Story 122: Martha, Mary, and the One Thing Necessary

Luke 10:38-42

Praying woman

Sometimes our problem is that we really don’t want to serve God.  Jesus taught the story of the Good Samaritan to show how beautiful it is when we are willing to live in generous service and love to our neighbors.  Unfortunately, it is possible to take our desire to serve too far.  We can even turn service to God into something that takes us away from God.  Our need to find our identity in the way we serve becomes our true god, and we miss out on the whole point of our service…we miss out on God Himself.  The story of Martha and Mary highlights this problem and shows the gentle, loving response of Christ that should make all of us rest more easily in the way we offer our lives to Him.

Jesus kept on His journey through the villages and towns of Judea. He arrived in a village called Bethany, which was about two miles from Jerusalem. A woman named Martha lived there with her brother and sister.   She invited Jesus and His disciples to come to her house, and the Lord agreed.

As Jesus sat teaching the Good News of His Kingdom in her home, Martha’s sister Mary sat at His feet and listened, drinking in His every word.   Meanwhile, Martha was bustling around, fixing the food, preparing everything for this guest that she so wanted to honor.

When He spoke, Jesus’ Words brought a bright, glorious Truth and understanding in a way the people had never heard before. For those whose hearts longed to have wisdom about the bent and broken things in this world, His Words were like a healing balm on the raw, sore wounds of sin and confusion and shame.

Jesus not only taught the right thing to do, He brought the healing and power to do it! There was a way to live that was better, and real, and there was a Kingdom to hope for! The twisted, disappointing sin of the Jewish religious leaders really was wrong. They did not show the true picture of the living God! But now, the right Image had come. Here was a true leader that could really show the way!

The beauty of Christ’s teaching was not only in His Words. It was in His Person. His powerful beauty and might pervaded every part of His life, from the healings that untwisted broken bodies, to the casting out of demons that tormented people and held them captive. He moved with a strength and an utter faith that was complete and whole, and it was dynamic and powerful to be near.

For those that God the Father showed the beautiful, powerful goodness of Christ to, there was a compelling draw, almost like a hunger, to be near Him. His righteousness was deeply attractive.  Somehow, He set everything right. He reinterpreted the world to the exact right understanding with every response to every situation. He could be utterly trusted.  It met the deepest needs in the hearts of His hearers.

Imagine having this Man of such deep and holy love in your own home!

Martha longed to make everything perfect for Him, but that meant a lot of work. Everywhere Jesus went, at least twelve disciples were there with Him, and probably more. In the Jewish culture, if Martha wanted to be a good hostess, she would have to feed them all, plus anyone from the village that had come to listen. There was cleaning and chopping and stirring and cooking to do! The honor of her family was at stake.

As she worked and toiled, Martha started to get annoyed with her sister. You can imagine what her thoughts might have been: “What was she doing, sitting there at Jesus’ feet? Why wasn’t she helping? Didn’t she see all the guests that needed to be fed? How could Mary leave me to do all the work?”

Finally, Martha went to Jesus. Surely he did not approve of how selfish Mary was being! “‘Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself?’” she cried. “‘Tell her to help me!’”

Usually, when someone is called, “Lord,” it means they are the ones in charge. But it is pretty obvious here that Martha has taken over the situation. She is calling Him Lord in the very same sentence she is bossing Him around. She is also laying down an accusation. Doesn’t He care enough to do something?

Martha had a lot of other choices she could have made in that moment. She could have kept right on working. She could have asked Mary for help. She could have spoken in an honorable and respectful way. She could have asked Jesus what she should do. She could have joined Mary at the feet of Jesus. But instead she was bossy and rude to her own Lord, harsh towards her sister…and she had probably made all of those guests she was so desperate to serve pretty uncomfortable as well.

Jesus had some choices He could make, too. He could have rebuked Mary and told her to get up and help her sister. That is surely what Martha was expecting. Jesus could have rebuked Martha for being rude or shamed her in front of the group. He could have ignored her or gotten up to help. Instead, He responded in a way that shows the goodness and kindness of the Lord:

“Martha, Martha,’” Jesus replied, “‘You are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.’”

Wow. In all of Martha’s desire to serve, she had forgotten the Most Important Thing. Jesus is the One True Need! The great Teacher had finally come to her village, and Martha made herself too busy to stop and listen to what He had to say! She was missing life with Jesus in order to serve Him!

Jesus wanted time with Martha more than He wanted Martha’s work. The loving relationship and her dependence on Him was the greater treasure, not the things she could do. Mary had it right.

There are a couple of truly remarkable things about this story. In the time of Jesus, women were not treated with a great deal of respect. In fact, some of the Jewish religious leaders thought it was a waste of time to teach them God’s Word. Men and women were often expected to stay very separate in public and were only allowed to be close if they were relatives. Yet here we see Jesus allowing Mary to sit at His feet, treating her learning as if it were something of great value. When Martha was rude to Jesus, it would have been very natural and acceptable for Him to rebuke her and shame her. Yet instead of protecting His own dignity, He responded with gentleness and compassion. He protected and honored Mary, but He also protected Martha.  Then He helped her figure out where her thinking was off. He stood in perfect, loving relationship with every person in the situation.

As I said before, it is interesting that this story from the book of Luke comes right after the story of the Good Samaritan. In that story, God teaches how valuable each person is to the Lord, and how we are meant to treat everyone in need with the same love that we would want shown to ourselves. That is a very lavish, strong love, and it can take up a lot of time and energy. But it is also the second most important command.

Our first command is to love God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength. The love we have for others should flow from that first love that we have with Jesus. In the Good Samaritan story, the priest and the Levite ignored the broken, bloody man and broke the command to love thy neighbor. In this story about Martha, she ignored the first command because she loved serving God more than she loved God Himself.

What is amazing is what Jesus told Martha about Mary. The sacred love she had with Him will never be taken away from her.  Christ is protective of it.  It started then and continues on to this very day. And the love we see between Mary and Christ is the same sweetness we can have with Him ourselves. How amazing that the heart of the One who created the universe is moved when we make Him our first devotion. Our love matters to God! The power of the relationship between Jesus and one of His chosen ones is so secure that nothing in heaven or on earth can break it. It will never be taken away.   It is everlasting love. Wow.

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