Martha’s Bum Rap

Often when we look at Biblical characters we only see them one-dimensionally. Because of this tendency, we fail to see the complexities that any human being will have. So Thomas is simply the doubter, though all the other disciples doubted Christ’s resurrection and needed the same proof as well (Luke 24:36-43), and church history tells us Thomas was one of the bravest of men. David is the giant-killer, and certainly he was, but he clearly feared a great deal as both his story and his recorded prayers in the Psalms tell us.

Such is the case of Martha. She is forever compared to her sister, Mary, and dubbed “the Worrier” because of this story contained in Luke 10:38-42.

Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.’ But the Lord answered 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.’

Martha is viewed as an overly busy woman who did not love Jesus like her sister did. Simply put, Martha is bad because she did not see sit at Jesus’ feet; Mary is good because she did. Consider how she is portrayed in the following two poems and how woman are encouraged not to be like Martha.

Martha or Mary,” by Emily Adams

These days we live in a “Martha” world.
Continually running to and fro.
Fretting about so many things,
Our frustrations begin to show.

So much to do, so little time.
Not enough hours in the day.
If we have a heart like “Martha,”
It’s essential we get away.

 We need to go to our quiet place.
Jesus will meet us there.
He knows our need of His presence,
His love, compassion, and care.

The time we spend with Jesus,
Will renew and strengthen our soul.
He can give us a “Mary” heart,
But we must surrender control.

“Martha and Mary and Me,” in 15 Minutes Alone with God by Emilie Barnes

My Martha Side 
My house is a tyrant, demanding each hour.
Imperiously ordering: “Sweep, mop and scour!
Do the dishes, the laundry, then iron, dust and cook!
And there’s mending to do if you’ll just take a look.
Now, Martha, get busy and don’t waste a minute:
Dirt is a sin, and you’re wallowing in it!”

My Mary Side 
My housework can wait…There’s a friend I must see,
who’s lonely and frightened, she’s looking for me.
Then I’ll tidy up quickly and hurry to hear
that fine missionary we support every year.
Home again, “Father, thank You, please help me to care
for the hungry and homeless who live in despair.”

Mary-Martha-Me
Martha nags me to keep my house spotless each day;
and Mary says gently, “I need time to pray.”
Martha’s concerned with “what neighbors might think
if they dropped in and found dishes stacked in the sink.”
While Mary chides, “Selfish! I think it’s a crime
if you don’t share with others your talents and time.”

These poems are a bit simplistic.  For think of what is really occurring in this story.

Note the text says that Martha welcomed Jesus into her home. For clearly she ran the house, and as the oldest sister she also had the job to host. It could even be even at this point Lazarus was weak in body before he succumbed to his sickness and died as we know from John 11. Martha had to be a woman of some means to host so many, for there was an entourage with Jesus as his twelve disciples and perhaps other people were there with him. So she easily had fifteen or more guests in her home, and this in a day when there were no prepared foods, microwaves, or refrigerators.  So no wonder the text says she was distracted with “much service”!

Also, in many modern translations, an important word is often left out. In the original text, the word “also” appears in verse 39. Think of how it influences the meaning. For as it says in the New Kings James Version, “And she had a sister called Mary, who also sat at Jesus’ feet and heard His word.” Clearly Martha was sitting at Jesus’ feet for a time until the needs of her guests pulled her away. As John Angell James says in his book Female Piety*, “(Martha left) Mary to be feasted by Christ, while she goes to make a feast for him.  I know not how to censure the holy woman for an excess of care to welcome her Savior.” However, he does not completely exonerate Martha even as he further compliments her: 

Martha would be ready to blame Mary for her want of love in keeping Christ talking when she should have been caring for his refreshment; while Mary would be apt to blame Martha for the lukewarmness of her regard, in not catching every word that fell from his lips.  Let us learn that all may equally love Christ, who do not take the same mode of showing it.”

In this same light, I think of how my oldest two daughters are so different in many ways.  Lindsay is blond, has blue eyes, is fair, s relatively small for a York, and can be in a room unnoticed. Emory is brunette, brown-eyed, darker, tall, and if she is in a room you will hear her infectious laugh before too long. When her brothers used to tease Lindsay, she would get quiet, give them a look, and they would slink away. When the boys did the same to Emory, she took it as a personal challenge and gave it right back to them. Lindsay showed affection by remembering every now and then her dad needed a hug; Emory did so by the frequency with which she needed to be hugged. They both come from the same gene pool, yet are so different in many ways. But they are great friends to one another, and both could not be more dear and precious to their dad. So much more were both Martha and Mary to our Lord.

Yes, Martha over-exercised her gift of hospitality. She let her tongue get the best of her in speaking out against her sister in front of everyone. Imagine if someone came up to your pastor in the middle of a busy church activity and yelled out front of everyone, “Hey, could you tell Mary over there to get busy?” It would create a socially awkward situation. So it was in that home that day. And Jesus did tell her she was too worried and bothered, literally saying to her that her worries were crowding out of her mind what should be her chief concern. As Matthew Henry says, “Inordinate care or trouble about many things in this world is a common fault among Christ’s disciples… (Martha) expected Christ to have blamed Mary for not doing as she did, but he blamed her for not doing as Mary did.”

However, even in this do not miss the love which Jesus had for this woman. In this situation, by using her name twice (Martha, Martha), Jesus is showing how endearing she is to him. He is not angry with her, but in correcting her is calling her back to being at peace in his presence. Indeed, the Scriptures testify of Christ’s love for Martha, recognizing her rank in this home. For John 11:5 says, “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.” And it is in the situation surrounding her brother’s death where this verse is found that we see more fully the unique love Christ had for Martha.

For when Jesus arrived at this scene, we recall Mary did not go out to him at first. Her despair and quieter spirit kept her back. But remember what Martha did. She immediately went out to him. Again, as John Angell James comments,

In different circumstances the same natural temperament may be either an advantage or a snare.  Martha was never so occupied in the emotion of one subject or scene, as not to be on the alert and ready for the call to another. This was a disadvantage to her when she was so hurried that she could not withdraw herself to wait on the Word of Life. It as an advantage to her now, that she can, with comparative ease, shake off her depression, and hasten of her own accord to meet her Lord.”

It is incredible and encouraging to see how the Lord played to each of these sisters’ personalities. The one rushing out to see him; the other having to be summoned to come to him.  They both say the exact same thing when they see him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (11:21, 32). Yet how differently they both said it!

When Mary went out to Jesus, she fell at his feet and wept these words out in despondency. But with bolder Martha, we can hear her breathlessly, almost loudly, stating, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” She then goes on and almost demands a resurrection! “Even now, I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you” (11:22). What faith! With her, Jesus dialogues and moves her from merely a future hope to a present one. After declaring that she knew her brother would arise on the last day of the resurrection, Jesus stated, “I am the resurrection and the life” and extracted a bold confession from this bold woman by asking her if she believed this. Her response? “Yes, Lord, I believe you are the Christ, the Son of God.” Just as with Peter, flesh and blood did not reveal this to Martha but her Father in heaven. How he loved her to give her such knowledge!

I share this reflection because many women I know, including my dear wife, are such servants in the church. These Marthas-if-you-will pour themselves out for others often to the point of exhaustion, then can carry around self-imposed guilt for both not doing more and not feeling pious enough. To any such daughter of God, I gently remind you to stop looking at your own self in such a one-dimensional way. If Martha’s confession above is yours, just be sure to slow down long enough to remember once again how much your Father and your Savior love you.

*Note to pastors: It’s good for you to read some books written for and to women. After all, they usually make up half your congregation.

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