The Lord answered, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things. One thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the better part. It won’t be taken away from her.”
– Luke 10:41-42 CEB
This Gospel story provides a brief glimpse into a household setting that must have been common as Jesus traveled around Palestine during his ministry. We see him in a home. We meet his hosts. We learn that he and others were in what was known as the “public” area of the home and he was teaching and talking about the kingdom of God. At the same time there were others in another part of the house fixing food and taking care of the detailed work of providing hospitality.
The text focuses on two women, Mary and Martha. Martha was energetically working in the kitchen while Mary was with Jesus while he was teaching.
This setting reminds me of when Gail and I took mission trips to India, where the organization of the household was often like this. When we were invited to a home for a meal, it was primarily the men of the household and the guests who sat at the main table. Meanwhile, the women would be in the kitchen or scurrying around serving them. Sometimes they actually had a separate table. Sometimes they did not eat until after the men and all the guests had eaten.
In such cultures — and in biblical times it was like this — you can see clearly that women have an actual “place” in which they are expected to fulfill their roles, and it is separate from the men’s space. In such cultures and in the days of Jesus, men and women generally were not to mix in the public spaces, even in the home. I can recall many churches in India in which men and women did not sit together in church, but had their own sections.
The roles of men and women were also strictly demarcated. We see this in today’s Gospel. Martha was fulfilling the expected role of hospitality and serving, while Mary was “sitting at Jesus’ feet.” That indicates that she was taking the place of a student or disciple. In doing so, she was doing what only men ordinarily did. This was because to be a disciple of a rabbi meant that you were his apprentice and you were preparing to be a teacher yourself. That was a role that was not open to women in those days.
Mary’s act was unusual, perhaps even bordering on scandalous. However, Jesus affirmed her and blessed her for making a good choice.
So the first thing I want to say about this text today is that it contains good news for women. Jesus commends Mary for taking the place of a disciple. Though women in that culture were generally discouraged or even forbidden from having that role, Jesus opened the door for Mary and all women to become students, followers, and proclaimers of the Kingdom.
One characteristic of the kingdom of God is that it challenges our traditional human and societal rules and boundaries. In this case, it is the false opinion that women are not cut out to be disciples, followers of Jesus, and witnesses of his kingdom. This story affirms that women have a “place” sitting at the feet of Jesus just like men do.
There is another woman in this passage that we need to talk about too. That is Mary’s sister Martha. Many times we are critical of Martha when we read this passage. But I wonder if we criticize her for the wrong reason.
I have heard this passage used to talk about two types of Christian lifestyles: the active life and the more contemplative life. Usually the point is that the contemplative life is to be valued more highly than the active life of service. It’s more important to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen to his word than it is to be busy serving him. But I don’t think that is the message of this story. It is good to study and listen to Jesus’ words; it is also good to serve others, to provide practical help and hospitality to those in need. Jesus is not criticizing working hard and being busy in Christian service. This story is not contrasting Mary’s activity of learning with Martha’s activity of working in the kitchen.
Notice carefully what Jesus gently rebuked Martha for. “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things.” It was all about what was going on inside of her — her attitude, her anxious and frustrated heart. She was doing exactly what she was supposed to be doing: providing hospitality to Jesus and other guests — nothing wrong with that. But at some point she started feeling frantic because it became a bit overwhelming, and then she began resenting her sister who wasn’t helping but was sitting in the other room with the men.
This led to a serious breach of etiquette. Instead of pulling her sister aside privately and asking for her help, Martha had an outburst of complaining in front of the guests. She even put Jesus, their honored guest, on the spot. She showed very bad form. It wasn’t her serving that was the problem. She forgot that the whole thing was about Jesus. She got distracted by all she had to do, and she forgot the honored guest to whom she was providing hospitality.
Mary, on the other hand, gave attention to Jesus. That is what he was commending her for.
People have different gifts, temperaments, personalities, interests, and passions. Some engage in more active forms of service while others may be more studious and contemplative. There are also times and seasons when it is appropriate to be busy serving, and other times when we retreat to quiet places to reflect and pray about our relationship with God. There is a time to serve dinner, and there is a time to come to the Lord’s Table and be fed.
What is key, no matter what we are doing in our walk with Christ, is that we do not forget that he is at the center of it all. That, according to this passage, is the “one thing that matters.” We are called to find our primary identity, our purpose, and the meaning of our lives and activities in Jesus and what he has done for us — not in our work or our study or anything else.
We are valued and loved, not because we serve the Lord busily, with vigor and strength like Martha, but solely because our heavenly Father welcomes by grace into his family.
We are valued and loved, not because take a contemplative position like Mary, but solely because our heavenly Father welcomes us by grace into his family.
Mary is not valued and loved more than Martha because of her devotion that shows itself in taking the place of a student.
Nor is Martha valued and loved more than Mary because of her devotion that leads her to work hard to provide hospitality for her guests.
We are valued and loved because God made us and redeemed us in Christ; because of his work on the cross and his word of forgiveness, because we were washed clean in the waters of baptism, born into his family by grace through faith, and filled with his Spirit. And whether we sit at Jesus’ feet to learn from him, or busy ourselves with serving and caring for others, he continues to love us, to speak his word to us, and to help us grow in faith and love.
And so the second thing I want to say about this text today is that it is not only good news for women in particular, but it is also good news for men, for children — for everyone who wants to be Jesus’ disciple.
Just like Jesus came to Mary and Martha’s house that day, he wants to take up his residence with you and me. He wants us to hear his word of forgiveness and life. He wants us to be free to serve others with genuine love and hospitality. And he wants us to know, no matter what we do or how we do it, he values us and loves us and wants to fill our lives with good news that we can treasure and share with everyone around us.