Like the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37), the story of Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42) is a commentary on the two-fold great commandment: love God with every fiber of your being and love of your neighbor as yourself (Luke 10:25-29). The parable of the Good Samaritan focuses on the latter while the story of Mary and Martha centers on the former.
In the parable of the Good Samaritan we find a very active hero. The Samaritan went to the beaten, half-dead Jew, bandaged his wounds, and poured oil and wine on them. He put him on his animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of the wounded man. He paid the innkeeper and promised to return. That’s what the love of one’s neighbor looks like.
The hero of the story of the Mary and Martha, however, sits still. Mary sits at Jesus’ feet as one of the master’s disciples while her sister Martha busily serves the household. In the previous section (the sending of the seventy in Luke 10:1-24), Jesus said that the people he and his disciples engaged in their ministry were actually encountering the one who sent him. (Luke 10:16). The verb “to listen” links Luke 10:16 with Mary’s encounter with Jesus in Luke 10:39. That’s why Mary’s action is “the one thing necessary.” Sitting at Jesus’ feet – that’s what the love of God looks like.
Luke put these two stories side-by-side for a reason. Love of God and love of neighbor. Active service and attentive adoration. These are two sides of the same coin. You can’t have one without the other.