Jesus disappointed her with his answer that Mary was right in listening to him, while Martha was giving her attention and concern to things of less importance. Now, let’s be clear: this story is not an insult to women who would rather fix a dish for a church supper than to attend worship. The story does not glorify a devotional life of prayer and meditation while excluding shopping and cooking and housecleaning.
This story does not set up a conflict between good deeds and a devotional life as though we must make a choice. The world is full of Marthas, however, and they are not all women. So Jesus was comfortable. The home of Mary, Martha, and their brother Lazarus, was a refuge where Jesus could relax and make himself at home. We might say he could loosen his tie, put up his feet, and if he was tired and weary, he could say so. The Gospel of John gives us the detail that the family lived in Bethany, and this Mary might have been the one who anointed Jesus’ feet with her tears and perfumed ointment, and wiped them with her hair.
On this occasion when Jesus dropped in, Martha could not stop being a busy hostess. She kept on finding things to do, as though she was avoiding sitting down with Mary to hear Jesus. She was annoyed that Mary was not equally busy. She wanted Jesus to tell Mary to help her.
To see the meaning of this incident, we have to understand where it is placed in Luke’s story of the Messiah. As Luke has arranged his story, Jesus has reached a milestone. He’s determined to go to Jerusalem. He shows how serious he is by sending out the seventy. Then he illustrates God’s standard of conduct by telling the story of the Good Samaritan.
Now he wants to make it plain that the kingdom cannot be set aside for lesser matters. Jesus has nearly completed his announcement that the kingdom is coming. He’s ready to go to Jerusalem to take the consequences of preaching a message that offends the priests and the Pharisees.
Martha sees the needs of the moment. Let’s understand clearly that efforts such as hers are supportive of the coming kingdom. Without hewers of wood and drawers of water, some of the world’s noblest adventures would fail.
The difficulty is that a preoccupation with these concerns can lead to anxiety about something that is less than the top priority. For all her commendable efforts, Martha’s restless attention to secondary matters has turned her away from things of primary consideration. Her situation is like one of those sick doctor jokes that says, “Oh, the operation was a great success but the patient died the next day.”
Of course, some of us, women or men, will become defensive on behalf of the Marthas of the world and say, “Well if she didn’t look after food and water and setting the table, Jesus and everybody else would have gone hungry.” But it is in the attitude of her remark to her sister that we find the clue to the right interpretation of the story.
Her request: “Hey, I need some help out here in the kitchen,” compels us to ask whether she felt she was in charge even while Jesus was talking. Did she feel that listening to whatever Jesus was saying could be postponed?
Her remark suggests that the Marthas of the world have gone beyond hospitality and are certain that the burden of responsibility for the Kingdom falls on them. Where that feeling is reflected, then the Marthas of the world have taken too much on themselves. It’s all a matter of perspective; that is, from what angle do you look at the story?
When I was on the staff of High Point College, I heard of a sophomore who sent a big envelope to her parents in another state. Inside were three small envelopes with the instruction that these were to be opened as numbered. The first note said, “Sit down and hold hands and be gentle to each other for 15 minutes.” They did, and liked it so much they kept at it another 15 minutes.
The second note said, “There was a raid on a campus party last night, and I’m in jail. But my boyfriend is just down the corridor and we expect to be out before the baby comes in December. Now open the third note.”
With trembling hands and fearful hearts they opened the last note and read, “I’m not in jail, there was no marijuana party, I don’t have a close boyfriend and I’m not pregnant. But I do expect to fail chemistry this term and I just wanted you to keep things in the right perspective.”
If only Martha had known that Jesus’ days were numbered, that he was on his last journey to Jerusalem where a cross awaited him, certainly she would have taken off her apron and gladly sat at his feet. Luke is trying to tell us that while there is a time for household chores — of course he’s not talking about dishes and silver and food – the time comes when we must put things in the right perspective.
The story is not about Martha and Mary at all. Rather the story is about God, and the priority of his kingdom. God is in charge. His kingdom is about to break out into the open. God is saying, “Listen up. Pay attention.” While Martha is making cookies for tea time and putting fresh flowers on the table, Jesus is talking about the Kingdom.
When the unsinkable Titanic was sinking into the cold dark North Atlantic in 1912, many passengers did not believe their ship was being flooded. The captain and the shipbuilder knew because after the damage report came to them, they studied the original plans and saw what would happen – that the whole ship would soon be flooded and it would sink.
Some of the unbelieving passengers fought over the deck chairs so they could sit and watch the lights of another ship on the horizon. From that incident, a figure of speech entered our language, that when people get aroused over a minor matter while they are blind to the big issues, they are fighting over deck chairs on the Titanic.
Luke tells us this story so we can learn something about the kingdom that Jesus Christ brings. This is the hour for Messiah, the one chosen by God and sent from God. God is in charge. The coming of Messiah is the outstanding event of all history.
Our response cannot be a complaint that somebody is not helping fold napkins for the next meal. God is telling a story, and when we hear him speaking, we must pay attention. Neither the Marthas nor the Marys are in charge.
This is God’s story. He is aware that there is pain; he knows there is sorrow and loss of hope in this old world.
There is much that is broken, out of kilter, out of square, out of perspective. We live in a world of broken promises, shattered hopes, utter disappointment, and loss of dreams. This is a world where relationships that seemed perfect when they were new, now give nothing but pain and tears.
Martha got it all wrong. The son of man is not simply a guest in this aching, weeping world of burdens, this world where the future rushes toward us faster than we can take it in.
The one chosen by God is in charge of life and salvation and grace and love and the promise of a loving God who at the last will scoop us into his bosom and carry us across the river to eternal life.
God will have his way with our life stories, with his kingdom and with our eternal salvation. It is for us to be grateful receivers. It is not for us to try to untrack the kingdom on its way to breaking out, but we are to put a priority on the love and mercy that God has in mind.
Martha is so concerned with thinking she is in charge, that she is deaf to God’s word. She is resentful that others do not share her views, her perspective.
Jesus reminds her and us that to obey the voice of God is the single enduring priority responsibility of human beings.
After we have listened to God’s entire story, then we shall find an appropriate way and an appropriate time, to serve.