It’s true that this passage is challenging. In the story, Jesus stays at the home of close friends. (Notice that Martha feels sufficiently comfortable with Jesus to scold him!) Mary sits at Jesus’ feet and listens to him, but Martha is concerned about preparing a meal for their guest and resents that Mary has left all the work to her.
We’re liable to stop at our identification with Martha and leave the matter there, the same way we often do with other difficult passages like turning the other cheek, and so on. But there is a lot to learn from these sisters.
One thing we should notice is Martha’s feelings. In modern psychology we might say Martha was “projecting” her anxiety on Jesus. She felt pressured and impatient by the meal and assumed Jesus was also impatient, which he wasn’t.
I do this all the time, and other folks do, too. People in position of authority who are insecure this way can make you miserable. Whatever the situation, when any of us feel this way, we imagine that a situation is more dire and urgent than it is, because we feel so pressured and insecure in our hearts. Unfortunately, we spread our unhappiness by inflicting it on others.
In those days, students often sat at the feet of the teacher. But as in many cultures, students weren’t usually women. So Mary may have seemed lazy to Martha, but she might have also seemed to be audacious and inconsiderate. Thus Jesus assured that Mary’s choice of being a student “will not be taken away from her.”
Martha also had a heart full of worry. In another passage, Matthew 13:22, Jesus points out that many people hear his teachings but “the cares of the world” “choke” those teachings like seeds which cannot grow, and so those people don’t experience the deeper understanding of his teachings, nor the help of his living presence. Here in Luke’s gospel, Jesus calls his teachings “the better part,” which Mary has chosen. In other words, she has set aside her cares (and, we might say, she didn't allow her cares to define her and rule her life) in order to learn from Jesus’ presence and teaching.
This is a good lesson for us, too. Sometimes we’re indeed very busy, and sometimes things in our lives are out of control. Sometimes we’re so worried we think everything is falling apart and no one cares. We may start to think Jesus himself doesn’t care very much!
Seeking Jesus’s teachings but also his very presence can help us examine our responsibilities, feelings, and priorities. A couple years ago, our former pastor preached a sermon on a different text (John 21:1-14) but his point was applicable for this passage, too: Jesus doesn’t call us to stop working altogether, but Jesus does call us to be able to recognize him in the different aspects of our lives, and to listen for his guidance as we go about our work and business.