. ^ "Luke 10 Study Bible". Retrieved 27 January 2021.
  14. ^ a b Esler & Piper 2006, p. 49.
  15. ^ a b "Luke 10:38 Commentaries". Biblehub. Retrieved 30 October 2021.
  16. ^ a b Burkitt 1931, pp. 157–159.
  17. ^ Esler & Piper 2006.
  18. ^ Ogg 1971, pp. 39–53.
  19. ^ Schiller 1971, p. 158–159.


Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]