Luke 10:38-42 tells the well-known tale of Martha, our anally retentive, maybe even obsessive-compulsive sister, and her seemingly indolent, oblivious, hyperspiritual sister Mary. Having always read this story with third-person omniscience, I’ve always chuckled with arrogance, shaking my head and rolling my eyes, “Oh, Martha. Don’t you know that Jesus is the better choice?” But as I read the text this morning, the Spirit illuminated my heart to the Martha in me. Maybe I was being a little too hard on Martha. Maybe I was jumping to conclusions. Maybe I had previously shut my eyes to the battle that must have been waging within her—an internal battle similar to my own.
Let me set the scene (at least the scene in my overly active imagination):
A man is coming to town. Not an earthly king, not a noble, not a prophet, not your average teacher. A man. A man surrounded and preceded by rumors of miracles, healings and authoritative teaching far surpassing that of any scribe or teacher of the Law. People have even uttered the word Messiah about Him. The Messiah, coming to her village—Martha’s village.
Now, Martha is the “Martha” of her village. Actually, Martha was “Martha” before “Martha” was “Martha.” Stewart, that is. She is the hostess with the mostest. The queen of clean. The diva of divine entertaining. If anyone entered the village needing a place to recline and dine, Martha’s place was it. She lived for that kind of thing. It seems like a flawless fit: the perfect houseguest meets the perfect hostess.
To the typical guest, the evening goes along swimmingly. The food and conversation are equally savory. The courses flow gracefully from kitchen to table. The hostess neglects no detail. She is the epitome of service. But in the heart and mind of the hostess lies an alternate reality.
To herself she remarks, “Why can’t my sister help me? Doesn’t she see that I’m wearing myself out? I would LOVE to be sitting at the Teacher’s feet right now, soaking it all up. But who would prepare dinner? Who would serve? What would people think if I just sat there like that? I certainly wouldn’t be a good servant or a good hostess. Hadn’t the Teacher said something like ‘being a servant to all’? That’s what I’m desperately trying to do. I just want to do the right thing. Aren’t I entitled to some help?”
Martha is dumbfounded. Serving, hosting, and doing have usually somewhat satisfied that aching in her soul. It gave her purpose. It gave her a name. She felt in control. But tonight, she feels anything but. She feels completely out of control. Since it seems controlling her own world isn’t working, she turns her attention to controlling her sister’s world. She makes judgments as to what Mary should be doing. Martha works herself up enough to summon the help of the Teacher to “set things straight.”
Because Martha is the perfection of polite, she probably entreats him personally—leaning down toward His ear as she clears the table, saying, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.”
A moment or two passes as He turns to look at her. His gaze is penetrating. It’s as though He heard every unspoken word uttered by her heart. It’s as though He sees the widening gap in her soul that her works have failed to fill. It’s as though He notices the control that continually slips from her grip.
Finally, He answers her, “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.”
I’m not sure what Martha’s response was to this. Scripture doesn’t say. What Scripture does say is that He loved her. John 11:5 says “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.”
Maybe Martha sighed with relief. She didn’t have to be the perfect hostess or servant. She didn’t have to be in control. She didn’t have to please everyone. She only had to “just be”—not “just do”—at Jesus’ feet.
Or maybe Martha was still distracted by Mary. Perhaps she obsessed over Jesus’ approval of Mary’s choice and lamented over His seeming “disapproval” of her. She completely missed the point.
Or maybe Martha pondered what He had to say. She mulled over it, examined it, looked through it as a lens into her heart. Maybe she slowly awakened to the reality that He hasn’t demanded perfect servanthood, but rather worship of the Perfect Servant.
So Martha and I are a bit tighter today. I understand where she’s coming from now. I intimately identify with her desire to do, to please, to control, to be perfect. I, like Martha, am glad that Jesus still loves me—that He still woos me. I am glad that there’s still a chance for me to choose the better portion—that which will not be taken from me.