Mary and Martha: The Student and the Server
Many of us are part Mary and part Martha. We feel pressure, from the world and the church, to be more Martha-like, to produce results that are visible to us and to others. But Jesus instructs us, via our friends in Bethany, how to set priorities. We meet Martha, Mary, and Lazarus in three settings. The first finds Martha bustling about the kitchen cooking and yet complaining about Mary listening at Jesus’ feet. Next is the sad occasion of Lazarus’s death and then his joyful resurrection. A few days later, Martha serves a dinner, at which Jesus and Lazarus are the honored guests, and Mary pours expensive oil on Jesus, as Judas and other disciples protest.
We tend to contrast Mary and Martha, but they had some important commonalities. Primarily, they both loved and believed in the Lord Jesus Christ. They wanted to serve Him and His followers. Anyone who walked through the open doors of their home received warm hospitality. They were devoted to each other and to their brother Lazarus. So their foundation was the same, yet their personalities were quite different, just like many sisters today.
Martha was probably the oldest, as Scripture describes the house as hers. A typical oldest child, she took charge of things and told her siblings what to do. Being a hands-on person, she got the job done; her strength was organization, especially serving food to a crowd. It was probably because of Martha that their home was a magnet for those needing warm food and fellowship and a bed, including Jesus Himself. She expressed her love for Jesus with tasty food and a swept room. Martha had a servant heart, though she was aggressive and spoke her mind. She dealt with her grief of Lazarus’s death by charging out to meet Jesus and telling Him He could have prevented it, yet she professed her faith in Him and in the resurrection.
Mary was contemplative. She wanted to absorb every word Jesus spoke. She valued spiritual food over physical food. She dealt with her grief over her brother death by waiting quietly in the house until Martha told her Jesus called for her. Her first words to Him were the same as Martha’s, but then she fell at His feet worshipping Him and weeping. She expressed her gratitude and deep love for Jesus by pouring costly oil on Him and wiping His feet with her hair. Jesus explains, “She did it for my burial,” revealing Mary understood what the disciples did not — that He would die.
The bent of Martha’s life was serving, and the bent of Mary’s life was spiritual growth. Jesus approved of both and He loved them both. But the momentary conflict from the kitchen to the living room offers us a teaching moment. Martha is cooking up a storm. Mary is sitting at Jesus’ feet. The temperature is rising. Martha is stewing: “This isn’t fair! I’m working hard and Mary is just sitting there! Surely Jesus knows that all these people need to be fed!” Finally, she can hold back no longer. Martha goes straight to the highest authority: “Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone? Bid her therefore that she helps me.” Martha judges character by isolated actions (as we often do), accusing Jesus of not caring and Mary of laziness, neglect, and desertion.
Jesus’ response is a loving reprimand. “Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things: But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.” Jesus is telling Martha — and you and me: “I love you and your serving, but your fussing is drawing you away from Me. By fixing so many fancy dishes, you trouble yourself. Bodily food is necessary, yet it is temporary. Spiritual food is also necessary, and it lasts forever. Mary is focused on what is most important, dear Martha. I am with you now; spend some time with Me. Learn of Me and you will be filled.”
Mary and Martha have taught me that spiritual nourishment is foundational. Jesus takes priority. Cooking and serving are good and necessary, and God created wonderful foods, delicious seasonings, and an appetite to enjoy them around the table with family and friends. But He doesn’t want us stressing out. Every day, but especially Sundays, let’s choose the better part that cannot be taken away from us.