At the Home of Martha and Mary
38 As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. 39 She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet listening to what he said. 40 But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, "Lord, don't you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!"
41 "Martha, Martha," the Lord answered, "you are worried and upset about many things, 42 but few things are needed—or indeed only one. [f] Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her."
When I first became a Christian, there were certain aspects of learning to follow Jesus that were difficult but for the most part, as I look back on that time now I realize that, things were pretty easy. I didn’t have much to do when it came to my walk with God other than to just take care of my own personal time with God. Other disciples were constantly serving me and helping me to grow and all I had to do was to quiet myself and worship God, whether it was for a personal quiet time, or a worship gathering at church. I could just sit with Jesus and focus on my relationship with him. It never crossed my mind at the time that there would be a time when just doing that could become a challenge. Surely if I did ever think that just quieting myself in devotion, reflection, and worship of God would become difficult, I would have thought that it was because I was struggling in my faith. What I don’t think I ever imagined at that time was that as I became more spiritually mature and more devoted to God, it could actually become harder to devote myself to quiet worship of him.
As I became a more mature disciple I realized that I couldn’t just sit back and let everyone else serve me. I had to step forward and begin to serve others. I had to go about the work of teaching, training, and discipling other Christians. I had to start engaging in the necessary work of the church and carry my share of the load. As time went on I found myself serving in God’s kingdoms in ways that constantly demanded more time, more energy, more effort, and just more of me all around. I eventually found myself where I am today, serving as the minister of one of God’s churches and teaching his word.
That all sounds wonderful and it is. I cherish the opportunities that I have had to serve and work in God’s kingdom. It seems with each passing year that the responsibilities I have had have grown and that can be a wonderful thing. But with increased responsibility comes increased demand. I now find it more challenging than ever before to sit and just worship God sometimes. Every time I open the Bible I can feel a crush of needing to get another lesson or study prepared. Every time I go to a Sunday worship gathering I can get so focused on all of the things that need to be done that I can actually forget to stop and sit at Jesus’ feet and learn from him and be his disciple. I can get so busy doing the things that a disciple does that I can actually overlook the need to be a disciple of Jesus. Serving Jesus in his kingdom is a wonderful task, but it is just a harsh reality that I can get so busy doing that that I neglect to sit down and be with Jesus.
Luke connects this incident involving Mary and martha with the previous scene by pointing out that it took place as Jesus and his disciples continued on their journey. Yet, it seems clear, based on the location of this account in Bethany, that either Jesus took a weird zig-zagging pattern on his journey, coming close to Jerusalem and then working back farther away and then coming close again, or that Luke has ordered his account in a way other than chronological. Luke told his readers in the opening verses that he ordered his account thoroughly but only a modern Western mind would assume that that meant it must have been a chronological ordering. Luke is depicting Jesus’ journey towards Jerusalem and is showing how he redefined what it meant to be the people of God. In the previous passage, Jesus made clear that his kingdom people must be people who are not focused on sizing up the worthiness of others to be loved, served, and shown compassion but rather we are to be people who concern ourselves with be loving, serving, and showing compassion to all. The responsibility for love and service is on us not on others to be worthy of that status.
But there is a real danger in becoming people of love, compassion, and service. We can get so focused on doing those “good things” that we can forget why we are doing them. The long history of the Christian road is littered equally on one side with those who just wanted to love and adore Jesus and enjoy their own relationship with him and ignored the call from the previous passage to radically love and serve others. But there are also those on the other side who became so focused on loving and serving others that they lost sight of Jesus and his teaching and purposes to reconcile the whole world to God. The previous story was an illustration of the need to love and serve. This story, however, stands in perfect tension with the previous one. Serve and love, yes, but don’t forget the all-important relationship with Jesus.
As they prepared for the meal, Martha was busy doing what was the normal role for women in that culture. She was preparing everything. She was working hard and serving others. Martha got so distracted and busy with all the work that needed to be done that she minimized the need to sit with Jesus and just “be” his disciple.
The fact that Martha’s heart needed redirecting is made clear by her question to Jesus. Her service had ceased to be about pleasing God and became about her. She was serving but Mary was not. Mary was not doing what she should be. In fact, it went beyond just that. Mary was not just neglecting her culturally-expected role to help prepare the meal, she had moved into the role that traditionally only men took. She was sitting at Jesus’ feet and learning from him as though she was a disciple on the same level with the men. This crossing of the gender lines would have been a small scandal in those times and that was no doubt irritating Martha as well. Only a woman of questionable reputation would do such a thing. Mary didn’t know her place and she was leaving all the work to Martha to get done. Her question is asked in such a way in the original Greek that Martha was expecting a positive answer from Jesus (in English it would be something like, “You care about this and want her to help me and not leave me to do the work alone, right?”).
Jesus gently rebukes Martha, however, rather than agreeing with her as she expected. He starts, though, by calling her name twice, a sign of closeness and affection in their culture. Jesus, we should note, doesn’t really rebuke Martha for her activities of serving. His rebuke is for getting things out of balance and judging Mary by her own standards. She was evidently outraged by the fact that Mary had crossed out of the realm that was proper for a woman and that had left Martha to do the work by herself. Just like he did with the expert of the law in the previous passage, Jesus wants to transform Martha’s thinking. She had become so focused on serving and doing that she lost sight of what her true motivation was to be in the kingdom and what was really important.
The fact is there is a danger that when we forget to sit at Jesus’ feet that our service can get to a point where it is no longer out of love, it is out of duty and we get quite frustrated with those who are just sitting at the feet of Jesus. The problem is not with them but with us as we have become unplugged from the source of our love, service, and devotion.
Jesus didn’t denounce Martha for her heart to serve but he was showing her that service is no good if it consumes us and we reduce discipleship to doing things. Mary had chosen the better way of devotion to Jesus. There was a time and place for preparation but this wasn’t that time. In addition to that, the very fact that Martha was upset by Mary’s actions demonstrated that something in heart was out of whack. Thus, the fact that she was upset with Mary and the fact that she was too busy to come sit at Jesus’ feet and take the position of a learner stood as dual witnesses to the truth that Martha had either forgotten or had yet to find the real reason for her discipleship. Only when we are truly devoted to sitting at the feet of Jesus and having a relationship with him can we really serve with a heart of compassion that pleases God.
But we should note that there is truth to the fact that Jesus was also radically redefining the role of women in his kingdom movement. When Mary took her place at Jesus’ feet she was not just taking the position of a learner and student, but was doing so because she wanted to be able to teach the word of God as well. There would have been no thought of learning for the sake of learning. She was taking the position of a disciple, and disciples learned so that they could then pass on what they learned. The role of women would be equal to that of men in the kingdom of God. Women in the family of God were every bit as much disciples as men. Jesus would have nothing of the idea that there was a space for women and a space for men and that, by and large, the space for men was in the realm of learner and disciple while the women should serve their role and function which did not include learning and teaching the word of God. In God’s new family there would be no distinction in status between men and women (Ga. 3:26-29). This is not to say that there were not biblical limitations to the scope of the equal roles of men and women because there certainly were (1 Tim. 2:12), but Jesus made it clear that women were as welcome at his feet as men were (the fact that the early Christian church was viewed as a family helps us to understand the different roles of men and women within the church family, including the expectation that men would have the role of leading the family).
Some commentators, like C.F. Evans, who see an intentional parallel between Deuteronomy and Luke 10-18, note that this passage seems to contain allusions to Deuteronomy 8:1-3 where the idea is to realize that “people do not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD” (Deut. 8:3). This is what Martha needed to learn as do we all need a reminder from time to time. When life gets hectic or the demands on us get heavy, it seems that often the first thing to go is our time with God. This story is a stark reminder that there is never so much to do that we don’t have time to just sit at the feet of Jesus.
One of the ironic elements of this account is that Martha was so worried about what Mary was doing and was sure that Jesus was going to deal with Mary but he instead rebuked Martha. This is a great reminder for us to focus on our relationship with God and find the balance that God desires for us rather than worrying about what others are doing. Usually when we get all worked up about what others are doing and we want to see them get rebuked, we can let that serve as a sign that we are, in fact, the one in need of some correction. Look at your own life. Do you need to stop worrying about what others are doing and just sit at the feet of Jesus for awhile?