Originally published on Jan 2015
As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations [much service] that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself [to serve alone]? Tell her to help me!” “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better and it will not be taken away from her.” – Luke 10:38-42
Martha invites Jesus and his band of travelling disciples to her home. She’s probably like Lydia in the Book of Acts, who heads, runs and manages this household. As host, Martha’s probably in the kitchen preparing a meal for her guests. And while that is happening, Jesus teaches and Mary sits at Jesus’ feet with the rest of the disciples listening to Him. Martha must have been expecting and waiting for Mary to come in to help her with the kitchen preparations. After all, there is a big menu for so many guests. She waits but to no avail as that “lazy” Mary is still out there. So frustration sets in, and then resentment. Instead of approaching Mary, and maybe, whispering into her ear to ask for help with the preparations, Martha triangulates. Sort of like the case when mother argues with father and talks to him through her children. Martha approaches Jesus accusing him of not caring about her. She then orders Him to order Mary into the kitchen. “Tell her to help me!” In her anger and frustration , Martha likely embarrasses her sister, Jesus and herself by telling them off in front of so many people. Clearly, Jesus must have quite an intimate relation with this household for Martha to speak that way. He’s almost as good as family. So how does Jesus respond to Martha’s little outburst? Instead of coming to Martha’s defence, He gently rebukes her for doing what she was supposed to do – continuing in her act of hospitality after inviting guests to her home. That seems unfair. Since it was the home of both sisters, shouldn’t Mary host Jesus together with Martha, even though it was Martha who gave the invitation? More so in Jesus’ time, women should be in the kitchen. Only the men sat down and crowded around the Rabbi. Why was Mary not in the kitchen with Martha?
What was Jesus’ reply to Mary all about? Did Jesus mean to tell her that the contemplative life is better than the active? Prayer is seen as the “one thing necessary.” Contemplation is the better choice as compared to action.
But why should we set contemplation against action, worship against ministry? Recall that right before this passage is the parable of the Good Samaritan, where Jesus highlights the importance of service and action toward our neighbour. How could the Son of Man, who would teach His disciples that He has come not to be served but to serve (Mark 10:45; Matt 10:28), downplay service (diakonia)? How could Jesus castigate Martha for her hospitality and service?
We might be able to get some clarity if we looked to John:
Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. – John 12:1-3.
Here, Jesus again is invited to the home of Martha and Mary. This time round, Lazarus is mentioned as being there – newly raised from the dead. Mary pours a pint of perfume and wipes Jesus’ feet with her hair. The passage simply says that Martha served and if we read on, Jesus’ rebuke this time was directed at Judas: “Leave her alone.” “Don’t bother Mary for she’s anointing me for my upcoming burial. The poor you’ll have with you always.”
So, what was Jesus’ rebuke all about in the Luke passage? Why did Jesus tell Martha to leave Mary alone? There was nothing wrong with Martha’s ministry in the kitchen, as the John passage indicates. If the problem wasn’t her industry and service, then what was it?
On the face of it, she was too distracted by the many things she had to do, possibly trying to prepare too many dishes for her guests. So that’s why Jesus says few things are needed. We don’t need such an elaborate meal.
What was this “one thing” needed; the better thing that Martha did not choose?
Let’s see if other contexts in Luke where the word “one” is used might be of assistance. In Luke 16:13, for instance, Jesus says that a person cannot serve two masters for he or she will surely hate and despise the “one” in order to love and serve the other. And again in Luke 18:22, where Jesus counsels the rich young ruler that he lacked “one thing” – to sell his possessions and follow Jesus.
Clearly, it can’t be that Martha’s devotion was compromised by mammon. It certainly was in the case of Judas, where his greed made him critical of Mary and finally made him betray Jesus for thirty pieces of silver.
Martha’s issue, I suggest, was a lack of unity of heart. There is nothing wrong with ministry, activity or service in itself. However, Martha’s heart was not centred on Christ. Hence, she was not wholehearted or single-minded in her service. She was divided in herself. Her mind was all over the place, her heart was not rightly focused, and her emotions in a flux. She served on the outside by not on the inside. She welcomed Jesus into her home with her hands and feet but not with her head and heart.
Mary, on the other hand, was attentive to Jesus both in her listening in Luke and in as her service of anointing in John. And because she was attentive to Jesus on the inside, she attended to Jesus so well on the outside. In fact, her service and devotion to Jesus in the John passage was extravagant. Overflowing. By giving full attention to her guest, Mary was doing what a host was supposed to do. If Mary was doing what she wasn’t supposed to be doing in Luke, wouldn’t Jesus have told her to get into the kitchen to help her sister?
And that’s why Jesus had to call Martha’s name twice. It not only indicates intimacy but it is an invitation to true service. There are not many occasions in the Bible where God calls a person’s name twice. When Abraham heard the angel of the Lord calling him twice, it was a call to cease from sacrificing Isaac. When Moses heard his name twice from the burning bush, it was a call to deliver the Israelites from Pharaoh. Similarly, Jacob, Samuel, and Saul all received calls to ministry, or some kind of vocational change. In Luke, Jesus utters Martha’s name twice to re-call her to ministry once again.
Note that the Lukan passage is sandwiched by the parable of the good Samaritan and the Lord’ Prayer. And right before the parable, Jesus issues the double commandment to love God and the neighbour. There is something fitting between content and context here: two sisters representing service and prayer, action and contemplation. Just as much as Mary and Martha are inseparably sisters, so the injunction to love God and neighbour cannot be pulled apart. We choose the better – Mary’s way of attentiveness – not to disown Martha’s industry or service.
We do so that we might have the best of both sisters. And the best is to have the heart of Mary and the hands of Martha, so to speak, of true service that overflows from a posture of attention.
But that sounds like a goal or ideal to which we strive and for which we are to pray. In reality, we gravitate between the distracted Martha of Luke and the single-minded Martha of John. I would say that we’re more likely to be like the Lukan Martha being the busy and active Singaporeans that we are. On occasion, where an epiphany or miracle happens, when a Lazarus is raised from the dead, when we encounter afresh the Lordship of Jesus again, then we become like the Johannine Martha.
But, as we enter the business and busyness of another new term and year, maybe we need to acknowledge this tension of the two Marthas that plays out in our lives. What we need to keep in mind and heart is this: That Jesus’ affection for either Martha is constant. And when we are found to be in the place of the Martha of Luke: That we are always open to Jesus’ gentle correction. That when He calls our name twice, we are ready to say, “Here I am Lord.” In doing so, we will receive once again, as gift, from our Lord the posture of the Martha of John.
DR. TAN SENG KONG
BGST Lecturer of Systematic and Spiritual Theology. A graduate from Regent College, Vancouver (MA Spiritual Theology). Seng Kong completed his PhD in Systematic Theology Seminary, where he focused his research on Jonathan Edwards’s doctrine of salvation.