Relationship With Jesus: The Story Of Mary & Martha
Bible Passage: Gospel of Luke Chapter 10
The One Necessary Thing
The small story of Jesus visiting Mary and Martha is tucked into the record of Jesus’ ministry; just a few verses about a small domestic dispute between two sisters. But in light of the statement in John (21:25) that “if every one of (the things Jesus did) were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written” we understand that there must be a message of large import to be found in it if it has been included in the gospel record.
The message seemed obvious and simple to me as a younger person and wasn’t one to capture my attention long. But I have found that as my life has become weightier with responsibilities; a house to manage, the unrelenting needs of children, involvement in church ministry, life matters to support family and friends through and financial pressure (just to name some things that adulting involves!), I have found my mind drawn back to this story often, clearly identifying myself as Martha and recognising the real, tangible life wisdom in Jesus’ response to her cry for help.
“As they continued their journey, Jesus came to a village and a woman called Martha welcomed him to her house. She had a sister by the name of Mary who settled down at the Lord’s feet and was listening to what he said. But Martha was very worried about her elaborate preparations and she burst in, saying, “Lord, don’t you mind that my sister has left me to do everything by myself? Tell her to get up and help me!” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, my dear, you are worried and bothered about providing so many things. Only a few things are really needed, perhaps only one. Mary has chosen the best part and you must not tear it away from her!” – Luke 10:38-42 (JB Phillips)
Martha – Martha wasn’t simply a woman weighed down by regular social norms and domestic duty. We are shown in this story that she was in a position of authority over her household (unusual for the times and culture), she was hospitable and outgoing (she invited Jesus to her house and played the hostess), she was gregarious (she openly rebuked Jesus about not caring that Mary wasn’t helping) and she was motivated and active (bustling to get things done and serve the guests well).
Martha knew and was comfortable with Jesus and had a healthy respect for him as an authority. She goes directly to him to sort this situation with her sister and she also goes straight to him after Lazarus dies.
Martha was practically driven, operation-oriented.
Mary – Mary wanted to be physically close to Jesus. She sat at his feet, listening to his every word. She forgot about chores, even the preparation of a meal. Even her sister’s expectation and resentment didn’t tear her attention away.
When Lazarus dies (John 11:32), the record tells us that Mary waited at home, weeping with the mourners, while Martha went to Jesus. When Mary did finally go to Jesus, she collapsed at his feet weeping.
Mary was emotionally driven, relationship-oriented.
Jesus – In this narrative (as in every), Jesus treats everyone without discrimination. This is a culture where a woman’s role was firmly planted in fulfilling domestic duties. Women were not educated in the Torah; they were, in fact, usually not educated at all and were commonly illiterate. They were generally highly segregated, socially, from the world of men, and were certainly not included in spiritual conversations. But Jesus freely allowed Mary the equal privilege of a man to sit at his feet, and respected/nourished her as a disciple. In Jesus’ ministry, women were not second class citizens, Samaritans were not lesser people and tax-payers were not social outcasts. Every person had equal standing before him.
In this story, he responds to Martha’s accusation (against both Mary and also himself for not intervening) with tenderness. But he also refuses to let Martha’s emotions become the priority and interfere with Mary’s discipleship. His response was not to condemn Martha but to speak to her heart and draw her into deeper discipleship also.
Martha was distracted with all her preparations and angry at Mary for luxuriating in the presence of Jesus.
“Lord, don’t you mind that my sister has left me to do everything by myself? Tell her to get up and help me!” – Luke 10:40 (JB Phillips)
What Martha was basically asking Jesus was “Don’t you care about me? Look what I’m having to do! Why should Mary sit there, being honoured, when I’m the one really putting in the effort for you.”
At the real core of what Martha is feeling is jealousy. She begrudges her sister that she isn’t doing the work, and she wishes to be recognised for what she is doing, and her sister berated, not blessed, for her lack of input into the operation of the evening. Notice that the work was put upon Martha by her own expectation, not by that of Jesus.
My mind is drawn to the parables in Matthew 20:1-16 of the workmen in the vineyard, and that of the prodigal son, where the first workmen and the elder brother (who have done nothing wrong but in fact served faithfully) begrudge the late-to-come and the recently-repentant for receiving a full pardon and payment from the God-figure in the parables.
Jesus, in response to Martha’s accusation, addresses her affectionately and with compassion. He doesn’t tell her off for serving, he just draws attention to how worried and upset she is about it. She wasn’t doing anything wrong in being busy in the service to the household and her guests. In fact, she showed great hospitality in inviting Jesus in and wanting to serve him well. Simply –
What Martha did was good.
What Mary did was best.
Jesus directs Martha to the “one thing” Mary has chosen – relationship with himself!
Small records and parables are usually clustered together in stories that speak the same principle in different ways. This story follows directly on from Jesus’ conversation with a lawyer who asks what he needs to do to be saved. Jesus pointed out that the one necessary thing is to LOVE – God and your neighbour. The Law was not bad but now the fulfilment of the Law was present. And Mary had chosen just this thing – to delight in the presence the Lord.
God (and Jesus) desire a deep relationship, not service at the cost of relationship.
“God is much more interested in your listening to him than in you offering the prime fat of rams to him.” – 1 Samuel 15:22 (MSG)
The Truths To Be Drawn From This Story:
True hospitality: Isn’t the perfect dinner party or magazine-worthy house. It isn’t even a tasty meal and a simple but very spick and span house. True hospitality is being emotionally available and opening yourself up to people, welcoming them into your life, your space. Conversation, listening, entering relationship.
We cannot measure our value by what we are doing: This is a twofold problem. Firstly, we can come to believe that our work is what creates our value to God. But “He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy” (Titus 3:5). It can also lead us to think that it isn’t fair if someone else isn’t doing the work we are (often that we have taken upon ourselves, and which Jesus hasn’t actually required of us). Grudging that they are in relationship with Jesus, without having ‘worked the whole day’/made the tough decision we feel we have/stayed true all along etc. It’s a level field in God’s eyes, we all have nothing but childish offerings to give, no matter how hard and how long we try to please Him, and He loves us all the same.
We can tell Jesus anything. Jesus doesn’t react badly to Martha being cross. He doesn’t put her in her place for rebuking him. He understands when we speak from a place of emotional angst and his response is always love.
Recognising what is really needed: Acknowledging that our lives are filled with many needs, but the greatest need is to be with Jesus. As Paul put it “I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Phil. 3:8)
Listening: “The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life” (John 6:63) The ‘noise’ and busyness of life can easily drown out the ‘still small voice’ of God, unless we are attentively listening for it.
Stillness in the presence of the Lord: Life is so busy. I know from experience that even in our marriages or with our kids, we can be ‘doing’ a lot for others (packing a healthy lunch, washing clothes – meeting ‘needs’), but not stopping long enough to engage in deep, relational connection.
It is often the same in our relationship with Jesus. Church life can be busy. Our focus can come to be on the serving, the doing, and whilst these are good things, and the natural fruit of our convictions and gratitude, they are not the one thing. The Spirit of Christ now lives in us – we can come into his presence at any time, but we easily get distracted from doing so, from simply sitting at his feet and being with him.
“We can spend all our lives acting like Martha, so overwhelmed with practical duties that we end up intellectually and spiritually empty. Now, perhaps more than ever, we also need to give ourselves time and space in which to think and pray. This is the “better part” that Mary chose. Giving time to contemplation does not mean neglecting the practical dimensions of our lives. Rather, it means giving ourselves the opportunity to place what we do in the larger context of our lives and our relationships with God and others. We need to be both Mary and Martha. In the midst of the many duties and responsibilities that modern life imposes on us, we need to make time and space to sit beside Mary at the feet of Jesus and renew ourselves intellectually and spiritually.” – American Magazine
“Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him; fret not yourself over the one who prospers in his way” (the one who seems to be achieving things, getting ahead) (Psalm 37:7)
The primary focus is not doing, not serving, but on being with Jesus, with God and nurturing true relationship.
In this story, Martha is encouraged to push deeper into these truths by Jesus. In a later record, after Lazarus dies, we are shown that she has learnt the priority of discipleship. She is the one who runs out to meet Jesus as soon as she learned he had entered Bethany and she makes a profound statement of faith, giving Christ the three titles which Peter himself later uses. She has become a disciple on a deeper level. It is now Mary who falters and wails with the mourners, who incur Jesus’ anger, and has no recorded conversation with Christ. But later again (See John 12:1-8), when Jesus visits, Mary anoints his feet with expensive oil and wipes them with her hair. Jesus fully validates her actions as great discipleship.
We are all on a lifelong journey of growth in our relationship with The Lord. We draw close, we fail, we drink deeper, we are distracted, and through it all, Jesus is patient and kind and continues to work with us and our unique personalities, guiding us perfectly into deeper relationship with him and His Father.