Luke10v38to42: MARTHA AND MARY

(A) Introduction. Read: Luke10v38to42

It seems probable that Luke inserted this story out of its chronological context. One would expect Jesus to be in Perea following up the good work of his 72 supporters rather than in Bethany which was only a few miles from Jerusalem.

This is not the first time Luke has adopted this strategy. (See Luke4v14to30.) Luke probably deals here with Jesus' visit to his friends in Bethany as a counterweight to the Parable of the Good Samaritan which promotes practical love. Jesus' defence of Mary indicates that there is something even more important than love in action.

(B) Our approval.

Many of us would be very much in sympathy with Martha. There are several points that can be made in her favour:

(1) Martha was hospitable. As Jesus and his disciples were on their way he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. v38. Hospitality is one of the distinctive features of Christianity. It is something we all appreciate. I have written on the subject in my exposition on Acts28v11to31. From time to time a couple in our church, Mr and Mrs Frewer, invite a group of 8 or 10 of us to a pub lunch. This is a kindness we all appreciate and a happy time is had by all.

(2) Martha had a large party to cater for. There were at least 13 and probably more. We know that a group of wealthy women followed Jesus about, as did Joseph Barsabbas and Justus. It was quite an undertaking to feed 20 to 30 guests.

(3) Martha wanted to do her best for Jesus. If someone prepares a really nice meal it can be a love gift. There is nothing worse than a bad meal. I can remember going to dinner with an old friend and he served me cold, slimy, blood flecked lamb, lumpy potatoes, soggy cabbage and a pale gravy in which great gobs of fat floated. It is the only time I have sat down to a meal and retched. Conversely we recall with gratitude those times someone has gone to a lot of trouble to serve up delicious food.

(4) Mary, the younger sister, left Martha to organise the servants and look after the fine details while she listened to Jesus teach. We sympathise with Martha's irritation because we have all been there. We have worked hard without getting the support we expected. Some people are quite happy to watch while others do all the work. My brother Philip has for the last few years organised a fund raising event for Brockley Cricket Club. It involved him in considerable effort. He got commendable support from the older members of the club but some of the callow youths who play for the first eleven never put in an appearance to the intense annoyance of my brother.

The same can happen in church life - the willing horse is flogged to death! Just consider what happens if the church organises a barbeque. Many attend, enjoy the meal and chat to their friends but only the few clear up afterwards. I am happy to say that when my own church has, for example, a tea there are always those who will clear away and wash up.

(C) Martha's mistake.

Martha made three mistakes:

(1) She overdid it.

Jesus said to her: "Martha, Martha," the Lord answered, "you are worried and upset about many things." v41.

Martha could have overdone things by:

    (a) Preparing too many dishes - roast lamb, herbs, bread with a variety of dips, olives, cheese, salads, fruit, cakes.

    (b) Fussing over the guests - making sure the water bowls were full, the wine circulated and all the different dishes were sampled.

    (c) Trying to cater for every new arrival. As the number of guests grew Martha may have sent the servants out to buy more bread rolls, fruit, cheese and wine.

Sadly Martha let the meal become more important than her Master. She so wanted everyone to enjoy her hospitality but what the people wanted was to enjoy the company of Jesus.

We sometimes see this happen at Christmas. The family get together and mother spends the entire day in the kitchen from which everyone else is barred. Her sons and daughters would love to chat with their mother, to play games with her, to have a laugh with her but she is determined to feed them on the hour every hour with one goody after another.

I sometimes get the impression at special church services that the event becomes more important than the person who should be at the centre of the event. For example, at a the funeral of a Christian more and more time is spent celebrating the life of the deceased with eulogies, poems and his or her favourite music. But, at the funeral of a true believer the one who should hold centre stage is Jesus. Jesus makes a believer what he is, Jesus is the object of his devotion, Jesus is his hope and exceeding great reward. Yet so often very little is said about Jesus even though he is the only one who gives significance to life in death.

(2) She was a martyr to the cause.

Martha worked so hard that she began to feel resentful and sorry for herself. This led to her being nasty to:

    (a) Her sister. She said: "Lord, don't you care that my sister has left me to do the work myself? Tell her to help me." Martha accused Mary of being both lazy and selfish. She did this publicly before Jesus. It wasn't a very gracious thing to do. If we are going to criticise someone it is best done privately. This is something I learned as a schoolmaster!

    (b) Jesus. The complaint: "Lord don't you care ... ." was a criticism of the Master. Martha accused Jesus of taking her efforts for granted and encouraging her sister to bunk off work. The fact that Martha dared to rebuke Jesus tells us a lot about him. It is a tribute to his humility and gentleness. Woman found him very approachable. I cannot see Martha speaking so boldly to John the Baptist.

It is very easy to be just like Martha:

    (a) To give your all and then get upset when others do not live up to your own high standards. It is so easy to feel sorry for yourself - especially if your efforts are taken for granted.

    If you are a church secretary like myself you feel obliged to be at every service. There is a temptation to be resentful of those who make a convenience of the church and attend very irregularly. You think: 'I'd like to take more preaching engagements. It would be nice to swan off to visit friends and worship in their churches. Perhaps it is time to book that 8 week holiday of a lifetime to New Zealand.' Or, perhaps, you do the flower arrangement each week in your church; it is expensive and there are weeks when no-one comments upon your efforts. You feel taken for granted, rather woe-begotten and contemplate giving up.

    It is important not to succumb to temptation! If we feel sorry for ourselves it spoils our service. We should count it a privilege to do anything for Christ's sake. We can never repay him for what he has done for us.

    (b) To value the practical more highly than the devotional. My role as a worker for a Christian summer camp was essentially practical. I helped erect the tents, organised all the sports and games and emptied the latrines at night. From time to time I found myself criticising workers who chatted in holy huddles when they might have been setting out the chairs and tables for supper. Some tent leaders took no part in the organised games - preferring to discuss spiritual matters. Yet the workers who spent time talking to young people about their faith were fulfilling the true objective of our camp.

    In every church there are those who are happiest doing practical work. That is all right so long as they do not say to themselves: "It is all very well attending the prayer meeting but some of those folk who pray so fervently never sweep up the leaves or clean the gutters or unblock the drains."

(3) She didn't consult Jesus.

Martha thought she knew what was best for Jesus. She never considered that Jesus might know what was best for her and everyone else. If Jesus had been consulted he might have suggested:

    (a) A simpler meal - one that was easy to prepare and serve. The hockey team I umpire always has a meal after the match. There is nothing elaborate about it. Chunks of bread, pats of butter, pate and several varieties of cheese are put out and the players help themselves.

    (b) A meal conducive to fellowship - one that didn't take too long and distract from Jesus' teaching ministry. If Martha had prepared a sort of buffet in the kitchen people could go and get something at their convenience.

If Martha had followed Jesus' advice she could have joined her sister at the Master's feet and made the most of his company.

I think there are many occasions when Christians could keep things much simpler - at funerals, special services, anniversaries and in the pulpit. Recently our church organised a social to celebrate the golden wedding of Edward and Dorothy. I was very keen for the event to end with a service of thanksgiving. Edward and Dorothy's son Richard insisted it should be brief. There were two hymns, a prayer and I was told to speak for 5 minutes! However, although the service was very short and very simple it was also very sweet. The sweetness was an outcome of its simplicity.

(D) Mary's choice.

(1) Mary's choice didn't necessarily mean that she hadn't helped Martha prepare the meal. Commentators like Campbell Morgan believe the little word, 'also,' in: Mary, which also sat at Jesus feet, and heard his word," refers to the work she had done to provide hospitality for Jesus. She got the food ready and also sat at Jesus' feet.

(2) The different priorities of the two sisters may have been determined in part by their temperaments and dispositions. Martha was a blunt, matter of fact woman of action. This comes out clearly in John's account of the raising of Lazarus. When Jesus asked for the stone to be rolled from the entrance of the tomb of Lazarus it was Martha who said: "But, Lord, by this time there is a bad odour, for he has been there four days." Jn11v39. There was nothing of the shrinking violet about Martha. (See my exposition on John11v1to44.)

Mary was more contemplative, sensitive and perceptive. It was she who anointed the feet of Jesus with perfumed oil worth in the region of 20, 000 in anticipation of his death. (See my lovely exposition on the Precious Perfume.)

Some Christians are practical by nature - and we need them! But the church also needs those who relate well to people - the touch-feely Christians who are spiritually aware, good at listening, empathising and praying.

(3) Mary was unconventional. She sat at Lord's feet listening to what he said. The expression, 'sat at the Lord's feet,' indicates that Mary was a student of Jesus. It is the same expression used of Paul who sat as a student at Gamaliel's feet.

Tom Wright makes much of this in his commentary on Luke. He writes: The real problem was that Mary was behaving as if she were a man. I disagree with Tom Wright. I am sure the real problem was that Martha was, in the words of the AV: Cumbered about much serving. v40. This, too, was the opinion of Jesus! However, it is true Mary was in the public room where the men traditionally met. According to Tom Wright the women's place was the kitchen and the married bedroom. Mary had crossed a social boundary. However, I don't think Mary was the only woman to do this. Several well-to-do ladies followed Jesus about and I can't see Mary Magdalene, for example, stopping in the kitchen while Jesus was teaching in the lounge. See exposition on Jesus' woman disciples.

There remains considerable disagreement over the role of women in the church. It is worth remembering that Jesus was not conventional. He was not a traditionalist and accepted lady students along with men. He taught both sexes together. Mary Magdalene said at the empty tomb: "Rabboni - my teacher." See my efforts to deal with this subject in 1Cor14v26to40.

(4) Mary made a better choice than Martha. Jesus said: "Mary has chosen what is better." v42. It is very foolish play down this opinion of Jesus - as some commentators do. It is preferable to sit at Jesus' feet than get hot and bothered in the kitchen.

Mary made a wise decision to spend quality time with Jesus. His ministry was drawing to a close and his visit would be brief. I am reminded of Paul calling at Troas on his way to Jerusalem. The people there probably realised that he would not be visiting again and so they crowded into an upstairs room and listened to him all night. (See exposition on Acts20v7to12.)

We should never pass up the opportunity to spend quality time with Jesus - whether it be through private devotion, public worship, listening to religious music, singing a hymn or watching 'Songs of Praise' on BBC TV. During a period of bleak weather and icy roads in February I closed our Sunday evening service. It was tempting to stop in! However, I attended the Baptist church in Bury St Edmunds where I live. I was well rewarded with a truly grand time of Christian fellowship.

(D) Jesus' response.

(1) He rebuked Martha.

Jesus gently remonstrated with Martha for her self-inflicted and unnecessary distress: "Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things." v41. Martha was probably something of a perfectionist. My mother was like her and would go overboard whenever she had several folk to entertain. She worked so hard that in the end she got flustered and irritable. My father used to chide her, "Elizabeth, Elizabeth - there's no need to go to all this trouble." But perfectionists do! They think that if everything is not just so people will notice and talk about them. Some Christians are so worried about letting themselves down that either they do far too much - or nothing at all. I know a competent organist who worries every time she is asked to play because she thinks her every mistake will be commented on.

(2) He defended Mary.

Jesus said: "Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her." v47.

I am glad Jesus commended Mary; many wouldn't! We all need to be defended sometimes from unfair criticism. The Master leaves us in no doubt that our highest priority should be fellowship with him. That is far more important than anything else.

(3) He established a principle.

In the NIV Jesus said to Martha: "But only one thing is needed." But I think the literal translation of the Greek found in Rev. A. Marshall's, 'The Interlinear Greek-English New Testament,' is illuminating: "But of few things there is need or of one: for Mary the good part chose." b42.

The conjunction, 'or', is not without significance. Jesus made two things plain to Martha:

    (a) But of few things there is need. In other words Jesus is saying: "We needed just a few things to eat. Only a simple meal was necessary. You didn't have to go to so much trouble."

    We should aim for more simplicity in our lifestyle, worship, celebrations and sermons. Isn't it instructive that the meal Jesus proposed we remember him by consists of nothing more than bread and wine? It couldn't be simpler.

    (b) Or of one - for Mary the good part chose. Mary chose the one thing necessary for any follower of Jesus. She elected to be with him. Such was her devotion to Jesus she sat at his feet. Martha wasn't with him - she was distracted by all the tasks she had set herself.

    We shouldn't be so busy working for Jesus that we do not spend time with him. I am reading Philip Yancey's book on, 'Prayer'. It is not one of his better books! Yancey confesses that he finds it difficult to spend longer than 15 minutes in prayer each day. Typically, I have a sense that my cluttered world of tasks undone and letters unanswered imposes on an ordered time with God. I understand Yancey's difficulty. I don't find it easy to spend time in Christ's presence - in prayer, meditation, reflection, singing a hymn. I think I might have been in the kitchen with Martha.

    This little incident in the lives of two sisters does rebuke those of us who are so busy working for Jesus that we spend little quality time with him. We can be like the husband who works all the hours God sends and neglects his wife and children. When they complain the man might well reply: "But I'm doing it for you." But is he?? I am very much afraid that workaholics are usually doing it for themselves.

    Jesus was absolutely clear. Mary made the best choice. He was not going to deny her precious time in his company. Jesus knew that there was no better place for her to be. Practical service - however laudable - should never distract us from prayer, meditation, reflection and worship. That is a very hard lesson for some of us to learn.