What We Can Learn from Mary and Martha

Alicia Searl

Contributing Writer
Published May 03, 2023
What We Can Learn from Mary and Martha

Mary and Martha may be two vastly different women in the Bible, each with their own unique gifts to share, but make no mistake about it–they were both deeply loved! 

Are you are Mary or a Martha? Maybe you have heard that question before. The story of these two sisters has been shared in congregations and talked about in Bible studies for ages. One a servant, the other a listener. Yet, Mary is the one recognized by Jesus for her humble heart (Luke 10:42). Hmmm, why is that?

Maybe, like me, this story hasn’t always settled well with you. Partly because, if I am being brutally honest, I tend to be a “Martha.” There is a bit of a busybody streak in me that hides and then emerges when stress rears its ugly head. When I find myself worried or anxious, I clean–excessively. When my schedule is filled to the brim, I complain. When I feel overwhelmed by serving others (especially my own family), I do so with a low grumble in my heart.

Can You Relate? 

However, on the flip side, I have also been able to relate to Mary as well. There are moments when I desperately crave to be alone, seek peace, and will retreat from others, not really wanting (or willing) to serve others. While I am craving to meet with Jesus and find solace, I get so wrapped in that, that I often fail to see the needs of others.

Sweet friend, here’s the thing. We have a little bit of Mary and Martha in all of us. And the truth is, they both had their imperfections, just like you and I do, but they were both precious and beautiful women that loved the Lord with their whole hearts. As believers, we should all crave to be in the presence of Jesus and serve Him, just as Mary and Martha did.

But it begs to question? Why Jesus says, “Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:42). Not sure how Martha reacted, but pretty sure she winced upon hearing that. Maybe a tinge of jealousy washed over her, or maybe the sound of His gentle yet stern voice brought about conviction, allowing her to have a complete change of heart. I can tell you how I would have reacted, and it most likely wouldn’t have been very pretty. That low grumble I mentioned earlier… yeah, there probably would have been some of that going on. Sigh.

However, back to Mary and Martha. Did I mention they were sisters? For those of you blessed with a sister, you know the beautiful and delicate nature of such a relationship. Each sister comes with a unique set of qualities, and sometimes they clash, bringing about tension. We see that happening here in this story. Because they are women, they have an innate need to be noticed, recognized, and cherished. And these two lovely ladies wanted nothing more than that from their most honored guest–Jesus. They yearned for His attention and love and wanted to love on Him in return; they just went about it two different ways. 

So, let’s see how each of these sisters welcomed and doted on their beloved Guest and why Jesus preferred Mary’s warm greeting.

Meet Mary

Mary is perhaps the most common woman’s name in the Bible. We met several Marys in Scripture, and while the Mary in this story hits quite the controversial nerve, I personally believe she could have very well been Mary Magdalene, the harlot transformed by Jesus who cast out her seven demons (Luke 8:2). However, some scholars would disagree, so that is still up for debate. With that in mind, tread lightly here, and please do your own research. 

What we do know is that Mary is from Bethany, a town a few miles from Jerusalem. She is also a sister to Lazarus. Yep, the guy that Jesus rose from the dead (John 11:17-37). She was a friend of Jesus, as were her siblings. Mary is seen several times throughout Scripture. Of course, in the story with her sister, Martha, and another time is at the site of her brother's death. I believe she is also the weeping woman that washes Jesus’ feet with fragrant oil, her tears, and then wipes His feet dry with her hair (Luke 7:36-50).

On each account, we see this compassionate, remorseful, and genuinely sincere woman who longed to know Jesus and connect with Him in a deep and meaningful way. It can be assumed that knowing that Jesus saved her life and soul from sin and destruction, she was grateful and felt indebted to Him.

Mary was emotionally driven and thirsty to hear Jesus’ teachings; she was known as a woman who followed Jesus with her whole heart. We see this in her response, falling into despair and deep grief after Jesus’ death on the cross, and then being the first to witness Jesus after His resurrection (John 20:13-18). Some claim there is symbolism in that encounter. I, too, believe she was the first to see Him due to her courage to live completely devoted to Him.

Mary Teaches Us:

- Our past doesn’t define us, and redemption is a precious gift we must value from God.

- God wants our entire heart and to connect with Him through being still and quiet to seek His presence.

- God wants to be our priority above all things.

Meet Martha

Martha, the servant heart. Quite possibly one of the most misunderstood ladies in the Word. Her snarky retort to Mary’s unwillingness to help serve Jesus paints her in a rather harsh light, don’t you think? But, while she may have elicited the help of her sister to no prevail, we see here that her heart (in the beginning) genuinely wanted to love the Lord with “acts of service.” This was most likely her love language.

However, as she was prepping, cleaning, and cooking, she was also most likely “side-eyeing” her sister, who was sweetly chatting with Jesus. Maybe jealously ensued? Maybe it was comparison? But, whatever the internal battle was, we see a change of heart as she slowly stopped serving the Lord with good intent and begged Jesus to make Mary help her (Luke 10:40). His response says everything: “You are worried and upset about many things” (Luke 10:41). He didn’t want her to worry about pleasing Him or compare how Mary was enjoying His company. He wanted her to find joy in serving Him so He could delight in her as well. He knew the posture of her heart had shifted.

What else is there to know about Martha? Well, it may be important to note that her name means bitterness. That’s right! But let’s paint a bigger picture here. As the oldest, she most likely felt compelled to take care of her little brother and sister. It was also her home that Jesus came to, so it is possible that the siblings lived there as well. All that to say, she may have felt cheated that she was always the one serving and caring for others, unable to actually enjoy her company. Maybe over time, she did grow bitter. And, honestly, I can understand that.

However, on the contrary, we see that Martha had a close friendship with Jesus. She showed Him hospitality on a few occasions, and in the midst of serving and loving Him, she was also not afraid to be honest and real with Him. After her brother’s death, she remained stoic and emotionally well put together but questions the Lord (John 11:21). She places her wounded and wondering heart in His hands and quickly finds reassurance when He reminds her Who He is as the Messiah (John 11:27).

Martha Teaches Us:

-God knows the posture of our hearts and asks us to serve from a place of love.

-God wants us to find joy in our interactions with others, making relationships a priority, especially with Him.

-God wants us to be open and honest with Him when we face challenges or struggles. 

Mary and Martha may be two vastly different women in the Bible, each with their own unique gifts to share, but make no mistake about it–they were both deeply loved! So, whether you are a “fall at the feet of Jesus” type girl or a “serve with grace and humility” type girl, do it with your whole heart, and let love spill out!

Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/Liudmila Chernetska

Alicia SearlAlicia Searl is a devotional author, blogger, and speaker that is passionate about pouring out her heart and pointing ladies of all ages back to Jesus. She has an education background and master’s in literacy.  Her favorite people call her Mom, which is why much of her time is spent cheering them on at a softball game or dance class. She is married to her heartthrob (a tall, spiky-haired blond) who can whip up a mean latte. She sips that goodness while writing her heart on a page while her puppy licks her feet. Visit her website at aliciasearl.com and connect with her on Instagram and Facebook.