“It wasn’t long before the gracious hostess in Martha collapsed and the Queen of Hearts took over, pointing fingers and screaming, “Off with their heads! Off with everyone’s head!”
“The world clamours, “Do more! Be all that you can be!” But our Father whispers, “Be still and know that I am God.” ― Joanna Weaver. *
The short story of Mary and Martha has always fascinated me. In just five verses, which describe Jesus’ visit to a home in Bethany in the first century, God speaks volumes to our families and homes today. The short story is like a multi-course meal which gets richer the more we chew on it. It addresses the perils of a performance-driven Christian life where activities are placed before heart attitude. It challenges the notion that we can do something to earn God’s favour before or after we are saved. It shows how an inherently good act of service can easily become a destructive thing when our attitude is wrong. It draws the link between an intimate, vital relationship with Jesus and fruitful Christian service. It challenges us to check our priorities and put first things first. It asks Christians in the digital age a pertinent question: how are you stewarding your precious attention span? The story of Mary and Martha is a cameo of the question Isaiah asked God’s people, “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labour for that which does not satisfy? Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.” (Isa 55:2).
At the Home of Martha and Mary
Luke 10:38 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. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38-42)
It’s hot in the kitchen!
“We must work like Martha with a posture like Mary.”
I heard this expression in a sermon by Alistair Begg titled “A Biblical Approach to Anxiety,” and it struck a cord with me. To be honest, I’ve always had sympathy for Martha in the story. I wondered if Mary’s posture of sitting at Jesus’ feet could survive the heat of a kitchen at rush hour. I have prayed many times, “Jesus, teach me how to work like Martha– with a posture like Mary.”
I have often heard this story squeezed into the aperture of a particular lens. Some say Jesus is advocating a life of contemplation not action. Others focus on the difference in temperament between Mary and Martha. However, this story comes after Jesus sent 72 disciples to go into the towns on foot “as lambs among wolves,” to heal the sick and preach the gospel (Luke 10:1-11). Presumably all kinds of personalities would have made up the 72 sent to ‘sow’ the gospel of the kingdom. It was hard, hot work. The Christian life is not passive, but active and fruitful. And active service is not just for extrovert evangelistic types. The story of Mary and Martha also follows Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, where he taught that loving God and our neighbour requires action, not just words, thoughts or good intentions. The man showed pity only when he got on his knees in the dirt, treated the man’s wounds, transported him and paid for the innkeeper to look after him. The Samaritan’s service involved costly sacrifice and effort (Luke 10:33-35). That is what Jesus asks of us, because it is what He did for us on the cross.
So getting back to the story of Mary and Martha, Jesus himself knows that much of life is spent sweating in the kitchen. And He also knows how hot it gets in there.
Jesus is kind and gracious in his response to Martha’s meltdown. We know from John’s gospel that Jesus loved both sisters and was comfortable in their home (John 11:5). Jesus’ rebuke of Martha is tender but straight: “You are worried and upset about many things, 42 but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
Martha enjoys hospitality, which is a good thing in God’s eyes. Christians are told to be hospitable and Martha takes this to heart. But her devotion to preparing a special meal for Jesus eclipses her devotion to Jesus himself. Listening to his voice is not a priority for her. Her attention is in the kitchen rather than on the words of the Saviour in the sitting room. The result is that her heart is fragmented and upset as she works. She is truly ticked off. I can imagine her sulking, sighing and mumbling under her breath!
Making a meal of it
In the text, there is no hint that the task is too much for her, but Martha has made too much of the task! She is fussing too much over less important things. She is complicating her life. Her service soon becomes a quest to live up to her own standards as the perfect hostess. Jesus has not asked for this, nor does he need it. But Martha turns her labours into a demanding duty, rather than a joy. Soon Martha is disgruntled with her sister, distracted by all the preparations and even irritated with Jesus for not paying attention to her raw deal.
“Lord, don’t you care?” is the same accusation that the disciples voiced in the boat when Jesus slept on a cushion through a storm (Mark 4:38). Jesus’ reply to the disciples was similar: “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?”
Troubled by many things
Like Martha, I have a tendency to be distracted, disgruntled and “troubled by many things.” When the kitchen gets too hot, I can easily strip off my apron and become like the Queen of Hearts, lopping off the heads of my family! I also bark orders to Jesus and everyone within earshot when I think I’m being taken for granted! Like Martha, I sometimes make too much of tasks and think I am indispensable to the world. Before I know it, my mind is fragmented and distracted. I cannot pay attention to the most important people as I feverishly labour to get a task done. Jesus gently reminds Martha, and us, to get our priorities straight (Luke 10:41-42). The kitchen of life is piping hot, and if you are anything like Martha…(or me), you need to practice the posture of Mary as you labour in the kitchen.
The attentive posture of Mary
In contrast, not much is said about Mary except that she sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to him. Jesus captured her attention fully. In middle-Eastern Jewish patriarchy, this would have been an outrage for a rabbi. Jesus doesn’t love Mary any more than Martha, but he welcomes her attentiveness and posture of humility and expectation. He sees Mary as one who knows her Shepherd’s voice and follows him (John 10:3-4). Her posture shows that she is teachable.
But is it fair that Martha is left to slave in the kitchen like Cinderella? It is highly unlikely that Mary was a lazy woman who had not helped Martha with the preparations before Jesus arrived. It is also possible that this same Mary is praised by Paul for working hard for the Christians in Rome (Rom 16:6). Her work ethic is not in question here. The issue is her devotion to Jesus and attentiveness to what he says.
Empty and expectant
Mary of Bethany had previously anointed the Lord Jesus with expensive ointment and wiped his feet with her hair (John 12:1-8). It is a beautiful story that is worth reading again if we are to understand Mary. She was a woman who treasured Jesus more than tasks and activities. She was not driven or distracted. She knew that the “one thing necessary” was not the quantity of courses nor the perfection of a meal, but being where God had chosen to reveal himself. At that moment, it was at the feet of His Son.
Seek his face
Mary of Bethany prioritized intimacy with God over a performance-driven life. She knew that she was empty and needed to be filled with the word of life before she could live a fruitful life. Like David a thousand years before, Mary lived to seek God’s face:
One thing I ask from the Lord,
this only do I seek:
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life,
to gaze on the beauty of the Lord
and to seek him in his temple.
5 For in the day of trouble
he will keep me safe in his dwelling;
he will hide me in the shelter of his sacred tent
and set me high upon a rock.
8 My heart says of you, “Seek his face!”
Your face, Lord, I will seek.
11 Teach me your way, Lord;
lead me in a straight path.
The people God employs
This story of Mary and Martha transcends hospitality, culture and gender. Your “hot kitchen” may be at school or university, in a workplace or a war zone, on a farm or factory, in a hospital or church—wherever God has placed you to live and work as a Christian. Isaiah describes the people God employs: “These are the ones I look on with favour: those who are humble and contrite in spirit, and who tremble at my word” (Isa 66:2). Isaiah is describing a person like Mary.
In the story of Mary and Martha, Jesus challenges us to put first things first. He asks if we are paying close attention to the word of life– “a lamp shining in a dark place” (Heb 2:1; 2 Peter 1:19). He calls us tenderly by name, as he called “Martha, Martha,” and asks:
- Do you have a regular time to draw near and be attentive to my word? Or is your attention always on other things?
- Are you distracted and troubled about many things?
- Has your devotion to activity or technology left you with a dried-up, stressed-out attitude?
- Do you come humbly to me each day, empty and expectant like Mary?
- Do you pay attention to the gift of my life, teaching, death and resurrection?
It is my experience that when we value God’s presence more than our performance, perfection or phones, we will find that we are not standing alone in the heat of the kitchen. We will look up to see our Lord labouring right beside us. Instead of stressing to get it all done in time, we will discover that it’s not up to us after all. Jesus is the head chef and we are merely the potato peelers! That is a relief indeed.
“Lord, I long to serve you in a fruitful Christian life. I long to be part of your Kingdom work on this earth in all kinds of ways. But I do not want to serve you with a dry, distracted or disgruntled heart. Please confront the Martha in me today as I seek to pursue the “one thing needed” to live a fruitful Christian life. Help me to steward my attention span and save the best of it for you. Amen.”
Useful quote and resources:
- “It seems so right to provide for our own! It seems so proper to attend to the duties of our station! It is just here that our danger lies. Our families, our business, our daily callings, our household affairs, our interaction with society, all, all may become snares to our hearts, and may draw us away from God.” JC Ryle.
- *Having a Mary Heart in a Martha World: Finding Intimacy With God in the Busyness of Life. Click here. Book by Joanna Weaver.
- Competing Spectacles: Treasuring Christ in the Media Age. Book by Tony Reinke. Crossway. Click here.
- A Biblical approach to anxiety—sermon by Alistair Begg. Click here.