There were never two sisters in all of Scripture that were as different as Mary and Martha. Yet each of them chose to serve Jesus as their Lord and Master. Luke is the only Gospel writer to recount the scene that illustrates this so clearly- the “dinner party” in their home (Lk. 10:38-42). From this passage and the one in the Gospel of John (Jn. 11:1-45) we learn that neither is married and they live in Bethany with their brother Lazarus. They appear to be relatively well-off and well-respected since in John’s account Bethany is listed as “the village of Mary and her sister Martha”. Martha, as the older of the two, has assumed the duties of the matriarch which seems to indicate that their parents have been deceased for some time. Martha took her job very seriously as all women of her day would have done. In the custom and culture of the time, hospitality was second only to purity. And every home was designed to accommodate guests- expected or otherwise. So it is no surprise that we see Martha busily preparing for her guests in the Luke passage. It was not only her expected role, but we can see in Martha’s actions that this was the way she worshipped and served Jesus. Serving Him the best was her ultimate expression of love and devotion.
Mary on the other hand often draws more attention because of her “counter-culture” actions and the affirmation they receive from Jesus. Luke notes that while Martha “welcomed” Jesus into her home and was busily making sure everything was perfectly prepared, Mary had seated herself at Jesus’ feet, just like one of His disciples. We’ve learned from archaeological excavations that the floor plan of most homes had one open room where the cooking and entertaining took place so it is easy to picture Martha’s culinary duties taking place nearby while Mary sits serenely by Jesus’ side. One can also imagine the kind of looks Martha was sending Mary’s way (especially if you have siblings)! I think Martha has traditionally gotten a bad rap here. She’s played as the heavy; the one who chose the practical and mundane over spiritual enrichment. Mary is exalted as not only “spiritually sensitive” but the one who made “the right choice” and bucked conventional roles to learn from Jesus. But is that what the passage is really saying? I think not.
It’s quite apparent in the original language (Greek in the New Testament), and we can see it in the English translation too if we pay close attention to the “body language” as well as the words that Martha is just as devout a disciple as her sister, but simply put, her priorities got a little mixed-up. Martha is described as being “distracted”. The implication is that she would have loved to be sitting beside her sister and listening to Jesus as well, but as the “lady of the house” she allowed herself to become consumed with the details of the meal. Her frustration culminates with a question directed at Jesus, “Don’t you care about me” (v.40)? Jesus’ answer both reassures and corrects. Martha’s labor of love is not repudiated, but Jesus points out that her attention to detail has consumed her. At this point I can picture Martha becoming a little teary-eyed, setting down the bowls and joining the others while whatever was prepared to this point cooked.
There are several lessons to be learned from these two distinctively different sisters. 1) While Mary and Martha were different, they were still members of the same family. This is also true of the family of God which has many members which are designed to work together (1 Cor. 12:12-27). 2) We must not mistake Martha’s work ethic as a lack of faith; rather it is an expression of it. Scripture sees a direct connection to faith and works (Jn. 14:15; Js. 2:14-26; 1 Jn. 2:3-6). 3) While putting our faith into action is important, time spent in learning God’s Word is equally important (Ps. 119:9-16; Ez. 7:10; Lk. 10:41-42); 1 Tim. 4:6; 2 Tim. 2:15). And lastly, 4) serving others is a testimony to God at work in you and ultimately brings glory to Him (Mt. 5:14-16; 1 Pet. 4:8-11). Mary and Martha’s story reminds all of us (male and female) that there is room for every personality type in God’s family and He has designed us that way on purpose. Each has a place to serve, and all are meant to work together as a whole (Rom. 7:4-6; 12:3-13). Are you holding these things in balance or are you “distracted by many things” (Lk. 10:41)? How will you combine your faith and actions to bring God glory this week?
Ann H. LeFevre, M. Div.
Week of 5/7/2017