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Martha, Just Below The Surface

When you hear Mary and Martha what thoughts come to mind? Perhaps, hospitality or service. Maybe you hear Mary is the devoted sister and Martha is too occupied with hosting. Maybe you hear Jesus’s words that Mary chose the better way.

When you hear Mary and Martha what thoughts come to mind? Perhaps, hospitality or service. Maybe you hear Mary is the devoted sister and Martha is too occupied with hosting. Maybe you hear Jesus’s words that Mary chose the better way.

I have often felt like the two sisters have been pitted against one another and Martha usually misses out—getting scolded for caring about things that aren’t “better.” While it’s true, Jesus was clear Mary chose the better way, I wonder if we have oversimplified Martha’s presence in the Gospels and missed out on what she has to offer us.

Over the next series of blog posts, we are going to take a little deeper look into Martha and see if there just might be a few new things we can learn from a story that sometimes feels all too familiar.

The NIV of Luke 10:38-42 reads:

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.”

A Little Background

Did you notice that verse 38 says that Martha opened her home? It is quite probable Martha owned this home as there is no mention of a man – brother, husband, father, or another male relative. And if she did, it is also quite probable she had a few servants as she would need to have some wealth to be a woman owning a home.

Can you picture it? Martha knows that the Rabbi everyone is talking about is coming to her town, to her house. It is important to know that hospitality in Biblical times, and often still in many places around the world, was an extremely high cultural value. It was embedded in Martha’s culture just like teaching children to share in our country today.

What does this understanding of hospitality in that particular cultural moment have to do with misunderstanding Martha? Hang tight, we’ll get there in just a moment.

The Sisters

Scroll back up and take a look at verse 39. Notice the phrase, “sat at the Lord’s feet” to describe Mary? That is a phrase used to describe a disciple. The sisters were probably a part of the larger group of disciples—they were in His ministry so-to-speak. The sisters aren’t really ever separated in the Gospels—they almost always come as a pair. So while Mary is called out for sitting at Jesus’s feet, Martha likely did too she just wasn’t in this particular story.

Could it be that Martha wanted to be right where Mary was, but her obligations made her feel like she couldn’t? I think she felt very responsible. That’s something I can relate to quite easily. Perhaps you can too? She and her sister were experiencing the lived ministry of Jesus and I am sure she would rather have been enjoying the teaching but the other needs seemed urgent and necessary. Someone had to do it. Right?

Even still, service to Jesus is second to the presence of Jesus. Martha’s story is not limited to those of us whose primary responsibility is in the home. Martha’s story is for ALL of us regardless of station in life. Whether she was overwhelmed with all the preparations to be the “hostess with the mostess,” OR, as a disciple she was preparing for the next big ministry adventure with Jesus, both are irrelevant to the fact that service to Jesus is second to the presence of Jesus.

Cultural norms or faith norms?

Cognitively, if we’ve been following Jesus for any amount of time, we know we should care about being in His presence more than serving Him. But why does that seem so hard sometimes? I think one very likely answer lies within Martha’s story.

You see, when Jesus is telling Martha that Mary has chosen better, he is signaling that Mary has chosen him over her cultural norms. Women really didn’t sit at the feet of Rabbis. To do so was to go hard against the culture. This is consistent with Jesus and his ministry though. For example, Jesus, unlike other Rabbis invited his disciples to follow him. This was unusual as typically disciples asked to follow a Rabbi—but not Jesus, he invites, pursues, and makes a place for us.

Jesus is telling Martha, choose me over what the culture might be telling you. Cultural norms might be telling you to make sure all preparations are made—hospitality, as I mentioned before was a highly regarded value in their culture. It didn’t matter how little you had, when someone was visiting you brought out your best. Sometimes cultural values get so embedded in us, that we don’t even see how they have taken over. Martha shows us that these values can be extremely difficult to throw off—she had the Messiah in her presence for crying out loud and yet the preparations were all-consuming. These cultural norms aren’t evil or bad in and of themselves, they just simply are not the better way.

What stands in your way?

We may not even realize there are cultural values we cling to that prevent us from full surrender to Jesus. Just earlier this year as I was digging into Martha’s story, God shined a spotlight on one I didn’t realize I was clinging to.

When I was growing up, table manners were very important in my family. We had to have our napkins in our laps, chew with our mouths closed, never speak with food in our mouths, and always keep our elbows off the table. As a child I hated manners, but as an adult, I appreciated the training immensely.

My husband and I have been trying to instill these manners in our kids and I can tell you right now, we are failing miserably. I don’t understand why it is so hard, but evidently, it is!

Well, this past spring I was taking my children on a trip and I could sense myself getting anxious. It wasn’t until I read this passage that God showed me just how embedded in my heart this cultural value had become. I was quite concerned about the manners my children lacked and what others might think. Somewhere this value translated in my mind to well-mannered children meant I was a good mom. Poor manners meant I was not.

As I read this passage I sensed “Lindsey, it’s okay, don’t be so worried about these manners you think they need to have and the perception of your children for lacking them. Be more concerned with their discipleship—that matters so much more, kiddo.”

Manners aren’t bad, right? But are they more important than their discipleship? Absolutely not. And yet, at every meal what am I focusing on more? Manners. Not discipleship.

Martha’s story helps us see that even good things can stand in our way. And just as Jesus gently called her to choose the better way, He gently calls us to do the same.

Sometimes choosing the better way means letting God examine your heart so faith values eclipse cultural values.


Lindsey Zarob
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