Some people believe that religion and psychology are fundamentally at odds with one another.  While there are instances where science contradicts literal interpretations of certain events depicted in the Bible, there are also many stories found in scripture that reveal important psychological truths.   

Indeed, as a pastoral counselor, I find that using stories from the Bible is a helpful way to communicate psychological concepts.  With that in mind, as we approach the holiday season, I want to tell you the story of Mary and Martha (Luke 10: 38-42). This beloved biblical classic has an important lesson for those who struggle with the stress that comes from family and social gatherings at this time of year.


 “Now as they went on their way, he entered a village; and a woman named Martha received him into her house. 39 And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. 40 But Martha was distracted with much serving; and she went to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” 41 But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; 42 one thing is needful.[a] Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from he.” (RSV)


I believe this story is so popular because the situation is so real and relatable to so many.  Specifically, two sisters who live together host a prominent religious figure, Jesus.

Martha, the owner of the house, appears to be in charge.  From the outset, you can imagine the pressure she must feel wanting to make a good impression on her special guest. In the midst of her trying to make sure that everything is “just so”, she notices that Mary, instead of helping her, is just sitting there with Jesus.  Despite her best intentions to be a good hostess, Martha loses it and snaps, asking Jesus to rebuke Mary and tell her to get to work.

Responding, Jesus turns to Martha and, instead of criticizing Mary or offering to pitch in to help her, he calls to Martha by name. In doing so, Jesus empathizes with her.  He recognizes that Martha’s anxiety keeps her from realizing what is really important in the moment.  Ironically, in trying so hard to serve the Lord, Martha was, unable to be fully present with him.


Traditionally, preachers use Martha as a negative example, i.e. we should not be caught up in the lesser important things of life.  A common criticism of Martha was that she was too worried about external concerns. Put another way, she asked Jesus into her house but not into her heart.

That said, a lot of folks find this story difficult.  Many identify with Martha’s distress. Besides that, the story feels incomplete. It would have been helpful if the text had included Martha’s reaction to Jesus’s comment and their subsequent discussion.


For those who sympathize with Martha, here are some thoughts. Instead of looking at the story as a criticism of Martha, appreciate it as a lesson about a difficult aspect of human nature. Martha’s reaction illustrates how stressful and complicated family relationships can be.

In the story, it is clear that the sisters’ relationship is rocky. When interpersonal tensions are combined with the extra stress of the day, it is easy to understand how emotions could boil over into an angry outburst.  Psychologically, we understand how stress expresses itself externally as anger and blaming others.

In addition to the relational aspects of the problem, Jesus also identifies anxiety as the underlying problem for Martha that explains her anger.  Indeed, the story of Mary and Martha illustrates a fundamental assumption of psychotherapy, i.e. that most surface-level problems have underlying and unaddressed causes.


Turning to the holidays, Matthew 10:38  can help us in practical ways. It reminds us to be mindful when approaching social gatherings. The story also demonstrates how vulnerable we are to losing a reasonable perspective and getting caught up in petty conflicts.  Thinking ahead allows us to anticipate predictable social difficulties. Making small changes can create much better results.

Besides anticipating the future, reviewing problems from prior years can prevent us from making the same mistakes, again. Increased awareness provides an opportunity to do things differently and avoid unpleasantness.

Likewise, having increased understanding helps us to be more empathic with folks who are struggling. Realizing that anger outbursts usually stem from the person’s past, unseen trauma allows us not to be triggered or to take things personally.  With this thought in mind, here are a couple of tips for attending holiday parties:

— For yourself: Be aware and monitor your stress level before and during any social gathering. If the level starts to climb, withdraw before it boils over and hit the reset button.

— For others: Be understanding. Be present without arguing or challenging.

— Most of all, keep perspective and recognize what is important this time of year when we gather together to celebrate the joys of the season.

Best wishes for a loving holiday season and a happy new year!

Rev, Michael Heath, LMHC, Fellow AAPC               12 3 2023