“It’s not fair – I have to do all the work and he isn’t helping!” I suspect that many of us, when we were children, made this sort of complaint about our sister, or brother. Or maybe you have heard it said by one of your children or grandchildren. Now usually the response from my Mum or Dad would be, “Clyde, get up and go and help your sister.”
However, in the passage from Luke 10:38-42 Jesus’ response was quite different. When Jesus and his disciples came to visit, Martha rushed around trying to do all of the work. Meanwhile, her sister Mary sat at Jesus’ feet listening to his teaching. Martha complained to Jesus that Mary was leaving her to do all of the household chores. But, Jesus’ response was not as Martha had expected - he did not tell Mary to get up and go and help Martha with the work. Instead, he gently rebuked Martha, saying to her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.”
What was this one thing? Well, of course, it was what Mary had chosen to do!
Now it would be easy to misinterpret this passage and take it to generally mean that, for a Christian, doing housework is unimportant. Some might even ask whether this passage encourages us to be slothful! Well, I suggest that Jesus’ point is not that only one activity is important and that the other can be ignored - rather, it is a question of priorities and of how we go about these activities.
While I was in the Navy I was put through many time management courses. The time management gurus usually encouraged us to ask ourselves this question: “What is the best use of my time at this moment?” Martha would have done well to have asked herself this question.
Nevertheless, there is a time and place for both activities demonstrated by Martha and Mary:
I. There is a time to do God’s Work.
Clearly, Martha was a faithful follower of Jesus who desired to serve him in the best way that she could. In fact, there are a lot of qualities in Martha that must be commended.
It was Martha who was the manager of the household, and it was she (we are told) who invited Jesus to come and stay for a while in her house. Let’s reflect for a moment on the situation that Martha had thereby created for herself.
Firstly, for a Jew to invite Jesus into their home was a rather courageous thing to do considering his notoriety among the Jewish religious leaders. His presence may well have exposed Martha to criticism and censure which some would have preferred to avoid.
We might draw a parallel here with the decision of the newly converted Christian to invite Jesus into their life, knowing that such an action may well draw criticism from their unbelieving friends.
Secondly, Martha’s decision to invite Jesus home would have produced some considerable challenge on her abilities as hostess. There were thirteen hungry men to be fed. And no doubt some of the neighbours would also have been expecting an invitation to meet this Jesus, who had come among them, and about whom there would have been so much talk.
We must also acknowledge that all Christians are called to a life of service. And, in addition, Jesus’ teachings recorded in other parts of the Gospels indicates that all Christians are expected to be good stewards of the things that God has placed into our care. The Parable of the Three Servants, for example indicates this.
So, Jesus did not blame Martha for being concerned about the household chores. Why then, did he gently rebuke her?
Some interpreters suggest that Martha was running around preparing a banquet when just a simple meal was all that Jesus and his disciples required. Another possibility is that Martha’s emotional response to the stress of the situation was inappropriate. The picture that we get is of a woman who is flustered, annoyed and irritable. She seems annoyed with Jesus as well as with her sister, and to have implied some reproach on him for apparently not caring that Mary had left her to do all the work by herself.
Her emotional response possibly came from being more focussed on serving Jesus than on pleasing him. If she had stopped to reflect, she might have seen that a sharp, reproachful word, and her obvious loss of composure and temper, would cause Jesus considerably more pain than the pleasure that he might get from the best-served meal in the world. She was busy doing things for Christ; but she failed to discern what was important to him.
It is easy for the Christian worker to fall into this error. We need to be doing what God wants us to do, not just what we think that we should be doing. Some Christian workers are actually serving themselves through the work that they do for the church, even though they might like to claim that their concern is with serving Christ. This occurs when we engage in some service in order to meet some need that we have, for example a need for affirmation, a need for power, or a need to be needed
Martha’s great desire was that everything should go well. She was apparently concerned that everything should be clean and tidy, and well served and well managed, so that nobody could unfavourably criticise her ability as hostess.
Now whilst we should be concerned to offer Jesus our very best (and nothing done for him should be done in a careless, shoddy way as if anything were good enough for God) it is more important that we please him by doing the right thing with the right motivation and attitude.
When Jesus came to visit, there was something that was far more important than being concerned about the preparation of a perfectly presented meal. Martha and Mary were in the presence of Jesus and had a unique, and potentially not-to-be-repeated, opportunity to sit at his feet and hear his teaching. This is what Martha had failed to recognise. Whilst there is a time to do God’s work, ...
II. There is a time to attend to God’s Word
Unlike Martha, Mary had recognised the importance of taking this opportunity to hear Jesus’ teaching. Martha thought that Mary was being selfish and inconsiderate; but if that had been the case, I believe that Jesus would have gently reproved Mary and not commended her. Martha thought that serving Jesus by being a perfect hostess was what would please Jesus; but Mary’s desire was to attend to Jesus’ teaching, rather than her own inclinations.
Both Martha and Mary desired to serve Jesus. But, it is possible for service to Christ to degenerate into mere busy work that is no longer full of devotion to God. We must ensure that we do not loose site of the main thing through our busyness.
It seems to me that as each year goes by, people are becoming busier and busier. There seems to be decreasing time in the day to do all of the things that apparently need doing. An outcome of this increased busyness is that there seems to be less time to take time out to read and study our Bibles, to come into God’s presence, to seek his will through prayer, and to develop our relationship with Jesus.
And whilst busyness is very often necessary, Jesus is saying that we need to make sure that we do not place higher priority on doing other things when we should be spending time being attentive to his voice and seeking to learn from his word. Only as we study his word can we properly discern his will to ensure that our activity is directed towards achieving what he wants us to do. There is danger that, like Martha, we can become too busy doing the wrong things in life.
Mary, however, knew what should be given priority. She recognised that the first priority is to know Jesus. This is achieved through figuratively sitting at his feet, as Mary did, and seeking to hear his words.
This may require us to be prepared to humble ourselves as she did – to set aside our pride and self-confidence. It requires us to seek to learn not just about him, but to learn his mind. A good theologian, for example, may know all that there is to know about Jesus, and yet not know his mind and not have found the truth in him. It is possible to be a learned theologian, but not be a follower of Christ.
Of course, we cannot literally sit with Mary at the feet of a visible Christ, but we can contemplate his moral features even as she gazed upon his outward countenance, and we can hear his spiritual teaching even as she heard his outward voice. Most importantly, we can learn his mind by treasuring his Word (as we prayed in the Collect for today). As we study his word in the Bible, we learn from him.
So, from the account of Jesus’ visit to the home of Martha and Mary, the Christian worker can learn a valuable lesson. It is not enough to just receive Jesus into our homes and into our lives. Whilst we must do this before anything else, we need to follow Mary’s example – to figuratively sit at his feet, to gaze on his spiritual beauty, to hear his words, and to give ourselves entirely over to his spiritual influence.
We need to give priority to opportunities to study the word of God to learn more about Jesus’ mind and to discover what pleases God and is in accord with his will for where to expend our efforts. We need to recognise that there is a time to do God’s work; but there is also a time to attend to God’s word - and we must give priority to the latter.
No amount of busy works of service will make up for a failure to develop an inner life of intimacy and familiarity with Christ through his word and the work of the Holy Spirit.
Perhaps, taking a cue from the time-management guru, we should constantly ask ourselves, “What would God desire me to be doing with my time at this moment?” And a follow-on question: “Am I doing it for him, and in a way that will please him; or am I doing it to meet my own need?”
Whatever we do, let us never be too busy to sit at Jesus' feet.