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)
The road to Jerusalem weaved through numerous towns and villages. And everywhere he went, Jesus taught “in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness” (Matt 9:35). In Bethany, Jesus was invited to the home of Martha, Mary and Lazarus, three siblings that Jesus came to love (John 11:5).
Immediately, Martha busied herself with preparing a meal fit for a god. In nearly all sermons and homily based on this narrative, Martha is presented as a negative example, in stark contrast to Mary, of a true disciple of Christ. Her spirit is “cumbered with much serving,” is “careful and troubled about many things.” But before we are too quick to judge, let’s try to understand why Martha did what she did.
The name Martha is a Latin transliteration of the Koine Greek Μάρθα, itself a translation of the Aramaic מַרְתָּא Martâ, “The mistress” or “the lady”, from מרה “mistress”, feminine of מר “master”(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martha). This suggests that the home Jesus entered belonged to Martha, and she appears to be the oldest among her siblings.
Hence, as the owner of the house, Martha had to be a hospitable host to her guest whom she had invited in the first place. Would you invite a dignitary to your home and not do your best to make him feel welcome? When Abraham was visited by three men – one of whom was the Lord Himself – he received them into his tent and instructed his wife, saying, “’Quick, get three seahs of the finest flour and knead it and bake some bread.’ Then he ran to the herd and selected a choice, tender calf and gave it to a servant, who hurried to prepare it. He then brought some curds and milk and the calf that had been prepared, and set these before them.” (Gen 18:8) It is impossible to discern if Abraham knew, at that moment, that the Lord was among the trio. Even if they were merely sojourners, Abraham would have behaved in the same way, in accordance with the customs of the region.
While Martha was dutifully making preparations and serving her distinguished guest, Mary “sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching”. The harder Martha worked, the angrier she got; and rightly so, for it was customary that the womenfolk would be responsible for preparing and serving the meal while the menfolk sat with the guest at the table. At a dinner given in Jesus’ honor, in John 12, Martha again was serving, “while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him” (John 12:2). Mary, therefore, deserved any rebuke that she received.
Instead of rebuking Mary directly, Martha attempted to garner the agreement and support of Jesus. He was, after all, a Middle Eastern man, familiar with the cultural norms. The Bible says that Martha went up to Jesus and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” She must have been dumbfounded when Jesus did the exact opposite of what she had asked. Not only did Jesus not rebuke Mary for being inconsiderate towards her sister and for not complying with cultural norms, he commended her choice – “she has chosen the good portion” – and allowed her to remain (this is what “it will not be taken away from her” means).
Martha and Mary have very differing personalities. (It would not have mattered if the narrative was about two brothers.) Mary, represents Contemplation, while Martha represents Action. They are like two sides of a coin; you cannot have one without the other. Much thought without action is vain. Nothing comes out of it. Thomas Edison’s numerous inventions were the result of both thought and action. Conversely, action without thought is impulsive: out of control, dangerous, and wasteful.
“But Martha was distracted with much serving.” The word περιεσπατο, here rendered distracted, properly signifies to be drawn different ways at the same time, and admirably expresses the situation of a mind surrounded (as Martha’s then was) with so many objects of care, that it hardly knows which to attend to first. (Benson Commentary)
Martha did what was her duty to do as the host and she was good at it, trained since young by her mother, no doubt. She took pride in it. In the light of who her guest was on this auspicious day, Martha strove even harder to make her serve excellent. She was visibly affected, which made Jesus remark, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things.”
“Anxious” (μεριμνάω) conveys the idea that Martha was going to pieces, being pulled apart in different directions, while “troubled” (θορυβέω) means to be thrown into confusion and stricken with panic. Every time I travel, either alone or with my family, I will have what seems like a panic attack. I would have the feeling that I have forgotten to pack something important into the bags. In actuality, I have not left anything out.
Martha had not done anything wrong. So let’s give her a break. However, having said that, it would have been better if she had learned to do it differently. If she had taken the time to be still and listen to Jesus, she would have learned that the Son Man did not come to be served but to serve (Mark 10:10). She would have spared herself of the anxiety and trouble.
As Christians, we all want to serve the Lord. But, even with our intentions, we often put the cart before the horse. We act before finding out what he would like us to do. David, the psalmist and king, was known as the man after God’s own heart. What had David done to deserve such an enviable reputation? Was it his prayerfulness? Was it his worshipful spirit? No. Rather, he was persistently seeking to know God’s will and do it (Acts 13:22).