Sermons on Mary and Martha are given often enough. The preacher expounds on the many attributes of Mary, and how we should emulate her. Even commentaries favor Mary. Although the time they give to this section of scripture is often paltry and predictable. There seems to be little to explore in this story. Little that isn’t obvious to see.
Honestly, I’ve always felt a little sorry for Martha. She gets trashed for doing what was culturally expected of her. It seems that Martha was the oldest of the three. The scripture refers to their home as Martha’s house. Was she a business woman? Did she inherit her wealth? Was she a wealthy widow? There is no mention of a husband, but maybe he was not important enough to mention.
Martha was the responsible one. She had a home to manage. Hospitality was a big deal in the Middle Eastern culture of the first century. Martha had a reputation to maintain, and she took this role seriously. I know that when I have visitors coming to my house, I want my house clean, and have enough food to more than satisfy them. Their comfort is my top priority. I cannot fault Martha in her efforts to assure that these honored guests would receive the most that she could provide.
Jesus’ comment to Martha seems harsh to me. But there is a truth there. Her visitors might have been grateful for simply a hunk of bread, a glass of wine, and plenty of warm water to wash off the dust of the road. However, Jesus knew a truth the others did not: He would only be with them for a short time more. His unspoken message, take the time you need with me now, because later will be too late.
I believe Jesus had a special place in His heart for this family. He would later raise their brother, Lazarus from the dead. He would mourn their loss of him, and give back to them what caused them such grief. Jesus loved Martha, and wanted the very best for her. His exhortation to her was meant for her benefit, not to tear her down.
When I look at this story of the two sisters, I try to place the story into our current place and time. What strikes me is that Martha is the woman of this world. She is the one having it all. Working a job, maintaining a household, being productive and in this, getting full approval for all she does. Our world, despite the sermons contradicting this, approves of Martha. Even the Christian world nods their head at Martha. All women should be Martha.
‘Idle fingers are the devil’s workshop.’
‘The one, who is unwilling to work, will not eat.’
The Christian world may say we should all be like Mary, because Jesus said she chose the better way. But what is the reality. Mary is actually the one misunderstood.
As we read about Mary sitting at the foot of Jesus, I think many of us are thinking Mary was ignoring the work that needed to done. Look at her just sitting there when there is so much to do. How lazy. What a waste of time. There is a time and a place to sit at Jesus feet, but certainly not at that inappropriate time.
I’m pretty sure Mary knew exactly what was expected of her. She lived with Martha, and she was raised in her culture. She made an unpopular choice and took a risk of suffering under the criticisms she fully anticipated. Her love for Jesus was more important than the consequences of her decision. She longed to be with Jesus, to learn more about Him, to understand more fully what He was saying. Did she have a sense the time spent with Jesus was limited and therefore necessary?
Despite the sermons and the commentators who validate Mary and what she chose to do, does our world truly find value in those who yearn to know God more fully? Are we uncomfortable with those who devote their lives to seeking God? What about hose who study and wonder and see God in every detail of life? Does the value of a Martha undermine the value of a Mary?
Both women loved Jesus dearly, and He truly loved them as well. There is no doubt of this. Perhaps they simply showed their love for Him differently. Yet Jesus affirmed Mary’s choice. And as was the case in many of Jesus’ teachings it is an inversion to what the world would naturally think. (The first shall be last, the last first, kind of teaching.) He said it was the better way, which doesn’t necessarily mean that Martha’s way was not good. Mary’s was just better.
I know what it is like to be a Martha, and what it is like to be a Mary. The world around us validates the Martha in us. Jesus validates the Mary.
Who do you want to be? There is a risk in any decision. What will you risk in your decision?
(picture by He Qi China)