As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. 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!”
“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
–Luke 10:38-42 (NIV, 1984)
At the Rabbi’s Feet She (!) Sits
Martha gets off to a good start in this passage. She is showing hospitality to Jesus, by having him into her home. She “opened her home to him,” Luke says, using language of gracious hospitality.
She will call Jesus “Lord” later in the passage, so she clearly loves him.
She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said.
Have you ever heard people talking about sitting at Jesus’ feet? Perhaps one of those evangelical phrases we hear from time to time, not really sure what it’s about.
That’s what Mary was doing: sitting there, listening.
This posture of sitting at someone’s feet is not the subservient posture we might think of today. Rather, this was how learners actively engaged with their teachers. A student would sit at the feet of his rabbi.
Yes, his rabbi. This is very unusual posture for a woman to take. There were some rabbis that had female students, but most did not. Women would instruct other women in the Torah. Mary was taking on a stereotypically male role here in becoming Jesus’ student.
And students sat in the dust at the feet of their rabbis, not only so they could learn, but so that they themselves could train to become rabbis, to teach others. Mary is taking in from Jesus how she, too, can preach the Gospel of Jesus and lead others to a saving knowledge of God.
N.T. Wright says, “People sat at a teacher’s feet in that world, not to gaze languidly with drooping eyelids, but in order to become teachers themselves. … Mary had crossed a boundary, entering into the man’s world of discipleship; Jesus had affirmed her right to be there….”
Last week we saw the Samaritan–one of the last people you’d expect–seeing and having compassion on a man in a ditch. He saw him, had compassion on him, and acted on that compassion. He did what was in his power to do. And he was one of the last people who would be expected to do that.
In this passage there is a woman–one of the last people one would have expected then, certainly the wrong gender, according to society, who takes the posture of a disciple, learning from a rabbi.
Jesus has little use, sometimes, for social conventions. He can and does work through them, certainly. But he’s just as likely to turn them on their heads, teaching instead the social conventions of the Kingdom of God.
Sibling Rivalry and Other Distractions
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!”
It’s interesting… Luke says that Mary was “listening to what he said.” “But Martha was distracted….”
Jesus was already talking. Why wasn’t Martha putting her work on hold to listen? Or at least, were there some preparations she could have done while still in earshot of him?
I’m sure many of us have been in that situation where we have guests coming over. We nervously look at our watch and see that we only have 10 minutes left to get the food in the oven, vacuum the living room, and maybe put on some deodorant or whatever, because we’ve been running around for the last hour or two. Maybe we exchange a few terse words with spouses or children to hurry up and help prepare….
And when the guests come, we may not be done with the preparations, but that’s okay. (It really is okay!) We can invite them to sit in the kitchen with us so we can finish dinner, but also talk to them. Or we put our preparations on hold at least to say hello, shake hands, give hugs, and so on.
Was Martha avoiding Jesus?
To be clear: the work itself was not bad. She was showing hospitality to Jesus by having him in. Earlier in Luke Jesus rails against a man named Simon who had invited him over but not been hospitable. In that story a woman “who had lived a sinful life” poured perfume on his feet and wiped them with her hair, crying all the while. Jesus said,
Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—for she loved much.
Jesus values hospitality. In fact, in Jesus’ culture, to complain to your host was a big no-no. You thanked your host profusely for going out of their way to greet you. But Jesus had called Simon out anyway.
So Martha is doing something that is generally good.
But her focus on the tasks of hospitality kept her from seeing the guest.
She was distracted–her attention was turned from where it should have been (the presence Jesus) to a lesser good (tasks done not in the presence of Jesus).
We get the picture of Martha barging in and interrupting–Jesus was talking to Mary, Mary was listening, and now Martha blurts out, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”
She puts the focus on herself. Actually, on her sister. “She’s not doing her chores.” (A common refrain of siblings everywhere.) “Tell her to help me.”
Another distraction-someone else’s relationship to Jesus–keeps Martha from thinking about her own relationship to Jesus.
Martha tells Jesus what to do! We begin to get the sense that throughout Jesus’ visit she has not been having a good attitude at all. We have a word for this in the K-J house: baditude. It’s a bad attitude. Martha is sporting a serious baditude.
A number of interpreters of this passage have pointed out the difference between Martha, who tells Jesus what he has to say, and Mary, who listens to what Jesus wants to say.
“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things,
“Martha, Martha!” There is emotion in Jesus’ response, as he says her name twice. A firmness, it sounds like, but also compassion.
“You are worried and upset about many things.” Many things!
Maybe Martha is worried and upset about more than just Jesus’ arrival.
Maybe Martha has avoidance issues more generally.
Maybe she is afraid of being known well by others.
Maybe the baditude was just a front. Maybe she was scared of being loved deeply by someone else.
Maybe she thought she could somehow earn the love and approval of Jesus and his entourage by hosting them with the most elaborate spread.
Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?
Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.
Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.
David Garland, a Bible professor at Baylor, asks, “How is it that one can do everything right and still be wrong?”
Martha welcomed Jesus in v. 38, a sign of hospitality. She calls him Lord. She seems to truly love him. She just gets distracted. And stressed out. Frustrated with her sister for not joining her in her stress. And maybe she is even jealous of her sister’s relationship to Jesus?
You Only Really Need One Thing
but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
Martha has allowed the Good to distract her from the Better. Her priorities are not quite right. Her affections, her emotions, the way in which her heart is going… is mis-directed.
Prioritizing where our attention goes would be easy if we could choose between a bad thing and a good thing. But sometimes life gives us a choice between two goods. And one of those goods may be better than the other. Mary used wisdom and discernment in this passage to do that. Martha did not. She was too busy doing The Good to notice The Better that was right there in her living room.
The writer Kathleen Norris puts it this way:
Martha may do her work in silence, but it is a sham, a mask for rage. I like to think of her as saying nothing as she bangs around the house, trying to get Mary’s attention, or better yet, make her feel guilty for not helping out. …I recognize myself all too clearly in the scene; all the internal–infernal–distractions, the clatter-bang of daily routines and deadlines, that can make me unfit company for anyone.
When our work, when our lives become just a series of tasks, it’s exhausting. I identify with Martha here; I’d imagine that a number of us do. I want to make that decision that Mary makes. She’s not just passively sitting there, doing nothing, she has deliberately chosen to listen to Jesus. And, Jesus says, she has chosen “what is better.”
“Jesus is coming. Look busy,” the bumper sticker says.
And of course we can–and sometimes should be busy for Jesus. But we need to also ask how we can keep our work and our service and our ministry in its proper relation to listening to God.
When it comes down to it, Jesus says, “Only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
One thing–Jesus. More specifically, sitting at Jesus’ feet and listening to him. That’s what we really need to do.
Inviting Jesus into the Kitchen
I don’t read this passage as telling all of us Marthas in the world that we can’t keep actively serving others. I don’t think Jesus is saying that we have to stop our work in the kitchen altogether.
But if we are doing our work with the same sort of “baditude” Martha has here, it’s either time to take a break and be with Jesus, or more deliberately invite Jesus into the work we are doing.
A number of sermons ago I suggested using sentence prayers throughout the days tasks to connect with God:
“Lord, I know that you are with me.”
“God, thank you.”
“Jesus, please help me.”
“Lord, help me love this person the same way you do.”
“God, I offer this work to you.”
Brother Lawrence was a 17th century monk who served as cook in his Carmelite order. He was described as having a “great aversion” to the kitchen, and yet, as one brother said of him,
[I]t was observed, that in the greatest hurry of business in the kitchen… He was never hasty nor loitering, but did each thing in its season, with an even uninterrupted composure and tranquillity of spirit.
“The time of business,” Lawrence said, “does not with me differ from the time of prayer; and in the noise and clutter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I possess GOD in as great tranquillity as if I were upon my knees at the Blessed Sacrament.”
It’s especially tragic when we are doing ministry work, like the hospitality Martha was trying to show, and we forget the main reason we are serving… for Jesus.
Work without a connection to Jesus is just being busy.
But when we deliberately sit down with Jesus, or invite him into our work, listening to what he has to say… that can never be taken away from us.
The above is adapted from the sermon I preached today. All Scripture quotations come from the NIV (1984).