Mary and Martha Bible Story Study Guide

Mary sits at Jesus' feet with Martha in the background.
Christ With Martha and Maria, by Henryk Siemiradzki, 1886.

Public Domain

The Bible story of Mary and Martha has confused Christians for centuries. The main lesson of the story places emphasis on giving attention to Jesus over our own busyness. Learn why this simple incident continues to baffle energetic Christians today.

Questions for Reflection

The story of Mary and Martha is one we can return to study again and again in our walk of faith because the lesson is timeless. We all have aspects of Mary and Martha within us. As we read and study the passage, we can reflect on these questions:

  • Do I have my priorities in order?
  • Like Martha, am I worried or anxious about many things, or, like Mary, am I focused on listening to Jesus and spending time in his presence?
  • Have I put devotion to Christ and his word first, or am I more concerned about doing good deeds?

Bible Story Summary

The story of Mary and Martha takes place in Luke 10:38-42 and John 12:2.

Mary and Martha were the sisters Lazarus, the man Jesus raised from the dead. The three siblings were also close friends of Jesus Christ. They lived in a town called Bethany, about two miles from Jerusalem. One day while Jesus and his disciples stopped to visit in their home, a wonderful lesson unfolded. 

Mary sat at the feet of Jesus listening intently to his words. Meanwhile, Martha was distracted, working frantically to prepare and serve the meal for her quests.

Frustrated, Martha scolded Jesus, asking him whether he cared that her sister had left her to fix the meal alone. She told Jesus to order Mary to help her with the preparations.

"Martha, Martha," the Lord answered, "you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her." (Luke 10:41-42, NIV)

Jesus in the home of Mary and Martha
Jesus in the home of Martha. Martha is concerned that Mary sits and listens to their guest rather than serving. 'Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things: But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her' Luke x 38-42. Illustration by William Hole 1846-1917.  Culture Club / Getty Images

Life Lessons From Mary and Martha

For centuries people in the church have puzzled over the Mary and Martha story, knowing that someone has to do the work. The point of this passage, however, is about making Jesus and his word our first priority. Today we come to know Jesus better through prayer, church attendance, and Bible study.

If all 12 apostles and some of the women who supported Jesus' ministry were traveling with him, fixing the meal would have been a major job. Martha, like many hostesses, became anxious over impressing her guests.

Martha has been compared to the Apostle Peter: practical, impulsive, and short-tempered to the point of rebuking the Lord himself. Mary is more like the Apostle John: reflective, loving, and calm.

Even still, Martha was a remarkable woman and deserves considerable credit. It was quite rare in Jesus' day for a woman to manage her own affairs as the head of the household, and especially to invite a man into her home. Welcoming Jesus and his entourage into her house implied the fullest form of hospitality and involved substantial generosity.

Martha appears to be the eldest of the family, and head of the sibling household. When Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, both sisters played a prominent role in the story and their contrasting personalities are evident in this account as well. Although both were upset and disappointed that Jesus did not arrive before Lazarus died, Martha ran out to meet Jesus as soon as she learned he had entered Bethany, but Mary waited at home. John 11:32 tells us that when Mary did finally go to Jesus, she fell at his feet weeping.

Some of us tend to be more like Mary in our Christian walk, while others resemble Martha. It's likely we have qualities of both within us. We may be inclined at times to let our busy lives of service distract us from spending time with Jesus and listening to his word. It's significant to note, though, that Jesus gently admonished Martha for being "worried and upset," not for serving. Service is a good thing, but sitting at Jesus' feet is best. We must remember what is most important.

Good works should flow from a Christ-centered life; they do not produce a Christ-centered life. When we give Jesus the attention he deserves, he empowers us to serve others.

Key Verse

Luke 10:41–42
But the Lord said to her, “My dear Martha, you are worried and upset over all these details! There is only one thing worth being concerned about. Mary has discovered it, and it will not be taken away from her.” (NLT)