In order to inject some sense of structure and regularity into this blog, I’m going to post devotionals every Monday morning, in the hope that it will give some of us some much needed joy and patience in the coming week. For the next few mondays, I’ll be looking at the story of Mary and Martha from Luke 10 – enjoy!
38 As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. 39She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. 40 But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”
41 “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, 42 but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
As a hardworking Asian-American Ivy League graduate, I always feel very divided every time I read this passage. On the one hand, the passage encourages us to rest and sit at the feet of Jesus, which sounds very good, and is something that we probably all want and need in our lives. But at the exact same time, there is just this part of me that just feels uncomfortable with how this situation plays out. Because to be frank, there’s a rather large part of me that feels that Martha was the one who was right here – she was working hard, trying to serve Jesus, and Mary was the one who was wrong, being lazy and unhelpful. And so when Jesus seems to very gently rebuke Martha of all people, there’s just this part of me that, as a hard working Puritanical American, just doesn’t agree, no matter what Jesus says.
And I think this is in large part because of how I visualize this situation: Martha is working hard, and Mary is just sitting there like a lump, not doing anything productive at all. And when I think about it that way, it’s very hard to agree that Mary had chosen to do what was better. Now, although that may be a very natural way to view what is going on here, I think that this is a huge oversimplification of the situation, that there is far more going on here than Mary sitting on her rear and Martha working hard. And so once we look into the actual details of what each woman was doing, I’m hoping that this will change our understanding of what it means to work and listen in the way God wants us to.
So let’s start off by focusing on Martha, and trying to understand her a little more. The first thing we should know is that what she was doing was still “good”. In the passage, Jesus doesn’t say that what Martha was doing was “wrong” or sinful – he specifically says that Mary has chosen what is better. And if we are too quick to read that, we will overlook an important implication which is that Martha was doing was good also, in her own way.
The Greek emphasizes this as well, because it says that Martha was being a “diakonos”, which literally means a servant or a waiter, one who serves with his feet. And that is also where we get the word deacon from, which is an office of the church, people who serve the rest of the Body – the first martyr of the church, Stephen, was a deacon. And so there was definitely nothing inherently wrong with what Martha was doing, and although that may seem fairly obvious, it is an important nuance to make.
It is especially important because it protects us from going too far in one direction with this passage and making the assumption that all there is to the Christian life is to sit and bask at the feet of Jesus, and nothing more – just rest, lounge, that’s what Christ wants us to do. We can come away with the mistaken impression that action is unimportant in the Christian experience, or that it is like that Sheryl Crow song where it says, “I want to soak up the sun, gonna tell everyone to lighten up.” That’s not what Jesus is saying here – that would be taking his words too far. Instead, it’s as if He says, “Martha, what you’re doing, humbly serving in this way, it’s good – but there’s something better in what your sister is doing.”
And that is so important because we often fail to make the distinction between what is good, and what is better. We often view life in something of a binary fashion, that either we are doing something good, or we are doing something bad. And as long as we aren’t doing something bad, that’s pretty good! So we content ourselves with this, a Christian life lived in the pursuit of spiritual mediocrity…which is not “bad”.
But as you can see, Christ does not view our actions in this dualistic way, as a simple decision between good and bad. That is what the Pharisees often did, to their own detriment. Instead, Jesus is far more nuanced and stresses “the better”. We should not just content ourselves with avoiding evil and doing good, but ask what it means to pursue “the better” that Jesus is referring to here. Sure, it is good to be a nice person at work, but what is “the better”? It is good to that we refrain from gossiping, but what is “the better”? It is good that we read books about injustice and mercy, but what is “the better”?
Even as we consider this, there is always the temptation to be driven by works, that perhaps Jesus demands more out of us than we can give. This feeds into a common misperception of God as a taskmaster. But note how Jesus speaks to Martha: “Martha, Martha“, in a gentle, chiding, loving way. He does not stop loving us when we content ourselves with only the good. Instead, He challenges us to pursue the better because He knows that the better is what we were always created to achieve, like a Father who knows that His children are capable of so much more.
Let’s go beyond “the good”, and pursue “the better” this week!