What is Jesus’ problem with Martha?

Luke 10:38-42

…But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” (Read the whole passage)

As we continue through the summer, we are rolling through the scenes from Jesus’ ministry. Healings, exorcisms, forgiveness, parables and more. Last week Jesus challenged the young lawyer’s views on what it means to be saved and who our neighbours are, by telling the story of the Good Samaritan. The Good Samaritan whom we found out is not someone we are supposed to be, but who God is. The one who comes to find us and rescue us from the ditch.

Today, we take a break from ministry and work. Instead, Jesus goes to dinner. Dinner with his friends, Mary and Martha. These two sisters have become icons and symbols of handwork, effort and busyness on the one hand and reflection, attentiveness and faithfulness on the other.

Jesus is waiting for the meal to be prepared, something we have all done in the living room of someone else’s house. Presumably Martha is not just cooking for Jesus, but for his disciples, and maybe even Lazarus, Mary and Martha’s brother too. It is a big job to get the meal ready. Meanwhile, Mary is sitting at Jesus’ feet, listening to what he has to say. So Martha is annoyed that her sister is not helping cook the meal (we will just leave the fact that she isn’t mad at her brother aside). Martha comes to Jesus and tells him to set her sister straight and send her into the kitchen. And then we get this famous line from Jesus: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

Some 2000 years later, Mary and Martha have become iconic and symbolic of the ways we often categorize and label each other in the church.

Marthas are often understood to be the be do-ers in our midst. The ones ushering, folding bulletins, pounding in loose nails, planting flowers, making coffee, keeping things neat, tidy and clean.

Marys are often understood to the be the ones interested in faith, in learning, thinking, and praying. The ones at bible study, looking for books on spirituality, asking questions about faith.

I would bet that if we surveyed groups of committed church folks about who they identified with, most would probably raise a hand for Martha.

In fact, it isn’t just in church that we value busyness and hard work above stillness, listening and learning. Our world certainly lifts up the characteristic of a Martha above those of a Mary. Being busy is a badge of honour, being productive is sign of status, getting things done is a trait of value.

I wonder why that is in the church? And in the world?

It isn’t just our tendency to value productivity and work. It goes deeper than that.

Martha’s busyness is a means of self-justification. If her work is valuable (even if she hates doing it) than she by extension is also of value.

Whereas Mary’s idleness, her openness and listening posture are things we struggle to put a price tag on. Mary isn’t doing something that translates into giving herself self-worth.

It is okay to be a Martha type even as Jesus scolds her for being worried and frantic.

But it is rarely okay to be Mary, to simply listen and be and set aside trying to constantly justify ourselves by showing our value and worthiness through our work.

And yet, Jesus’ lack of sympathy or understanding for Martha is surprising. Because we can hear it as a lack of caring for a lot of the ways in which we spend our time.

If Jesus gives Martha a hard time about her dinner preparations, how would Jesus feel about our 50 and 60 hour work weeks, about our are high rates of burnout and stress, about our constant consumption in order to increase productivity, our endless pursuit of economic growth?

It perhaps too simple to think that this story is about a choice between to opposites – Mary and Martha.

And yet, Jesus’ issue with Martha is not specifically her work ethic or busyness. While he does say that Mary’s desire to learn and grow in faith is good and important and something to value. Jesus is setting a boundary with Martha. A boundary about being drawn into her conflict with her sister. When Jesus’s pushes back against Martha’s request, is not because he is judging her choice of activity. Jesus is refusing to be drawn into a conflict between two others. If Martha has a problem with her sister Mary, she should take it to Mary directly. Jesus is refusing to be triangulated.

Usually, the good news sounds like Jesus healing, forgiving, exorcizing demons, raising to life, rescuing us from the ditch of sin and death. Yet, while it may sound odd, Jesus setting a boundary is good news too. Jesus refusing to be triangulated is good news too.

When Jesus sets a boundary refusing to be drawn into our drama, it means that God is free from the burdens our of conflict, the burdens of our sins, the burdens of our suffering. God is free to let go and forgive. God can act to take hold of us and care for us. God can respond in a way that we need, rather than the one we want.

When Jesus refuses to be triangulated, it means that God will not be distant from us, that God makes no obstacles for our salvation, that God does not operate through intermediaries. Rather God deals directly with us. God does not talk about our salvation with someone else, but deals directly with us.

When Jesus refuses to get involved with Martha and Mary’s issue today, Jesus is showing us something much more important about how God deals with us. And that is directly.

For you see, the better thing reaches both Mary and Martha today. Mary first hears it at Jesus’ feet as she sets aside her quest for self-justification… as she lets go of her own baggage, her own fears about needing to follow to the rules, to be valued for what she contributes and produces. Jesus gives Mary the better thing, the one thing that she needs – the Word of God.

And yet, even as Martha lashes out to Jesus, even as she complains about her sister, even as she stuck in a cycle of trying to be good enough on her own, by her own power… Jesus still reaches out Martha. Jesus breaks through Martha’s business and proclaims to her too the Word of God.

And of course that is the point of this story. It is a not a choice between idleness and busyness, not a prescription for what we need to be doing. It is a reminder, a declaration of what God is doing for us. That God comes to us with the good news, with the better thing, no matter our efforts or not to save ourselves.

And God has always been coming, always been meeting us where we are. Always speaking to us whether we have set our own baggage aside or whether we are trying to pull Jesus into our drama. Whether we are Mary or Martha or both:

God speaks to us directly through God’s word.

God washes us directly in the waters of baptism.

God feeds us directly in the bread and wine of the Lord’s supper.

God saves us directly, not through works or laws or prayers or righteousness.

When God saves us, God just saves us.

Today, we might wonder if we are Marys or Marthas, we might feel like both.

But there is no question about how Jesus deals with us. Directly.

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4 thoughts on “What is Jesus’ problem with Martha?”

  1. Seems to me the 1st lesson opens the matter of hospitality. nice work by Abraham, etc. but Gospel opens the challenges of hospitality: not always a breeze. For me the lessons raise the question of our hospitality, individually & collectively. That means addressing, among other things, the conduct of the POTUS this past week. To be silent about his grevious & destructive rhetoric would be safe but cowardly.

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      1. Unfortunately, since I am long retired I can only challenge POTUS when asked to supply. Regrettably, I hear almost zero critiques from pulpits these days. Most sermons are about Jesus THEN and not NOW. No wonder many consider the church as irrelevant.

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  2. Ahhh…. Martha oh how I can relate to Martha. I appreciate your insight, I had to re-read a couple of times though because I was having buts… but what will they eat, but how comfortable will everyone be, etc. Then it clicked sorta – we could share doing what needs to be done after and still be in His presence and practicing loving each other. Hard to let go of though.

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