Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Luke 10:38–42

Luke 10:38–42 (ESV): Martha and Mary


This is a fairly short passage, which didn’t seem to fit in with the previous passages in Chapter 10, so I’m handling it separately. Jesus comes to a village where he’s welcomed by two sisters, Martha and Mary. As Martha is rushing around trying to serve everyone—she is the host, after all!—Mary spends her time sitting at Jesus’ feet listening to his teaching. Finally Martha gets fed up with the situation, and has the following exchange with Jesus:
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.” (verses 40b–42 (ESV))


I’m not sure if “sitting at Jesus’ feet” is literal or figurative—I might have asked this rhetorical question before—but in any event, obviously what is meant is that Mary was being taught by Jesus. It is actually significant that Jesus was allowing Mary, as a woman, to be taught the Scriptures, which would not not have been typical at the time.

As for Jesus’ response to Martha, I’ll start (as I am wont to do) with what I think Jesus is not saying: I don’t think he is telling Martha that she was wrong to be serving her guests. I don’t think he was even telling her that she should have been listening instead of serving—though a strong case could be made for that, so I’m not going to go to the wall on this point. I think he’s making two, very simple (but important) points:
  1. The Word is more important than earthly tasks or cares. Both Martha and Mary had a unique opportunity—one that I will never have, in this life—of being able to hear the Messiah Himself articulate and teach the Scriptures to them. Anything else they could have been doing—anything else—would pale in importance to that opportunity. This harkens back to a previous passage from Chapter 9, in which someone told Jesus that he’d follow him, but he had to go and bury his father first; Jesus’ response to the man indicated that there would always be things in this life that would try get in the way, but we shouldn’t let them.
  2. Jesus spends a lot of time in the Gospels telling people not to worry, and this seems like another case. He tells Martha that she is “anxious and troubled about many things,” and for Jesus, anxiety and worry are tied up with a lack of faith: we are more worried about the things we see around us than we are faithful that God will care for us, and that He is in control. What would have been the consequence of Martha neglecting her duties as host to hear Jesus’ teachings? I’m sure she would have had a lot to say about that, whereas Jesus, the Lord, was suggesting that there were more important things to be focusing on.
Of course, there’s an even more fundamental possibility here: That Martha wasn’t nearly as worried about getting Mary’s help serving her guests, in this case, as she was about being holier-than-thou toward Mary. (Holier-than-Mary, I suppose.) It’s how I’ve always read this passage, frankly, and it definitely backfired on her: “Jesus, tell Mary to help me!” “Actually, Mary’s good where she is, and you should be here too.”

Interestingly, we aren’t told Martha’s response to this. Did she see Jesus’ point, and set aside the serving for a bit to listen? Or did she stubbornly stick to her point, and go off in a huff to keep serving her guests? We don’t know anything about Martha other than this story, we aren’t told what kind of a person she was, but she was human, so either of these scenarios could be possibilities. Most of us, I would hope, would have seen Jesus’ point and gone to hear what he had to say, but the human heart is deceptively wicked, and prone to cling to its sin, so there are definitely people who would have chosen to grumble instead of seeing the error of their ways. I might be in that category myself, because I know I’m very stubborn. Hopefully Martha did better!

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