Martha usually gets a bad rap.
Most of us have heard this Biblical story about the two sisters – Mary who sat at Jesus’ feet listening, while Martha busied herself with preparations for the guests and quickly became bothered because her sister wasn’t helping. We seem to talk about Martha smugly, with a bit of distaste, as if we actually knew her and had been at the scene that day: “Can you believe Martha acted that way when Jesus was actually in her house? I for sure would have been sitting as His feet…”
Of course, many of us want to be like Mary, the sister who chose the “right” thing and who anointed Jesus with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair. But most of us (at least most of the women I know, myself included!) are actually more like Martha. We truly love and trust in Jesus, but we’re distracted by the things in our daily lives that keep us from taking in His presence and worshiping Him fully.
Let’s look at the passage…
“Now as they were traveling along, He entered a village; and a woman named Martha welcomed Him into her home. She had a sister called Mary, who was seated at the Lord’s feet, listening to His word. But Martha was distracted with all her preparations; and she came up to Him and said, ‘Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to do all the serving alone? Then tell her to help me.’ But the Lord answered and said to her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and bothered about so many things; but only one thing is necessary, for Mary has chosen the good part, which shall not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38-42, NASB)
Martha is described as “distracted,” “worried,” and “bothered.” This sounds a lot like most modern women and moms around me…and the earnest believer staring back at myself in the mirror.
But, it’s not all negative. Martha was brave. Not only did she boldly and directly approach the Savior of the world with her concerns, but the time period of this famous visit was dangerous for Jesus’ believers. He was traveling from place to place with his disciples. He had just sent out 70 others to go ahead of him to cities and towns to tell them the kingdom of God was near, to heal the sick, and eat and drink with them in their homes. There were many people who rejected these teachings and didn’t believe. There was a lot of ridicule and physical danger for anyone who openly followed Jesus. Martha didn’t hesitate to welcome Jesus into her home. I believe Martha honestly thought she was doing the right thing by trying to serve Jesus – perhaps preparing an intricate meal and making sure her home was extra welcoming.
Martha’s example also shows we can have an open, honest relationship with Jesus. He said Martha’s name twice, as you would when trying to calm someone down, but he didn’t sound angry, just firm, patient, loving. She was troubled and upset, and Jesus wasn’t surprised or angered by of either of those emotions and listened to her attentively.
Later in John 11, Mary and Martha lose their brother, Lazarus. Right before, the sisters send word to Jesus that his beloved Lazarus is sick and instead of coming right away, Jesus declares that the sickness will not end in death and waits two more days before going to him. By the time he arrives, Lazarus has already been in the tomb for four days. Understandably, both sisters are confused and stricken with grief. When she hears that Jesus is (finally) coming, the more forthcoming sister Martha runs to meet him while Mary stays at the house…
“Martha then said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died. Even now I know that whatever You ask of God, God will give You.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha said to Him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die. Do you believe this?’ She said to Him, ‘Yes, Lord; I have believed that You are the Christ, the Son of God, even He who comes into the world.” (John 11:21-27, NASB)
Once again, Martha boldly goes to the source with her concerns. And this time, we get to clearly hear of her unwavering trust in Jesus. This Biblical character’s admirable qualities are easily overlooked when we simply see her as a busybody who refused to sit at Jesus’ feet.
The Matthew Henry Commentary puts it beautifully,
“She was for much serving; plenty, variety, and exactness. Worldly business is a snare to us, when it hinders us from serving God, and getting good to our souls. What needless time is wasted, and expense often laid out, even in entertaining professors of the gospel! Though Martha was on this occasion faulty, yet she was a true believer, and in her general conduct did not neglect the one thing needful.”
I wish we could have heard more of the story – what was Martha’s response after Jesus corrected her? Did her lips tighten with pride as she reluctantly threw down her towel? Did she realize her silliness and finally sit at her Savior’s feet? All I’m saying is that there’s some Martha in all of us. We’re busy. Distracted. But ultimately we all want that “which shall not be taken away” – the peace of Jesus that isn’t attached to the things of this world like food, home, and physical comforts. It takes being connected to the source, the vine.
In her book Having A Mary Heart in a Martha World, Joanna Weaver writes,
“I had spent so much of my life concentrating on the ‘fruit’ of my own personal holiness, that I missed out on the connection, the sweet intimacy of being attached to the Vine. And as a result, what I tried to do was as ludicrous as an apple tree branch trying to produce apples by its own effort. ‘Be good, be good. Do good, do good,’ the broken branch chants as it lies on the orchard grass. ‘That apple should be popping out anytime,’ says the helpless, lifeless stick.”
How do we take the lessons of this Mary & Martha story with us as we walk into the rest of today, tomorrow, and the Christmas season? We can take time to plan and prep for our families and friends ahead of time so we can sit and be present with these image-of-God people before us, instead of scurrying around our homes like moving targets. It’s not about having a perfect home or perfect table or perfect menu. Serving at church or at our kids’ schools, rushing to rehearsals and charity events and soup kitchens, can be good ways to walk out our faith, but they’re not the best thing. We can cancel things on our calendars if they’re distracting us from loving God and loving people.
What is that “one thing” that’s necessary? The “good part” that Jesus describes? It’s Him. And the greatest thing He wants from us…is us.