A Pepper Grinder Post

Martha, Martha

I am a Martha.

I'm referring to the passage in Luke where Martha was rushing around doing housework, while Mary sat and listened to Jesus. My wife told me about the experience of being in a group of women who were discussing this passage. Woman after woman admitted that she was a Martha. My wife was thinking that she was really more of a Mary by nature (though it felt presumptuous to say so after all these other women said they weren't). But what is the message of what Jesus said? Is it that Martha is bad and Mary is good? Is it that it's fine to run around and be busy all day, as long as we start out with a good quiet time? As you can guess, it's deeper than either of those. Let's start by reading my translation of Luke 10:38-42.

As they were on their way, he went into a village, and a woman named Martha invited him into her house. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet, listening to him. Martha, who was overwhelmed by all her work, came over and said, "Lord, doesn't it matter to you that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her to help me!"

The Lord replied, "Martha, Martha. You are distracted and troubled about so many things, but only one is necessary. Mary has chosen what is good, and it won't be taken away from her."

This incident took place in the middle period of Jesus's ministry, not too long before he set his face toward Jerusalem and his own death. As he and his disciples traveled around, they were dependent on people providing hospitality. This is exactly what Martha did.

Sink full of dishesIt's interesting to me that it is Martha who invites Jesus in. I read a commentary that speculated that Martha was a widow, since this is the type of thing that the man of the family normally would have done. While it seems likely to me that Martha was either a widow or had never been married (since no husband is ever mentioned), and that her father is most likely dead, she did have a brother (Lazarus—the one Jesus raises from the dead in the Gospel of John). I can't help wondering why, in this society where men's and women's roles were very clearly spelled out, Lazarus wouldn't have been the one to offer the hospitality. I don't want to get into lots of speculation, but I will say that Martha really strikes me as a no-nonsense, take-charge kind of woman. If I had to guess, I would put my money on Martha being an oldest child.

One thing that is crucial to understand is the importance of hospitality in the Middle East. I understand that, to this day, travelers in rural areas in this part of the world will typically be invited in and given the very best the family has to offer, even when the family is very poor. We also have to remember that the roles in this type of situation were clearly spelled out. A good example of a typical Middle-Eastern hospitality scenario is when the Lord visits Abraham in the guise of three men in Genesis 18. Abraham tells Sarah to bake some bread from their best flour, while he rushes to the herd and picks out a choice, tender calf for a servant to prepare. Then, Abraham stands nearby while the men sit and eat, but Sarah is off in the tent (though certainly listening in on the conversation!). The woman was expected to perform the crucial task of preparing the food, while the men of the house spoke with the guests. In other words, Martha was doing exactly what a good Jewish woman would be expected to do.

sky through grateWhat about Mary? For starters, Mary was NOT helping her sister. Not only does this go against the norms of that culture, it seems just plain selfish and inconsiderate. There's Martha knocking herself out to prepare a nice meal for the guests, and Mary isn't lifting a finger to help. Besides this, Mary is sitting at Jesus's feet. Not only is she right out there with the male guest(s), she has taken a position that was the position taken by disciples of a teacher. This girl has some nerve! In light of all this, we can understand if Martha sounded a little shrill when she said, "Lord, doesn't it matter to you that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her to help me!"

What blows me away about Jesus is the way he so often strips away the externals of what someone has said and gets right to their deepest motivations. Someone asks Jesus to tell his brother to share his inheritance with him (Luke 12:13-15). This sounds reasonable and fair, but Jesus quickly brushes aside the request and responds to the greed that motivated it. In the same way here, we can't take Jesus's response as setting out guidelines for who should do housework, how complex meals should be, or male and female roles. Jesus loved Martha, and his response had one aim—to touch the thing in her heart that was keeping her from him. He says, "Martha, Martha! You are distracted and troubled about so many things, but only one is necessary. Mary has chosen what is good, and it won't be taken away from her."

LaundryThe Greek word translated as "distracted" in the passage is often also translated as worried. Although the sense of worrying is there, it often carries more the idea of being concerned about or focused on someone or something. In this case, I don't think Martha is so much worried about the preparations—she seems like a capable woman who knows what needs to be done—but she is focused on them. Everything she has been taught, as well as her own temperament, tells her that the work she is doing has to happen. I get the impression that she would like to spend time with Jesus herself (the phrase I have translated as "overwhelmed by all her work" in verse 40 literally means dragged away by her work), but she knows that she must first get the work done for that to happen. It is as if she is being the good child who is eating all her vegetables so she can have dessert. She complains to her father when she sees that her younger sister has pushed aside her dinner plate, with a pile of uneaten vegetables, and is now digging into dessert. Imagine the shock of the dutiful daughter when she hears that her younger sister has chosen the better part, and it won't be taken away from her!

There are a few lessons that I get from Jesus's response to Martha.

First, not everything that we think has to be done, has to be done. This is a message I really need to hear. Once I get it in my mind that something needs to happen, my brain focuses completely on how to bring it to pass. This can be a great trait in many ways, but it prevents me from going back and asking if I really need to do what I am trying to do. A question I need to learn to ask is, "What will be the eternal consequences if what I want to do doesn't get done (or isn't done in the time or the way I had planned)? Will it really be a disaster if the yard doesn't get mowed for a few more days? What will happen if our guests are served a simple meal instead of the more complicated one we had planned?

An amazing example of this principle is shown by Elijah in the Old Testament. God appeared to him in the desert (where Elijah was fleeing for his life from Queen Jezebel) and told him to do three things:

  1. Anoint Hazael king over Aram.
  2. Anoint Jehu king of Israel.
  3. Anoint Elisha as Elijah's successor.

Guess how many of these things which God commanded Elijah were done by him? Exactly ONE. He anointed Elisha as his successor. The first two things that God commanded Elijah to do did get done, but not by Elijah; they were done by Elisha (or someone acting at Elisha's command). God must have been very displeased with Elijah, right? If he was, he had a funny way of showing it. Elijah was one of only two people who are recorded as being taken directly to God without having to die, and when Jesus was transfigured, Elijah and Moses were the two people from the entire Old Testament who appeared with Jesus (Matthew 17:1-9; Mark 9:2-9). You would think that God would at least have rebuked Elijah for not having a better organizational system, but he appears to have given Elijah a special place of honor.

I am not suggesting that we blow off things God has told us to do. My point is that if we make getting things done more important than relating to Jesus, we have missed the boat, even if the things we are trying to do are things we believe God wants us to do.

Second, our actions are not as important as we think. Sometimes I feel that God must look at me the way I have looked at my own children when they were little. I would watch them with a tremendous feeling of fondness as they played imaginary games. I loved them and didn't mind what they were doing in the slightest, even though their games were not accomplishing anything "real." While I don't think our actions accomplish nothing, I think I often overrate their importance to God. I am thinking about a poem attributed to Teresa of Avila which starts,

"Christ has no body now on earth but yours,
No hands but yours,
No feet but yours"

It is a nice enough poem, but I HATE the picture it paints of the Almighty! We have made God into a benevolent but powerless quadriplegic, and ourselves into his indispensible helpers. We forget the passage in Isaiah which says:

I looked, but there was no one to help, I was appalled that no one gave support; so my own arm worked salvation for me, and my own wrath sustained me. (Isaiah 63:5 NIV)

God is utterly capable of doing whatever he wants to do, using any instrument at hand. He can speak through a donkey if he wants. He doesn't need my voice. I am not saying that we should all adopt a life of passive contemplation. I believe that God has work for each of us to do. However, we need to avoid the trap of thinking that if we don't do our work, God's plans will be thwarted. Children may well work in a family, but their value comes not from the work they do, but from our relationship with them. A slave, on the other hand, is valued solely for the work that he or she can provide. The Bible makes it clear that we who have been called into a relationship with Jesus are God's children, not his slaves.

Third, if we were to divide everything in our lives between a "must do" column and a "want to do" column, there should be only one item in the first column: following Jesus. Following Jesus may sometimes involve doing nothing but listening to Jesus, and at other times may involve intense activity. The point is not so much what we do, but how we do it. Are we kneeling on the floor praying and reading the Bible because we know that it is important to have a quiet time? We may be acting out of duty, just like Martha. Are we working as hard as we can on a project that we feel we are supposed to do, but carrying on a running conversation with God as we do it? We are being a Mary. The crucial factor is less what we are doing on the outside, but whether our primary desire AS we do it is a relationship with God. The message of this passage is not legalistic (you must have a daily "quiet time") but relational (your relationship with Jesus is more important than anything you do).

FlowersAs I said at the start of this article, I am a Martha. My own tendency is to be focused more on doing things and fulfilling duties than on relationships (either with people or God). Thank God, the message of our passage is not that I am bad and people who seek out relationship above all else are good. The way Jesus responded to Martha gives me hope. He knew Martha, and he loved her. Neither, however, did he just pat her on the back and say, "That's OK, we all have our own gifts." Instead, he challenged her to see things God's way. He pushed her to put her relationship with him above duty. I don't know how much Martha changed, but it is clear from the way she related to Jesus when Lazarus died that she was very close to him. May God, in his mercy, grant the same to us present-day Marthas.


NOTE: My wife wishes me to point out that in the picture of laundry, the clothes are CLEAN clothes. :-)