Written by Natalie Hart
As Jesus and the disciples continued on their way to Jerusalem, they came to a certain village where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. Her sister, Mary, sat at the Lord’s feet, listening to what he taught. But Martha was distracted by the big dinner she was preparing. She came to Jesus and said,
“Lord, doesn’t it seem unfair to you that my sister just sits here while I do all the work? Tell her to come and help me.”
But the Lord said to her, “My dear Martha, you are worried and upset over all these details! There is only one thing worth being concerned about. Mary has discovered it, and it will not be taken away from her.”
Luke 10:38-42 (NLT)
Every time I teach the Mary and Martha story I feel uncomfortable because I think it’s unfair to Martha.
Jesus and the disciples didn’t come with food. Neither did Jesus tell the disciples to prepare the meal so Mary and Martha could both listen to him. They arrived expecting food and in their culture women were expected to prepare and serve it. The disciples didn’t have jobs when they followed Jesus but relied on the charity and hospitality of people they met on their travels, which were all by foot. There’s a good chance they were hungry, and possibly hangry when they arrived at Martha’s house. It would have been a lot of work to prepare food for over a dozen hungry/hangry men, making everything from scratch with no refrigeration, machines, or lightweight plastic storage containers.
None of these are trifling details.
Also, I tend to be a Martha, preparing food for gatherings of people (unless my mother is also at the gathering, because she has perfected the skill of slipping away and doing everything), so I’m inclined to be sympathetic to her.
I’ve been able to approach the story by seeing Martha’s problem as being bitter about being stuck in the kitchen. If Martha had been joyful about preparing the food and was able to say generously, “I hope Mary remembers everything Jesus says so she can tell me later,” then all would have been fine.
But I was recently preparing the story materials for another children’s worship leader to tell it and I experienced it in a new way, as about pursuing the approval of Jesus.
Trying to impress Jesus
It’s not hard to imagine Martha working away, sweeping the floors, chopping and mixing and hustling between the house and oven in the courtyard, and lifting more big ceramic jars out of storage, calculating the amount of food and number of guests, thinking to herself,
“Jesus will be so impressed at the table I’m setting for him and the disciples. He’s always so happy to come to my house. I always put out such a great spread. He can always count on my welcome.”
At some point, she becomes worried that her own work won’t be enough to make the right impression.
“Where is Mary? Why isn’t she helping? She can’t expect me to put out our usual abundant spread all on my own.”
She peeks into the main room and sees Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus.
“All this work I’m putting in to make sure that Jesus is happy, and Mary’s doing nothing! Jesus will back me up. After all, how else will all these men get fed?”
Martha craves the words of approval she gets from Jesus when they are together. Who wouldn’t? But Mary’s the one who gets them. For doing nothing but listening.
This made me think of the story of Jesus’ baptism, when God’s said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17 NIV). Jesus had done nothing in his public ministry yet. Not a blessed thing. And still God was well pleased with him.
Martha’s problem wasn’t as much that she was doing, doing, doing as that she was doing, doing, doing to make Jesus well pleased with her. Kind of like how obeying biblical Law isn’t a problem in itself, but basing your entire faith practice and your opinions of the worth of people on how strictly they follow the Law is a problem (see all of Jesus’ comments about Pharisees and religious people, including Matthew 21:28-23:36).
Those are not what impress Jesus.
What impresses Jesus
Do you crave his voice? Are you listening to him? No matter what else you do or don’t do, that will always be the right choice.
If only you would listen to his voice today! Psalm 95:7b
And, as if speaking to Martha’s becoming-bitter heart, this is the beginning of the next verse:
The Lord says, “Don’t harden your hearts… Psalm 95:8a
As a do-er who now gets paid for some of her doing for the kingdom, Martha is a continual cautionary tale for me. I know the difference between work that I do for Jesus that flows out of love and generosity and work that morphs into bitterness because I’m just working so hard all on my own and nobody is noticing but everyone is expecting me to do it. And that pesky trying-to-work-out-my-own-salvation thing, that trying-to-DO-my-way-into-Jesus’-approval thing is there, too.
Dr. John Perkins was recently at my church and he said, “I’m about to overcome my working for salvation.”
And he’s 89. He just recovered from cancer treatment. Not to mention the fact that he was tortured and beaten to within an inch of his life by white police officers yet refused to give in to bitterness and hatred and has been working and preaching for racial reconciliation in the Christian church for decades (15 honorary degrees, 18 books published). He’s just now about to overcome it.
So I’m in good company.
Recovering Marthas, you’re in good company, too.
Let’s keep on being made uncomfortable by this story so we, too, will get closer and closer to overcoming the need to work for our salvation. Jesus offers it.
We just have to say yes, and listen.