The story of Jesus visiting Mary and Martha only appears in Luke’s Gospel and subsequently is easily missed. It is a short passage and a seemingly random passage – until we take a closer look. What is going on in this scripture?
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.” – Luke 10:38-42
We read in verse 38 that this visit to Martha’s home happened “as they went on their way”. This stop is temporary, on the way to a more important destination. Back in Luke 9:51, we are told that the destination is Jerusalem. Jesus is on His way to the capital city where He will complete the work He was sent to do.
The rest of Luke is all about this journey to the cross. However, what is interesting is the placing of this passage here. We know from John 12 that Martha and Mary live in Bethany which is a small village just two miles outside of Jerusalem. However, in Luke 17:11we read that Jesus is between Samaria and Galilee which is way north of Jerusalem. In other words, Luke has not put this in chronological order which means it is placed here for theological significance.
The context helps us. Immediately before this Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan. Notice how the parable ends – “You go and do likewise.” Immediately, we read this account of Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet and being praised for it. An important principle is laid out here:
We cannot “go and do” until we “come and sit”
If I could word it this way by using the Good Samaritan parable: We cannot model what the Good Samaritan did until we realise that we are like the man beaten up by the robbers. Jesus is the ultimate Good Samaritan who has stopped by our way and healed our wounds. It is only when we come to Him broken and needy that we can go out filled and useful!
Mary’s posture here in verse 39 is that of a disciple and their rabbi. This in itself was radical because women did not do this – it was reserved for men only! The flow of the Christian faith is that we come to God to receive blessing to then go out to be a blessing.
The full reality of what Jesus is speaking about can be seen at the very end of Luke’s gospel where his disciples are told they have been sent but first they need to wait and receive! It is those who are most aware of their dependence upon Christ who are most useful in the service of Christ.
True service for Jesus will never distract you from Jesus
Luke is very particular with his language in verse 40. We have Mary sitting at Jesus’s feet with verse 40 beginning with “but”, contrasting Martha’s actions. Notice what Luke does not say. He doesn’t say “Mary was sitting doing nothing but Martha was serving”. The contrast is not between idleness and service – Jesus does not rebuke Martha for serving. The contrast is between worshipping Jesus and being distracted from Jesus. Ironically, this takes place while serving. Verse 40 makes it clear that it was the act of serving that had become a distraction! If Jesus has been invited for a meal (which often happens in the Gospels) naturally, someone is going to be preparing and cooking the meal! The serving is not the issue; what is the issue is what the service has become – it has taken the focus of Martha away from the Master.
The word for distracted means “to drag or pull around” – Martha is being pulled away. The word can also be used to describe someone being weighed down with a burden. In fact, how does Jesus describe Martha in verse 41? He says she is “anxious and troubled”. It seems that Martha has “many things” on her mind. Deeper issues are going on in Martha’s heart than mere frustration at her sister.
Another irony is that when Martha does stop working to speak with Jesus, it is not to sit at His feet, but to ask Him to allow Mary to leave His feet. This type of service is dangerous. Notice again how Martha is:
– Being dragged around.
– Feeling alone.
– Feeling frustrated both at Christ and others.
This is all in the name of “service” and all a result of her own doing. This is what happens when service becomes an idol. It will leave you feeling alone, anxious, troubled and disillusioned. Worst of all, the only thing that will get you to stop being pulled around is to vent at others and even to the Lord himself.
What is Jesus’ response to this? He says it is all unnecessary! He is tender toward Martha- He doesn’t get angry or frustrated but gently repeats her name to try to get her to have a fresh perspective and see what the right priority is. The priority is a gospel priority.
Christianity is about what Jesus has done for us; not what we can do for Jesus
In verse 42, Jesus tells Martha that only one thing is necessary and what Mary has done can’t be taken away from her. This is a wonderful statement.
Think about it, Martha could have prepared and cooked the dinner and could have dropped it all over the floor on her way over to the table. All that hard work being taken away. Mary has sat and listened to Christ and His words have been stored up in her heart for no one and nothing to take away from her.
Maybe, just maybe, some of us are in isolation at this time for the good of our souls. A lot has been said and written recently about the frantic nature of our lives in the hustle and bustle of the 21st century. So, what does God do? He hits the pause button for society. This may be a once in a lifetime opportunity for entire households to choose the “good portion”.
As we sit in our homes and wait for this to pass – take a conscious effort to sit at the feet of Jesus. You won’t regret it.