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If you are unfamiliar with the story of Mary and Martha, or just haven’t read it in a while, why not do that first?. Real quick. Head over to Luke, chapter 10, verses 38-42.
Go ahead. I’ll wait.
Done? I hope so because it may be a short story, but it’s full of information beneficial to you and me.
Martha – The Big Sister
I may be taking some liberties here, but I fully believe Martha to be the older sister in this family. For one thing, it’s her house that Jesus (and His followers) are welcomed into. Verse 38 tells us that, “Martha received Him into her house.”
The next part that leads me to believe that Martha is the older house is that in verse 40 she goes back to preparing, and stressing. She is concerned with serving her guests. She is holding herself responsible for the comfort of those she has allowed into her home. Now, this could simply be because it’s her house, but I think if we also look at the time period we are in it leads to the idea that Martha is the older sister.
So here we have Martha, welcoming Jesus and those traveling with Him, into her home. She settles them in and them promptly gets back to work. Probably more work than she has planned for the day now that she had guests to consider. But something is bothering her. Verse 39 uses the word “cumbered” to describe her state of being. She was distracted and too busy. I’m sure you can relate to that – because I know I can. If I have guests in my home, or even if I am preparing a meal for a function, I know I always want to do my best. Actually, I want to do better than my best. I strive for perfection. And rather than achieving that, I usually end up short-tempered, snappy, and frustrated.
And I’m not even serving Jesus – but Martha was. The perfectionist in me feels for her and can literally see her in the kitchen, frazzled because the recipe isn’t coming out just right. Or the good napkins are not where they should be. I totally and completely can see Martha in my mind – in her kitchen, trying to do more than her best. Expecting more of herself that is reasonable. And expecting every other woman in the house to pitch-in and help with the preparations.
Mary – The Younger Sister
This shouldn’t come as a surprise to you, but I do believe Mary to be the younger sister. It’s Martha’s house, Martha is the one cumbered in the kitchen. And Mary, well Mary is at Jesus’ feet.
She’s not stressing about serving. The bible doesn’t even say if she offered to help Martha, or if she was in the kitchen prior to Jesus’ arrival. Instead, we meet Mary in verse 39 at the feet of Jesus, listening to Him.
This doesn’t make her bad. This doesn’t mean that I don’t like Mary who doesn’t appear to be taking the perfectionist role to heart like her sister is. It simply makes her different than Martha. Mary, in this instance, appears the polar opposite of her cumbered sister. Rather than rushing around she literally stops. She leaves the dirty dishes in the sink, the soup to simmer unattended, and the stress of serving in the kitchen.
And this difference, for us and for them, is a good thing.
If you had a sibling growing up you are probably familiar with sibling rivalry. I only have one sister and we did not get along as kids one bit. We fought, bickered, and tattled a lot. And I’m willing to bet for most of you reading this it was the same for you as well. Rivalry between siblings is not something new – it’s goes all the way back to Cain and Abel.
Thankfully my sister and I weren’t that bad (I think anyway). But having that experience places me in the position of understanding where Martha is coming from when she approached Jesus in verse 40. After being cumbered she goes to Him. She goes up to Jesus and says, ” dost though not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone?”
I don’t think I’m bold enough anymore to go up to Jesus and ask such a question. There may have been a time, but that was long ago. But I’m glad Martha did ask because it gives us a great opportunity to hear Jesus’ response to her question.
And I’m assuming that since His response was in kind, that her question was as well. We can read it with any tone we want to, snappy, snarky or rude, but Jesus responds in kind. This leads me to believe that even though Martha was frazzled and stressed, her question was not accusatory, rude, or demanding.
So this is it. This is the moment we have been waiting for. Up until this point we have met two sisters, one busy the other listening to the visitors. One with a heart for service and customs, the other wanting to sit and listen. The two sisters couldn’t appear to be any more different and this difference peaks with Martha’s request of Jesus to send Mary in to help her in verse 40.
It’s an interesting conundrum that Jesus is now in. As a parent, I have heard my own children telling me that a sibling isn’t helping with a task I assigned. The one who is working is rightfully upset that the other is choosing to leave the work for someone else. And that’s right where Martha is – upset that the work of serving the guests has been left up to her. It’s a job far too large for just one person and how dare Mary slip out and skip out on the work?
Jesus’ response is two-fold though. He doesn’t just tell Martha that she is right and then order Mary into the kitchen. And He doesn’t simply tell Martha to get over it and leave Mary alone.
What He does do is first addresses the real problem. In verse 41 He starts His response with, “…thou art careful and troubled about many things:” He first acknowledges that Martha’s feelings are real – she is anxious and bothered – but it’s about many things. He addresses the fact that even with Mary in the kitchen, Martha will still be worried, because Mary cannot possibly take care of everything for her. Sure, Mary will be another set of helping hands, but she won’t calm Martha’s worried mind because Martha is worried about a lot. With this first part of His response Jesus address the overwhelm that Martha is feeling.
Then He dives right in and finishes His response in verse 42, “… one thing is needful: and Mary has chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.” He doesn’t tell Martha that she is wrong. Or that Mary needs to go to the kitchen. He doesn’t say the actions of one sister are superior to the actions of the other.
In this response, He validates both worship and service.
Which Are You?
So are you a Martha? More comfortable in the kitchen getting on with the busyness of life. Planning, organizing and doing all that needs to be done.
Or are you a Mary? Perfectly content to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen even when there is work to be done. Able to chose the good part.
It’s an interesting paradox and one that I am still not sure of myself. I know that I am a doer. One who does better with busy, with plans, and with checking things off when they are completed. And yes, there are times when my list of things to do leads to feeling overwhelmed and exhausted. When I need to take a step back and reevaluate my choices, activities, and goals.
Last summer I was introduced to an amazing book, one that delves far deeper into the story of Mary and Martha than I ever could. The author, Joanna Weaver, brings insights and history relevant to the time period which allows the reader to truly examine their own hearts. She perfectly weaves biblical advice, commentaries, and stories to not only guide the reader but encourage the readers to work on the side they are lacking.
Having a Mary Heart in a Martha World (Joanna Weaver, Waterbrook Press) is a book I would recommend to anyone who struggles with finding the balance between working and worshiping. Anyone who looks to find their good part and feels as if they come up short. Anyone who read the words I wrote here and wants to know more about these two sisters who show us both sides of their own heart.
Martha and Mary show us that both work and worship are needed, but that they each have a place in our lives. Finding the balance between the two is not always easy. In fact most of the time we are leaning one way or the other. These verses, and the book, give me hope. Hope that I can be a doer like Martha, and hope that I can change and be more like Mary. Jesus never told Martha she was wrong in asking for help, but He did say that Mary chose the good part. I need to remember to sit and listen, and enjoy the good part more. I need to work on finding a better balance between my own inner-Martha and Mary.
What about you? Are you more of a Martha or a Mary? Comment below!