Redeeming Martha: A New Spin on an Old Story

I’ve heard a dozen sermons and given my own share on the story of Jesus at the home of Mary and Martha. I think they’ve all been a bit too hard on Martha and overlooked a potential danger for Mary types out there. Let’s take another look at this well known story. It’s found in Luke 10:38-42:

38 As Jesus and the disciples continued on their way to Jerusalem, they came to a certain village where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39 Her sister, Mary, sat at the Lord’s feet, listening to what he taught. 40 But Martha was distracted by the big dinner she was preparing. She came to Jesus and said, “Lord, doesn’t it seem unfair to you that my sister just sits here while I do all the work? Tell her to come and help me.”41 But the Lord said to her, “My dear Martha, you are worried and upset over all these details! 42 There is only one thing worth being concerned about. Mary has discovered it, and it will not be taken away from her.”

The typical sermon celebrates Mary’s singleminded devotion to Jesus while rebuking Martha for being too distracted with less important chores. Mary is interested in the “spiritual” acts of Bible teaching and prayer. Martha is focused on the less “spiritual” tasks of the kitchen.

The conclusion: Devoted Christians should be more like Mary and less like Martha. Spiritually mature people are found leading Bible studies and prayer meetings, not preparing a meal for dinner guests.

Right? Wrong.

I’m now convinced that the ideal Christian is not choosing Mary over Martha, but rather becoming a powerful, rightly ordered combination of the two. Certainly, Jesus commends Mary for having her focus in the right place. Singleminded devotion to Jesus should overshadow any other pursuit or priority. There is indeed one main thing to be concerned about, and “Mary has discovered it” (v. 42).

Likewise, Jesus gently points out to Martha that she has let other concerns crowd out the most important thing. But this doesn’t mean that Martha’s other concerns are invalid or even unimportant. We have mountains of evidence that her concerns were important and spiritual in their own way. Martha was practicing hospitality, hosting a very important guest. The Bible and the first century Jewish culture placed high value on the practice of hospitality.

The real issue and lesson here is not about what tasks are more “spiritual” than others — e.g., prayer and Bible study vs. house chores. The issue is focus. The issue is spiritual attentiveness to God in our midst, no matter what we’re doing at the moment.

Now imagine for a moment taking the best of Mary and the best of Martha and combining the two people. What if we could have both the heart of Mary and the hands and feet of Martha? What if we could be both deeply devoted to personal spiritual disciplines (prayer, scripture, fasting) and committed to serving the practical needs of the poor with our hands? What if we could go about our tasks of cooking and cleaning, changing the oil and mowing the lawn without taking our eyes off of Jesus?

Too many churches have chosen an unbalanced version of Mary or Martha as their model. Inward focused Martha churches are busy running a dozen programs but have long ago lost their spiritual focus. Outward focused Martha churches are committed to social justice but have neglected other essential ministries such as preaching the gospel and personal salvation.

On the other hand, too many churches have fallen victim to the temptation facing Mary-types. These churches become inward focused, naval gazing, Bible study attending, prayer loving churches enjoying their personal worship time with Jesus, but they’ve completely lost sight of the world beyond the walls of their sanctuary or Bible study group. They’ve attended Bible study groups for decades but haven’t done anything with all that teaching. James said, “Faith without works is dead.” Likewise, a Mary heart without Martha hands and feet is insufficient.

 Paul captures both Mary and Martha types in Romans 12:

1Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. 12 Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will…. 13 Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.

The mature Christian will, like Mary, desire to sit at Jesus’ feet and offer their heart and mind up in worship to God in order to better know God’s “good, pleasing and perfect will.” But this true and proper sacrifice of worship is only pleasing to God when it propels us outward in acts of service to “share with the Lord’s people who are in need.” Paul  then commands us to be like Martha as we “practice hospitality.”

So, let us strive to become the perfect Mary-Martha hybrid with a devout heart of Mary and the ambitious, hardworking hands of Martha!

“Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father” (Col. 3:17). 

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