The story before is the parable of the Good Samaritan that demonstrates that those who think they can get to heaven without “doing good works" may be sadly mistaken.
The story of Mary and Martha exposes a tension present right up to present times, namely that you must chose between prayerful meditation or even monasticism, religious orders and a life of active service for God. The present 21st century church exhibits this dualism. The idea is given that unless you are single, celibate and a full time worker for God you have nothing to give, or what you have to give is second class. This is to the detremant of the church and in contrast to Luther's theology of salvation and a church made up of ordinary people-which is of course the reality.
Who can inherit eternal life? The Samaritan with his good works? Mary with her piety?
Martha welcomes Jesus into her home on his way to Jerusalem. How many homes welcome Jesus? Really welcome him? Or like Gerry Hughes famous story of Jesus coming to tea in “God of Surprises” do we contain Jesus less he gets out of hand and too radical? Do we do this in the institutional church?
The village is probably Bethany and Mary and Martha are exercising Eastern hospitality.
Now this particular woman (Martha) had a sister named Mary, who actually sat at the Lord's feet and was listening to what he said-his teaching. Mary was acting like a disciple. A common pose for a rabbi and his disciples but not for a woman. In pietistic circles it was and still is unacceptable for a woman to take instruction with men (ie many mosques and strict Christian sects).
Martha was distracted, worried, busy, lit. "pulled about." Possibly by her responsibilities in the kitchen. Have you ever felt like that, so distracted that you lose the real focus of what is important in life?
Martha in her frustration tries to get Jesus on her side. Don’t you care that she’s not helping me? You don’t often get criticism of Jesus recorded in his own camp.
Mary is so obsessed with Jesus she has done nothing since he arrived and not helped Martha with the guests. She has had to do it herself. “Tell her to help me!”
"Martha, Martha, You are worried about so many things, but only one thing is essential. A few dishes for the meal is good, but really one is enough? The portion chosen by Mary and it cannot be taken away from her, namely the secret of eternal life.
Today the limiting of women’s presence and leadership in the church is still a very live issue. Martha was expressing a view common today that women are restricted to certain spheres of activity because of their gender, namely serving at table, a diaconal role. Jesus cuts through this understanding because he is bringing an upside down kingdom where the first will be last and the last first. This conversion to the place of women is an ongoing battle in a patriarchal society that has few women in the board room, expensive child care and no women bishops.