Why did Jesus say, “Mary has chosen what is better”? Wasn’t Martha’s hospitality a spiritual gift?

Q. I’ve always wondered why Jesus said that Mary sitting at his feet listening to him was “better” than Martha working to fix a meal for him and his disciples. Wasn’t that an important and needed form of service? Isn’t hospitality supposed to be a spiritual gift?

My understanding is that this was an informal occasion–travelers entertained spontaneously in a home along their route–for which a basic meal would have been sufficient. It was not a wedding or similar occasion that called for elaborate preparations. The “main event” was simply having Jesus in the house and having the opportunity to converse with him, and that was where the emphasis should have been placed.

But Martha apparently wanted to go “above and beyond” what the situation required and put on a really fancy meal. In fact, she wanted to do far more than she could do alone, and so she asked Jesus to tell her sister to help her. I think Jesus was saying, “It’s one thing if you want to go ‘above and beyond,’ that’s your choice, but you can’t also choose it for someone else who wants to give her attention to what should be the ‘main event’ here.”  In other words, when simple will suffice, if you want to do more, that’s on you, not anybody else.

This is not to say that the ministry of hospitality was not important to Jesus or to the new community he was founding.  In Jesus’ instructions to his disciples in the gospels, there’s great appreciation for those who receive traveling messengers of the kingdom of God into their homes, as Martha was doing here.  We find the same emphasis in the epistles. In his third letter, for example, John praises Gaius for receiving traveling messengers from his community, saying, “We ought to show hospitality to such people so that we may work together for the truth.”

And Martha eventually did get to host a more elaborate banquet for Jesus and his disciples. She did this to celebrate the resurrection of her brother Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead. (Now that called for a full celebration!) So Martha’s gift and ministry of hospitality did find a place for its appropriate expression within the life of the community of Jesus’ followers.  I hope that those today with the same gift and ministry will find and be given similar opportunities, but also that we will all recognize when an occasion calls for something simpler and a different focus.

Allesandro Allori, “Christ with Mary and Martha.” The Latin inscription in the background reads, “She has chosen the better part.”

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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