My love-hate relationship with Martha and Mary

I haven’t always gotten along with Martha and Mary. Their story in Luke 10:38-42 is one of those passages that kinda bothered me. It seemed a bit out of place, a dissonant note in what otherwise felt like a harmonious chapter.

There are several stories in Luke 10: Lots of going and doing and serving, practical rubber-meets-the-road stuff and spiritual gotta-step-out-in-faith stuff. Jesus sends out the disciples and tells them not to take provisions with them because the laborer is worth his wages. They come back excited because they God used them. Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan – someone who tended to the smallest details of making provision for someone else in need, even if that someone was not part of a group that they would usually associate with.

And then at the end of the chapter, there’s Martha & Mary.

In a few short verses it seems like Jesus does a 180. For most of the chapter Jesus seems to be telling us that it is good to go, work, provide, and serve. Yet Martha (who seems to be doing a lot of working, providing, and serving) is rebuked.

Martha was a doer. She had opened her home to Jesus and the disciples. She had made the arrangements and was taking care of all the details. She had a servant’s heart. And I can see myself in her: I like doing stuff. I revel in logistics. I find immense fulfillment in orchestrating an event. It’s exciting. Serving can be the most life-giving thing in the world to me. I am Martha! I can see myself there with her, hoping there was enough meat to feed everyone, making sure all the rolls in the basket were arranged top-side-up, folding all the napkins, and ensuring the perfect ice-to-sweet-tea ratio in all the glasses (OK, they probably didn’t have sweet tea, but this is my daydream)!

Mary was a worshiper. She wanted to sit at Jesus’ feet. The details could wait. She had something more important to do. And I get that, too: because I love worship. I love to pull away from all the busy-ness and just spend time with God. Whether in solitude or a church service, I know the joy of being so absorbed, so focused on worship that nothing else matters. I am Mary! I can also see myself there with her, hanging on every word from Jesus’ mouth, asking questions, oblivious to my growing to-do list, and enjoying just being with Him.

I could see Mary’s perspective and understand why she wanted to focus on Jesus didn’t want to get involved in the detail work, but I could also understand Martha wanting to serve Jesus but feeling frustrated because she was left to do the work by herself.

How could I be both of these two seemingly incompatible characters?

The story of Martha and Mary had typically been presented to me as a story of the priority of worship – specifically, choosing worship over work. Of course, this perception was colored by my particular church background, and may not apply to everyone. This passage was often cited in the context of encouraging everyone to show up, pay attention, and participate during church services. It was also a favorite for encouraging a particular style of worship that was very emotional and experiential. The implication was that true worship only happened in the absence of all work, service, and “doing.”

The thing is, that kind of work vs worship distinction didn’t make sense to me. It seemed to contradict what I saw elsewhere in the Bible… even elsewhere in Luke 10. If “the better part” was worship, and more specifically, worship in the absence of all work or service, wouldn’t Jesus have excused the priest and the levite in the story of the Good Samaritan? After all, they were the professional worshipers of their time. And wouldn’t Jesus have encouraged the disciples to stick around at His feet, rather than sending them out into the surrounding areas?

But the answer was right there the passage from Luke 10:

38 Now as they were traveling along, He entered a village; and a woman named Martha welcomed Him into her home. 39 She had a sister called Mary, who was seated at the Lord’s feet, listening to His word. 40 But Martha was distracted with all her preparations; and she came up to Him and said, “Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to do all the serving alone? Then tell her to help me.” 41 But the Lord answered and said to her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and bothered about so many things; 42 but only one thing is necessary, for Mary has chosen the good part, which shall not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38-42 NASB)

Jesus didn’t say, “Martha, stop working.” He didn’t even say, “Martha, you’re working too hard.” He said, “Martha, you are worried and bothered.” The issue was not Martha’s work, but the fact that her service had ceased to be worship. This story is about worry vs worship, not work vs worship. And that makes sense: it is possible (and we are even instructed) to work for the glory of God, but it is impossible to worry for the glory of God.

I need to remind the Martha in me that just because I’m excited about doing something, others might not be in the same place. I need to be aware that the same fire and passion that motivates me to do a lot of good things can also run me ragged and burn me out if I’m not careful. I need to keep an eye on my own heart to ensure that worry doesn’t overcome worship in my life.

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