Mary and Martha at Jesus feet

Lessons from lunch with Mary and Martha

Mary and Martha are two typical sisters who shared a love for Jesus but had vastly different characters, which inspired them to love in diverse ways.Their family had the privilege of calling Jesus their dear friend while witnessing some of his greatest miracles. One specific visit by Jesus to their home has caused fierce debate amongst scholars and preachers for many centuries.

Who loved Jesus better?

Why is Martha’s reaction so regretful?

Was Mary just lazy?

Women have tried to put themselves in either camp, trying to work less and become more restful, while being fraught with guilt either way.

Jesus loved Mary, Martha, and their brother Lazarus (whom he raised from the dead in John 11:1–44) and enjoyed spending time with them in their hometown of Bethany. A few days before his crucifixion, Martha welcomes Jesus into her home with all his followers (some estimate around 100 people). Martha works hard serving Jesus and all his guests while her sister Mary sits at Jesus’ feet and listens to his teachings. Martha is terribly upset with her sister and indignantly remarks to Jesus “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” Jesus replies “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.” (Read the full story in Luke 10:38-42.)

Mary anoints the feet of Jesus

Later, Mary takes a whole pound of expensive perfume (estimated in value to be the equivalent of approximately a year’s wages) and anoints Jesus with the oil. She wipes his feet with her hair in an intimate expression of love and devotion to Jesus which signifies both his anointing as King and is symbolic for his burial which is a few days away. (John 12:1-8) James E. Talmage explains that “the anointing of head and feet with spikenard, and in such abundance, was an act of reverential homage rarely rendered even to kings. Mary’s act was an expression of adoration.”

Confession time: I AM Martha.

Even my husband called me “Martha” recently while the story was mentioned during our weekly service one Sunday morning. I can identify with Martha wholeheartedly. Imagine a crowd turning up at your door, without potluck dinner or a bring-and-braai, and you must provide for them! You scurry about doing the best you can, but in the process miss out on the rich company. Feeling overwhelmed, you notice your little sister just sitting there! Not moving a muscle to help you – just enjoying the party. Doesn’t she care? Doesn’t she feel guilty? Doesn’t anyone think she should get up and help. To make matters worse, you point out her rudeness to your esteemed Guest and he takes her side!

As a typical “Martha” I have had an uncomfortable relationship with this Bible story for a long time. In non-Corona times I am usually busy with some project or another, especially in church. In our society busyness has become equated to productivity and success. Our degree of busyness can determine our self-worth and ultimately, leave us with little or no time for the things that are truly valuable.

Martha is busy, but not just because she cares about her guests. She might be worried about pleasing and impressing Jesus and his entourage. Her concern with what others think appears as serving others. That is why Jesus reprimands her, even though he professes serving one’s neighbour elsewhere in scripture (see Matthew 22:37-40). Jesus sees that Martha is “anxious”, “troubled” and “distracted” which causes her to become resentful and robbing her of love and joy in her task.

Isn’t this the state we sometimes find ourselves in when we try to do good or serve the Lord? I had to do some deep self-examination to investigate my intentions behind serving the Lord. Do I care how I look or do I work for the love of Jesus? Jesus notices that Martha’s service is not grounded in a personal relationship with him, and this troubles him. It is a warning to her, since she serves out of anxiety that things won’t get done. I think many of us start out with a task or responsibility with the intentions of using our talents for the glory of God, but with the busyness we become consumed with worry that everything will not be perfect, and therefore the task itself becomes our obsession. This leads to anxiety and worry because we are forgetting the most important part of the equation – our Lord and our love for him.

Let’s move our focus to Mary sitting on the floor by Jesus’ feet. She is not distracted by all that needs to be done and barely gives Martha a thought. One might argue that she is lazy and negligent, but when we read the account in John 12, we realize that she is in fact enthralled by Jesus’ teaching and doesn’t care what others think. With humility she shows Jesus that no sacrifice is too large for her to show her love for him. She has chosen the “good portion.”

Luke 10:42

What is this “good portion”? We read in Matthew 6:33 that we should seek first his kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you”. Jesus Christ is the Bread of life (John 6:25-59) and if we partake in his word, we will not go spiritually hungry (Luke 4:4 and John 6:63-68). The “good portion”, the spiritual nourishment, we find in Jesus will never fade (1 John 2:16-17) because our spiritual being will outlast the natural. Therefore, what is eternal should always be our focus. Good works should flow from a Christ-centred life and not as a substitute for faith in God’s goodness and love for his Son.

The story of Martha also resonates with me on a higher level as an illustration of how we relate to Jesus in our circumstances. We can anxiously fret and try to take matters into our own hands while telling Jesus what he must do (“tell her to help me”). In Luke 12:25 Jesus asks his followers “Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life”. One strategy could involve trying to control a hard situation by thinking about it day and night, trying to find a solution or make a tough decision. On the other hand, we can try to tell God exactly how we want these circumstances to be changed. The irony of both tactics is that it is all an illusion. We have no control. We can save ourselves hours of heartache and buckets of tears by surrendering and taking a seat at the feet of Jesus. We can tell him our sorrows and our fears and leave it with him. Then we should listen if he talks, and if he doesn’t, we should find comfort in his comforting presence which creates a peace which surpasses all understanding. Unfortunately, God rarely speaks through burning bushes these days, but the Holy Spirit shows us the right way through the peace we experience when we look in the right direction.

The reality of life is that there is work to be done. In our congregations there are children to teach, members to serve, music to make and many other responsibilities which require time and energy. In our lives we cannot sit back and wait for God to perform miracles by dropping success in our laps without doing our part.

I believe the key is finding balance. Jesus should always be our focus – our highest priority. Our love for Him and the relationship that ensues should inspire everything we do, in his work or in our daily lives. If that is the case, we will prioritise what is important – firstly our love for God and our desire to be with him, secondly the people we love and then our own desires and concerns. When our work flows from this love for God, perfection is rarely the result, but souls are touched and joy is overflowing, from our hearts and all those we come into contact with.

And that is what Jesus is after.

In today’s music video, Casting Crowns remind us of the most important accolade is we can strive for:

“And I, I don’t want to leave a legacy
I don’t care if they remember me
Only Jesus
And I, I’ve only got one life to live
I’ll let every second point to Him
Only Jesus”

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