From “God’s Favorite Place” by Frank Viola, author
Some Bible commentators have engaged in Martha-bashing. Others have engaged in Mary-bashing.
Mary is often depicted as being “too heavenly minded to be any earthly good.” She selfishly listened to Jesus teach, leaving her sister behind to do the heavy lifting. Mary is said to be the woman who worships God in her living room with hands raised while she ignores the knock on the door from the hungry neighbor who is without food.
Martha is often depicted as a domestic diva—the first-century equivalent to Martha Stewart—her idol being domestic performance. Martha wanted to impress Jesus with a great meal but cared little about hearing Him teach. She is said to be the woman who is too earthly-minded to be any heavenly good.
Both of these Sunday school portraits are dead wrong, and they should be put to the torch.
The truth is that Mary helped Martha with the meal preparations. She didn’t avoid the “kitchen duties.”
Martha’s initial complaint verifies that observation. Martha said that Mary “left me.” You can’t leave someone unless they were already with you.
Mary received Jesus on a higher plane than did her dutiful sister. Jesus was not after mere domestic performance. Listening to His teaching honored Him more than attending to His physical needs.
The Greek text tells us that Mary “kept on listening to His word.” Jesus wanted to pour that which was in His own heart into the hearts of those listening. He was looking for people who would eagerly receive and understand what He had to say.
Mary was such an open vessel. Only by being a listening disciple can one be a proper hostess. But there is something more.
In Jesus’ day, homes were divided into the male space and the female space. The kitchen (typically the courtyard) was the domain of the women. The public room was the domain of the men.
For a woman to settle down in the public room with the men was culturally awkward and offensive.
The only two places that were shared by both the men and the women were the marital bedroom and outside the house where the children played.
Mary crossed an invisible line. By entering the public room, she breached two social boundaries. First, she sat in the men’s space. Second, she sat in the posture of a disciple.
A disciple in the first century wasn’t someone who learned academically, as if to listen to a lecture, take notes, and study them. A disciple was an apprentice—a person who was learning a way of life. The first lesson of Christian discipleship is to sit under the Lord Jesus and learn from Him.
So when Mary sat at Jesus’ feet in the public room, it constituted no small scandal. She took the posture of a disciple. Every rabbi in that day had only male disciples. Jesus was the uncommon exception. He welcomed women to be His disciples also. Including women as full-fledged disciples was a testament to the radical nature of His ministry.
As far as we know, Jesus was also the first Jewish teacher to have women (unrelated by blood) as part of His traveling entourage of disciples. And for a Jewish woman to leave her home and travel with a teacher was scandalous.
In her bitter accusation, Martha was in effect saying, “My sister is in the public room, acting like a man, when she should be in the courtyard helping me!”
While we can understand Martha’s complaint against her sister on a human level, it was undeserved and unkind.
I’m impressed that not a single word of defense fell from Mary’s lips. Instead, Jesus rose to her defense, affirming her right to learn from Him.
Martha, seeking to serve the Lord according to her own thoughts, was distracted and diverted. The Greek word translated “distracted” in Luke 10:40 means to be preoccupied, pulled in different directions, or driven about mentally.
Anytime we seek to serve the Lord according to our own ideas and in our own energy, we—like Martha—are bound to exhibit a failed temper and frayed nerves.
An agitated and aggravated Martha ascribed blame to Jesus, reproving Him for not caring.
Jesus’ rebuke to Martha was kind. This is revealed in the fact that He repeated her name twice. Naming someone twice indicated concern, tenderness, and seriousness. The other examples in the Bible make this clear: “Simon, Simon”; “Saul, Saul”; Oh Jerusalem, Jerusalem; My God, my God.
Note that Jesus never denigrated or belittled the value of Martha’s work. Jesus loved Martha, and we should commend her for receiving Him into her home. A single fault shouldn’t erase her noble character.
The Lord simply put His finger on a subtle problem. Martha’s service required reorientation. Fretting and fussing, Martha was troubled by “many things,” occupied with her “much serving.” Jesus was saying, in effect, “You are putting yourself into a needless uproar.”
“Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things. But one thing is needed …”
Martha’s service, though well-motivated, was misguided and misdirected. So Jesus contrasted the “many things” with the “one thing” that was needed. The “one thing” is Christ Himself. And the better thing is to be His disciple.
In Jesus Manifesto, I expound on this thought, issuing a clarion call for all Christians to center on Jesus Christ rather than the countless religious rabbit trails that distract us from Him. Even trails of ministry and service can easily become distractions.
I’m not suggesting complacency or insensitivity to the needs of the world. God forbid. The issue is that our chief priority is to get to know Jesus Christ and learn to live by Him.
To put it another way, our service to the Lord should originate from the Lord’s clear direction. He will put people on our hearts, sometimes burdening us to pray for, speak to, or serve them in some way. When that happens, we should act—not trusting in ourselves—but relying wholly on His power and ability.
Thus it is possible to be outwardly busy serving God while we sit at the feet of Jesus. The caution here is in serving the Lord anxiously with all that we have yet failing to be His disciple. Being a disciple is about following the Lord’s leading and doing what He tells us to do.
“One thing is needful,” the Lord said. “And I won’t take it away from her.”
Mary’s attention was riveted on “one thing.” And both the psalmist and Paul spoke about it:
One thing I ask of the LORD, this is what I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to seek him in his temple.
Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.
Paul lost “all things” to gain the “one thing.”
What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ.