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Tonight we are looking at some women in the New Testament who many of you are already familiar with, Mary and Martha. So go ahead and turn to Luke 10 and while you turn there I’ll just give us an idea of where we are at in Jesus’ story. By the time Mary and Martha come on the scene, Jesus is pretty well established. His teachings have become more widely known and He has already performed many miracles. The first passage we are going to look at tonight is going to be very brief, but in just 5 short verses it gets straight to the heart of what many women struggle with. And by looking at the three passages that talk about Mary and Martha we are going to see a beautiful development of these women and their faith, specifically of Martha’s. So it really will be a great picture for us as women. So let’s look at this first encounter starting in verse 38…
38 As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him.
So we can assume here that Martha is meeting Jesus for the first time even though she has probably heard a lot about him. We aren’t told how Jesus ended up at Martha’s or why it was her house that was opened to Him. Maybe she was known for her hospitality, maybe she ran a bed and breakfast type business out of her home. We also don’t know if she was just hosting them for the day and maybe a meal or two, or were they staying the night? Who knows.
But what we do know is she has opened her home to 13 men which tells us that Martha is hospitable, gracious, and a servant. In the NIV it says Martha “opened her home to him” but in the NAS, the literal translation of the Greek it says “Martha welcomed Him into her home” which tells us it wasn’t out of obligation but that it was her desire to have them there. So maybe in addition to being hospitable she is also interested in who Jesus is and in His teachings she has heard about. Let’s keep reading…
39 She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said.
Now we meet Mary, Martha’s sister. While we learn that Martha has opened her home to Jesus, what we learn about Mary is different. In contrast to Martha, she is sitting at Jesus’ feet listening to His teaching. So we are given to brief glimpses of Martha and Mary. In this brief picture of Mary, what can we learn about her? What might be implied in her actions? First you might notice that she’s not helping Martha to get the house and food ready, maybe she’s not the “worker bee” type. Maybe she’s more relational, more type B. Sounds like she may be the younger sister. Perhaps she sees the importance of having Jesus right there and makes it a priority to listen to Him. Either way, she sees learning from Jesus as more important than the other details that need to get done.
Another question we might ask here is, seeing that Mary is sitting at the feet of Jesus listening to His teaching, what does this imply about Jesus? What might we learn here about Jesus? He is ok with a woman at His feet, just like a disciple. He viewed women knowing Him as being just as important as men knowing Him and His teachings. He did not tell her to go do the “woman’s” work. So the scene is set, now let’s read what happens next…
40a But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made.
Verse 40 begins with a key word “but.” Now, when you are telling a story and you insert the word “but” generally that means there is a problem, or something that doesn’t line up, or there’s a contradiction, or you are going to contrast two things. So what is being contrasted here? Mary and Martha. Mary is focused on Jesus…but Martha is distracted. First, let’s look at what she is distracted by, and then let’s look at what it means that she is distracted.
It says here she is distracted by “all the preparations that had to be made.” We already know that 13 men showed up at her door unannounced and that there is a possibility that they will need to eat and need a place to sleep. So these preparations might include preparing meals, making beds, cleaning their feet, drawing water from the well, and so on. And we remember that in that day and age you didn’t just run to the store to buy some bread, you actually had to make it by hand. These things were going to take a lot of work and a lot of time.
The text uses the word “had” to let us know she is not going above and beyond as maybe a modern Dallas woman might do with little favors and such for their guests, no what she is doing is what “has to be done” in order for them to simply be fed and possibly have a place to sleep. So what we need to understand is that the problem is not “what” she was doing. The literal translation of this verse is that she was distracted by “much service/serving.” She was serving others, which we know was at the heart of Jesus’ message to mankind. So if taking care of preparations and serving was not the problem, then what was the problem? What was the “but” referring to?
Well, the clue that is given to us here is that she was “distracted” by her service. The Dictionary defines distracted as “unable to concentrate because one’s mind is pre-occupied.” The Greek word that is translated here as distracted means “to be worried.” And the definition of worry is “to become anxious by dwelling on difficulty or troubles.” One translation’s notes (NET) explains that the connotation of this Greek word is that she was being “pulled away.”
So let’s put this all together to more fully understand what was wrong with what Martha was doing, what was the problem? All of these explanations imply one thing, that there is something that she should be concentrating on but she’s not, something that she is being pulled away from. And therefore, her new focus, what she is distracted by, we’re about to see, has led her to be anxious, worried, and to dwell on her difficult situation. We are going to unfold this more in a minute. So now let’s read what Martha does next, the rest of verse 40 says…
40b She (Martha) came to him (Jesus) and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”
Maybe in the beginning Mary was helping Martha, but she quickly was pulled away and was now enjoying their new company and enjoying herself, instead of serving as Martha was doing. While Martha was doing all the work, Mary was relaxing with the boys. So, Martha finally goes to Jesus to make things right.
Look at Martha’s progression here:
- Jesus, don’t you care? (about her, about justice, etc…)
- Look at what Mary has done wrong!
- Look at the trouble I am in because of her!
- Jesus, do what I think you should do to fix this situation – tell her she’s wrong and to get up off her duff and help me.
My guess is that each of us has been in a similar situation at least once in our lives before. Just 2 months ago I was in a very similar situation. We had just found out we were pregnant and 5 days later were throwing an engagement party for some dear friends of ours. And not only were we hosting, but I was making all the food and beverages for the party. So that day Michael helped me hang lights, prep food, and set-up. At the beginning he even helped get drinks, grill some meat, and set out the food. But then, suddenly, there was a turning point. And I can still see this image in my mind. Here I am in the kitchen surrounded by drink tubs full of melted ice and overflowing trashcans – ready to cut the cake and pour the champagne, and Michael is nowhere to be found.
Then I look out on the back porch, where the party was, and he is just snuggled right into the middle of the table surrounded by all his friends, with a cold beer in his hands. He was just as relaxed as ever having the time of his life. And here I was newly pregnant and feeling it and not sure what to do first because there was so much to be done! I remember bouncing between feelings of injustice (it just wasn’t fair that he wasn’t slaving away too, we were both the hosts) and feelings of jealousy (I wanted to rest and enjoy our guests too but I couldn’t because there was too much to do!)
Well, this is exactly what Martha was thinking too. And she did exactly what we all want to do in a situation like that….she went straight to the “authority figure,” ratted out the injustice, and demanded He make it right….all while questioning the love of Jesus…don’t you care? Now, while I controlled myself from doing that during the party, I did share my “feelings” with Michael afterwards and definitely used the pregnancy as my pity-ploy and my own version of “don’t you care?” So what will Jesus say in response? Let’s look at verse 41…
41 “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things…
First, Jesus begins by focusing on her, not Mary. This is something that since we were children we have hated! When you feel wronged by another person the last thing you want the person with power to do is to point out your fault in the matter. But this is exactly what Jesus does…Martha, you are worried, upset, (NAS) bothered, (ESV) anxious, troubled, about many things…so again, this reiterates what the narrator already implied by describing Martha as “distracted.” Then Jesus says…
42 but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
What is the first word here we should take note of? BUT. So again, there is going to be a contrast. The first time there was a “but” it contrasted Martha’s diligence with Mary’s neglect of the preparations. But now, to the reader’s surprise (and I’m sure to Martha’s) Jesus turns that on it’s head. In contrast to Martha’s worry and anxiety, Jesus says Mary’s choice to instead sit at his feet and listen to His teaching is
- The one thing that is needed/necessary
- That it is the better decision
- That it will not be taken away from her – so in other words, No Martha, I will not tell Mary to get up and help you! He will not take away from her this time she has to sit at His feet and learn.
Change vs. Choice
The first thing we need to notice about Jesus’ response is that He did not say, “Be more like Mary.” He did not say, better is the one who listens than the one who serves. It wasn’t about Type A vs. Type B. Jesus was not concerned with their personalities. One isn’t more Christlike than the other.
Instead, He pointed Martha to the one thing that was equally attainable to them both, regardless of personality or gifts. He simply said Mary chose better, she chose what was needed. When faced with the choice to work or to worship, she chose what was better, worship. So Jesus wasn’t asking Martha to change, but to choose.
This speaks loudly to people like me who are very task-oriented. We aren’t called to set aside the duties of our lives to worship and study the Word 24/7. But, there is a time for work and a time for worship. We all face this tension every single day. Each morning I know I need to start my day with Jesus and in the Word. I know it is the better choice. But there are days when I let my “preparations” take over, become more important, and I don’t make the better choice. That’s what Jesus is talking about here.
The next thing we need to notice is how Martha’s choice to work instead of worship affected her. Look at the progression…
1. Distracted – First, she allowed herself to get distracted by all the preparations. This means she allowed something inferior to steal her attention away from what was superior. She was majoring in the minors instead of the majors, as we might say. Another way to put it is that she didn’t keep as a priority what was most important so what was least important distracted her. She chose serving over time with Jesus and then allowed that service to distract her from what was most important.
2. Distorted – And when we do this, the 2nd stage, is that it causes our vision to get distorted. We begin to think our new focus is actually more important. Martha, got distracted by all the preparations, serving others, and then began to see her situation as a burden, allowing herself to become full of anxiety and worry. And then she also began to believe that the work that had to be done was more important than spending time with Jesus who was the reason for it all. Her serving was no longer about others, it was now about herself. Her serving was no longer filled with joy, but filled with bitterness and selfishness. Her vision was distorted and she could no longer see clearly.
3. Doubt – Then, the 3rd “D”, the 3rd stage, is that it led her to doubt Him. To doubt Jesus’ goodness and love for her. She really meant it when she asked Jesus “Don’t you care?” At that point her vision was so distorted that all she could do was doubt Him. And we do exactly the same thing, when we don’t make time with God a priority and we allow ourselves to get distracted from Him, our vision becomes distorted and we can no longer see the circumstances of our lives clearly, and this almost always leads us to doubting God. And it all comes down to taking our eyes off Jesus and putting them on inferior distractions.
Cart Before the Horse
When we choose to put other inferior things before our time with God it is the same as that old saying, putting the cart before the horse. It just won’t work. When we put the things of this world and our “work” before our relationship with God and our worship of Him our vision will become distorted and our faith will suffer.
Why is this? What happens when we spend time with Jesus? How does it affect us and the way we view and live our lives? Well first, it gives us perspective that we can’t have on our own. It helps us to see God’s hand in our lives. This is also where we find His peace and it calms us. When we spend time with Him we learn to trust Him. We find rest and refreshment. It also reveals what should be our priority and gives us guidance and direction.
Just last week a friend and I were venting about a frustrating situation and after about 15 minutes of that we finally just prayed about it. And the second we started praying peace just washed over both of us. And God began to give us both a clearer perspective on the situation, calming us, and helping us to trust Him with it. This is just a small glimpse of what happens when we make time with God a priority in all things. Venting was honestly a distraction that was leading to a bad attitude and clouding our vision, but the second we made the better choice we saw why it was the one thing that was needed.
It will not be taken away from her
The last thing that Jesus said to Martha was that Mary had chosen better and that ”It will not be taken away from her.” Just a minute ago I explained that Jesus was saying here that He would not make Mary stop listening to Him, He would not take that away from her. But I think that is only half of what He meant.
The other half, is that what Mary was getting out of those moments at Jesus’ feet would stay with her forever. God’s Word is eternal. What we learn about Jesus stays with us throughout our lives. I have heard many many testimonies of kids raised in Christian homes whose parents made them memorize scripture. Later those kids rebelled and walked away from God. But then they all talk about how in their darkest moments they would recall entire verses from the Bible that they had memorized 10, 20 years before. This is because God’s Word, as it tells us in Hebrews, is living and active. It is eternal and it is full of life.
And Jesus knew that Mary and Martha would need what He had to say for what was to come. If you read John 11 before you came, then you saw that it was the story of Lazarus, their brother. And he dies because Jesus did not come to save Him when He found out Lazarus was sick. He intentionally stalled and let Lazarus die. But when Jesus does finally show up after Lazarus is dead He encounters a very changed woman. Martha’s house is full of people, yet the minute she hears Jesus is in town she drops everything to go to Him. Then she goes on to express a very strong and solid faith in the light of such a tragedy in her life. She even confesses that Jesus is the Messiah which is something that His own disciples are still struggling with..
Martha humbled herself to Jesus’ rebuke and obeyed His words. Somewhere along the way she began to put Him first and make knowing God a priority. Imagine how Martha would have responded to her brother’s death and Jesus’ neglect, if her faith had not grown. How much more would she have felt that it wasn’t fair and that Jesus didn’t care?! But she doesn’t say this because her vision is no longer distorted.
Let’s finish tonight by looking at the last little glimpse we are given of Mary and Martha. Turn to John 12.
1 Six days before the Passover, Jesus arrived at Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. 2 Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. 3 Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.
Martha served, and Mary sat at Jesus’ feet. One might think by looking at this scene that nothing has changed. But we know, that for Martha, everything has changed. She has learned that there’s a time to worship and a time to work, and that worship should always be our priority before work. And not only that, but she has also learned how to make her work a form of worship. Her perspective is clear, so instead of becoming distracted, anxious, and focusing on the difficulty of her work – she can now see it as a joy, as her service to the Lord, she is using her gifts of hospitality and service to honor Jesus. It really is a beautiful transformation to see.
As we look at Martha, the lessons she learned, and the transformation that took place in her life we need to ask ourselves: Am I choosing to worship Jesus before the things that have to get done? Do I see my time in the Word, with God as the one thing that is necessary in my day? And if you are not sure how to answer those questions, then I bet another way you could figure it out is by looking at your attitude, your perspective on life, and your view of God to determine whether you are or not. Do you find yourself doubting God and His goodness? Then make time with Him your number one priority. Do you often get buried under anxiety and worry, dwelling on the difficulties of your life? Then remember that there is only one thing that won’t be taken away from you…that your relationship with God through Jesus, and His Word.
And remember in this that in all the different spheres of your life….work, family, friends, neighbors, commitments, etc…God is not calling you to change who you are in order to follow Him…but to choose to put Him first in all things. And then to let your life flow out of that as a form of worship.
Questions for Discussion & Application:
● In what ways do you relate with Martha’s story?
● What distracts you from spending time with God and causes you anxiety and worry?