The story of Martha and Mary (Lk 10:38-42) has left many readers feeling that Martha was hard done by.
“In one of the villages he [Jesus] entered during his journey, a woman called Martha entertained him at her house.” So it seems that Martha was the principal householder.
There is no virtue in that, of course, although on the fallen human plane it does help to explain Martha’s subsequent irritation. For while Martha, the hostess, “was distracted, waiting on many needs”, Mary her sister – usually taken to be Mary Magdalene – “took her place at the Lord’s seat, and listened to His words”.
Clearly both sisters admired Jesus and considered him someone special; it is not clear, though, that at this stage they saw him as Martha later described him (Jn 11:27): “the Son of the living God.” Much more obviously, he was a guest who needed feeding.
So, again applying worldly standards, it would have been extremely annoying for Martha to have a sister fawning on her guest, while she worked alone to prepare the food.
After a while her patience snapped. “Lord, art thou content that my sister should leave me to do the serving alone? Come, bid her help me.” By no means ideal behaviour, one is obliged to admit, but surely, in the circumstances, eminently forgivable.
And indeed at first there is great affection in Jesus’s reply. We learn from St John (11:5) that he loved Martha equally with Mary and her brother Lazarus, and this is borne out in Luke 10:41 by the repetition of her name, and by his affectionate tone: “Martha, Martha, how many cares and troubles thou hast!” Then the mood suddenly changes: “But only one thing is necessary; and Mary has chosen the best part of all, that which shall never be taken away from her.”
A Christian does not argue with the words of the Redeemer; and the commentators duly throng to make the obvious point that it is more important to imbibe spiritual wisdom than material food.
All the same, in this life material food is by no means unnecessary, nor are the virtues of hospitality to be denied. One may also feel that, at least as St Luke tells the story, Mary has hardly done enough to merit an eternal primacy.
Later, in John 11:17-45, Martha plays a leading part in the raising of her brother Lazarus. “When she heard that Jesus had come, she went to meet him, while Mary sat in the house.” And what confidence she shows: “If thou hadst been here, my brother would not have died; and I know well that even now God will grant whatever thou wilt ask of him.”
Whatever Martha may have lacked, it was not faith.