LESSONS TO BE LEARNED FROM WOMEN IN THE BIBLE
PART 8: MARY AND MARTHA
SISTERS IN CONFLICT OVER WHICH IS BEST?
WORK OR WORSHIP? SITTING OR SERVING?
Mary and Martha lived with their brother, Lazarus, in the village of Bethany – which lay about 1 ½ to 2 miles east of the city of Jerusalem, on the south-eastern slope of the Mount of Olives, on the main road to Jericho.
Bethany was clearly a significant place in the life-story of Jesus. Some see it as his base in Judea when He was away from Galilee. He certainly visited this place often. He stayed here during His final week before His crucifixion (Matthew 21: 17). And it was from near here that He ascended back into Heaven (Luke 24: 50).
There are at least three clear stories surrounding these two remarkable women. The first is the account of Jesus visiting and teaching in their house – which we shall be focusing on in our study today – and this is found in Luke 10: 38-42. The second is found in John 11 – the very famous and miraculous story of the death and raising of their brother Lazarus where Jesus declares that He is “the Resurrection and the Life” (John 11: 25); although there is so much to learn from this encounter, we shall not be focusing on it today. The third is found shortly after this in John 12: 1-3 where Mary breaks open a jar of expensive perfume, while the guests were seated at dinner, pouring it on Jesus’s feet and wiping his feet with her hair – a symbol of total sacrifice and submission; but again, we shall not be focusing on the lessons that can be learnt from this.
So, let us look in detail at our chosen event:
THE BIBLE PASSAGE: LUKE 10: 38-42
38 As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. 39 She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. 40 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!’
41 ‘Martha, Martha,’ the Lord answered, ‘you are worried and upset about many things, 42 but few things are needed – or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.’
Now that we have this background, we can start to look at what lessons we can learn from these “daughters of Eve” – Mary and Martha.
LESSON 1: UNDERSTAND HOW REVOLUTIONARY JESUS WAS
He raised the status of women in society through so much of what He said and did – and this is a very clear example of this.
We have got to stop, and think, and then look, at this well-known story from the perspective of a 1st C AD person rather than from that of a 21st C AD world view. When we do this, we see:
- While it’s easy for modern Western readers to see Martha as a “wet blanket,” we need to recognize that what Martha was doing was that which was expected of a 1st C Jewish woman. Ancient Roman or ancient Jewish societies generally didn’t treat women well. Educational opportunities were limited, with few women receiving any kind of religious training or apprenticeship in any trade. Women were valued for being good wives, keeping the house, and having children. In that light, it’s not surprising that Martha’s first instinct at Jesus’ visit was to make sure the dinner was taken care of. Being the good hostess, the good cook, the person behind the scenes who keeps everything going—these were what most people valued Martha for. Most people at that time would applaud her for acting in the “right” way and would agree with her frustration towards Mary.
- What Mary was doing was culturally inappropriate. It was not a woman’s place to be sitting at the feet of a male teacher in an environment such as this (We know that, despite art depictions showing Mary to be on her own with Jesus, this was certainly NOT the case, He had arrived at their home with His disciples, local people would have crowded in to see and hear the great Teacher and Martha had a lot of preparing to do – not just for Jesus – suggesting a large crowd were listening to Him). Societal norms stated that she should be in the background, helping her sister in the kitchen. If she wanted to know what was going on and what was being taught then she should have waited to ask her men-folk – in this case, probably her brother, Lazarus. What she was doing – in her longing to listen to Jesus’ teaching – would have been considered blasphemous by some! How passionate are you in your desire to listen to Him?
- Jesus was a real revolutionary. He was willing to come into this home and not only speak to, but to TEACH, all who wanted to hear – their gender was immaterial. When it came to teaching, He treated both sexes equally. Here is a lesson for us to learn! In our world today, in many faiths, it is still the custom that women should sit separately from men, should be silent, and should not really be learning from anyone but their menfolk.
LESSON 2: ARE YOU WILLING TO OPEN YOUR “HOME” TO JESUS?
Where Jesus and His disciples stayed was not referred to as the house of Lazarus – but as Martha’s “home”. To invite Him was her privilege and delight. And what an honour from one who was completely aware of who He really was: when Jesus arrived after the death of Lazarus she declared –
‘I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.’ (John 11: 27)
What about you? What about me? It is one thing to know who Jesus is; it is another thing to invite Him fully into your “home” – your life. For this means opening up your everything to Him. This means serving Him, listening to Him, honouring Him in all your life. It is right and proper to remind ourselves of this regularly and to ask ourselves the question: “Have I, like Martha, truly invited Jesus into my home, my life?”
LESSON 3: BEWARE OF BEING DISTRACTED FROM SPENDING TIME WITH JESUS
The text says that Martha was “distracted” by making the dinner (the Message Bible’s paraphrase puts it, “Martha was pulled away”).
The Greek for “distracted” is “perispao” which literally means to “draw around” – thus to be “drawn in two different directions”. There is a sense of Martha being torn between sitting at Jesus’s feet or getting on with the practical preparations that needed to be done – and she succumbed to the latter – maybe because it was more “normal” for her as a woman. So, the wording seems to suggest that Mary and Martha were BOTH invited to sit at Jesus’ feet and learn from him, or at least that offer was open for both of them. Martha apparently took the pragmatic route to get the meal on the table and missed the fact that at that moment, practical matters could pause for something more important.
Are WE easily distracted from the invitation to just “sit at His feet” and listen to Him, and focus on Him, and learn from Him, and enjoy basking in His presence?
What was Martha distracted by?
- Her work: that of preparing the meal, maybe even places for sleeping. All her work was good – it was in service for the Lord. But it meant that she was not able to just sit and listen to His teaching.
What about you? What about me? How distracted are we by our day-to-day work (at home or the office)? Oh, it has to be done. And our bosses (not just in employment but the “bosses” of our spouses and our children) will expect us to work hard and be committed to what we are doing. But are we being distracted by it from focusing on, and listening to, the words of our Lord Jesus?
- Her busy-ness: The text gives the picture of a woman who would love to be sitting and listening to Jesus but “there is just too much to be done and no time to do it!”.
Nothing new here! We are being told over-and-over again that we live in a culture that demands us to be too busy. This is when our work (either at home or at the office) takes-over, or overwhelms, or means that we have neither the time nor the energy to just come and sit at the feet of Jesus.
Jesus, in his reply to Martha, gives 2 emotional forms of distraction as well:
- “You are worried…about many things” (v 41): here we see anxiety. There was so much to be done. She didn’t know how she was going to cope; how she was going to get it done in time. She was worried that maybe it would not be good enough, or that the food would be spoilt in the oven, or even that there wouldn’t be enough food to go round.
Do you, like me, manage to worry yourself about all sorts of things? Let the spiritual side of us “win out” over the human side. For, if God is truly with us in whatever we do, then all is going to be alright in the end, and we truly have no need to be worried about anything (yes! “Easier said than done” – I know! But we should be striving to be in this place).
- “You are…upset about many things” (v 41): What was Martha upset about? The fact that she was being left to “do everything on my own!”. It wasn’t “fair”! It wasn’t “right”! She feels sorry for herself. She feels let down, put down, taken for granted.
What about you? What about me? The truth is, we ALL allow jealousies and perceived unfairness to hurt us.
Listen to Jesus. He repeats her name – “Martha, Martha” (v 41). He is not angry with her complaint. Rather, the repetition of her name shows a tenderness from Him that He wishes to show to us. When we are “distracted” He is not angry…but He wants to show us a better way…
LESSON 4: THE BETTER WAY – WORSHIP COMES BEFORE WORK
For some reason (that I must admit amazes me), this passage has caused problems throughout the church age.
Many are confused. They say: “I thought we were called to a life of service to the Lord?” And they are right – we are: And Martha is the example of generosity and hospitality and hard work. She is the “poster girl” of all that is wrong with just spending all day “doing nothing”. The Greek word used in verse 40 and translated as “preparation” is “diakonia” – which means service – and from which we also get the word “deacon” – or “servant”.
But, they say, “Jesus is saying that it is wrong to serve Him – we should be sitting at His feet and spending our time listening to Him”. This was one of the arguments used to justify the monastic, or solitary life, as being superior to a life of secular work. The function of monks and nuns was therefore to spend a life of quiet contemplation and worship, separated from the world, hidden away in monasteries and nunneries.
No! This is not what Jesus is saying! Here is what Jesus actually said:
“Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her” (v 42)
He doesn’t say that Mary has chosen what is “right” but what is “better”.
Jesus is talking about priorities. He is offering time and space for Mary and Martha to just listen to Him, learn from Him, enjoy being in His company. A space for spiritual refreshment. A place of calm and peace…BEFORE then getting up and getting on with the daily tasks of life. He was saying that Mary had got her priorities right – spend offered time with Him – treasure it – and THEN get on with the things that need to be done.
The order is “worship” and then “work”. Our worship is our intimate relationship with God. Our work is our service to and for Him. Our WORSHIP is quietly listening to Him – through reading and meditating on His Word (so make Scripture reading a first priority of your life); through talking with Him (so make prayer a first priority of your life); through delighting in His presence with us (so allow the Holy Spirit to fill your life). THEN we are more equipped to WORK for Him – because we are not only refreshed and delighted in having spent intimate time with Him, but because we have actually heard Him tell us what we are to do for Him.
THE CONCLUSION OF THE MATTER
Some ask the question after reading this passage:
“Are you a ‘Martha’ – a ‘get it sorted’ type, or are you a ‘Mary’ – a ‘reflective, contemplative, type’?”
This is SOOOO the wrong question! You should be BOTH! The main lesson of the story of Mary and Martha is that we are called to sort out our priorities – it is our worship (our relationship with the Lord) that should come before our work (what we do in service to our Lord). We should be striving for balance in our life – worship and work.
The challenge is for us all – to look at whether we have got our priorities right. And as we consider this – let us be aware that our priority shows us the incredible privilege that we have: that the almighty God wishes us to be in intimate relationship with Him, to just spend time with Him, enjoying His company as He enjoys (amazing!) our company!
Yes, the challenge is for all of us: Like Martha, am I worried or anxious about many things, or, like Mary, am I focused on listening to Jesus and spending time in his presence?
Indeed, the challenge is for all of us: Have I put devotion to Christ and his Word first, or am I more concerned about doing good deeds?
Please forgive me – but I want to put out a special challenge to the men on this one… “Blokes” like to “do” rather than to “be”. Let’s be honest. We are far happier mindlessly tinkering about with an engine and casting a rod into a river than get all “soppy” in gazing lovingly upon the Saviour whom we “love”. I think it is this image that has led so many men in our nation to reject the church. Mary sat at Jesus’ feet, the 12 disciples walked around the countryside with Him. Maybe this is an image that sits more comfortably with you. The principle is the same. In all that you are “doing”, please make sure that you are “being” close with Him.
It’s time to stop rushing and worrying like Martha and take a seat like Mary. We can set aside time each day to come before the Lord in prayer and reading His word. He offers us peace in the middle of chaos and worries. His grace is sufficient and His mercies are new every morning!
“But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” (Matthew 6:33)