The story of Mary and Martha is told in Luke 10:38-42: Mary is sitting at Jesus’ feet while Martha is busy bustling around being a good hostess.
Recently I preached on those five verses and found my thinking being stretched in new ways as I pondered Martha’s dilemma and Mary’s favored position. Since I was just finishing up an incredibly busy season of ministry when I preached on Luke 10, I was identifying with Martha big-time.
Preaching a narrative text always gets my inquisitive juices flowing. I began to wonder what the story doesn’t tell us and to contemplate what might be happening behind the scenes that didn’t make the final editor’s cut.
For instance, is it possible that Martha wanted to sit at Jesus’ feet as much as Mary did, but her sense of courtesy and eastern hospitality compelled her to be a good hostess? Did Martha sit at Jesus’ feet until the demands of hungry disciples aroused her sympathies (or guilt) and she reluctantly got up to prepare a meal, leaving Mary to get all of the good instruction?
Or could Mary have been a tiny bit insensitive to the guests in her home and uncaring of the extra burden she had put on Martha? If you had the greatest Teacher in your home with a crowd of visitors, would you just sit down and listen to Him, ignoring your guests and your stressed-out sister who is trying to be a good hostess?
What if Mary had sat at Jesus’ feet with an inner pride that she had chosen the best part or just plain annoyed that people were impressed with Martha’s serving. It is possible to do good things badly. Even sitting at Jesus’ feet can be done poorly. The “best part” can be chosen with a wrong attitude.
What would have happened if both Mary and Martha had sat at Jesus’ feet while he taught? How long would it have been before chaos ensued and brother Lazarus got up and said, “Okay, I’ll fix something to eat…” as the disciples groaned, “Oh no! Not Lazarus’ burned fish sticks again!”
What if Martha, instead of lashing out at Jesus (“Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do all the serving alone?), had cheerfully worked in the kitchen, inwardly rejoicing that she had this opportunity to serve the One she loved and delighted that she had freed her sister to listen to Jesus? How does the story change then? Would Jesus have been pleased if she had done this mundane task for His pleasure?
Jesus is clearly pleased with Mary’s decision. And He pinpoints Martha’s problem: she doubts that Jesus cares about her, and this demonstrates itself by her stressed-out condition and anxiety. Is it possible that the story turns more on Martha’s negative attitude than on Mary’s right choice?
Further, I’m convinced that what Martha really meant to say was: “Lord, aren’t you going to do something about the fact that my sister doesn’t care that I’m doing the serving alone?” In other words, while Jesus gets blamed for not caring, and while people are prone to blame him when things go wrong, we are often actually irritated by those who (a) seem to have no problems while everything goes wrong for me, or (b) actually cause the problem that has me so upset.
I have been thinking a lot about motivation lately. Motivation is pretty important to God. Jesus is alerting Martha to the fact that her stress and anxiety shows that her motives are faulty: that she is not serving out of a heart of love to please Him.
Perhaps Jesus’ affirmation of Mary suggests the priority of attitude and not simply the rightness of good action. Maybe the “best part” that Mary chose was not merely to sit at Jesus’ feet but to do so with a pure heart of worship.
For those of us who serve Jesus, this story is a big time reality check. Am I really serving an Audience of One, regardless of how mundane and insignificant what I am doing actually appears to others? – Dave Shive