Choosing the Best
Haven’t we all sympathised with Martha? Haven’t we all been there before? Here am I, slaving away in the kitchen preparing the food while my lazy sister is doing nothing to help me. You can imagine her saying, ‘There’s just so much to do!’ It’s all very well sitting and listening to Jesus teaching – nice for her, but someone’s got to do all the donkey-work. Who’s going to feed him afterwards, or make sure he’s got water to drink, or make sure that his seat is comfortable, or that the room is well-ventilated! And do we not get the impression that Martha is not only annoyed at her sister, but she is frustrated with Jesus too? Why on earth doesn’t he tell Mary to stop being so bone-idle, and to get up and help her?
Martha is looking at Mary and thinking to herself, ‘she’s not doing anything!’ Now I wonder whether we sometimes look at ourselves sitting under the sound of God’s Word and feel that we’re really not doing anything! It is possible for some Christians, in their bustling and never-ceasing activity, to imagine that their work and service is much more meaningful and productive than the apparent passivity and idleness of sitting and listening. Christians who are always ‘busy’ may become frustrated at those who seem less busy. ‘I’m working every hour of the day for the kingdom of God while you’re just sitting reading your Bible!’
Let’s be clear – this passage does not teach us that a life of contemplation is better than a life of work and service in the world; it does not teach that Martha should never have been concerned with such worldly matters as getting the food ready and cleaning the house. We mustn’t misunderstand Jesus’ rebuke to Martha as a direction to stop doing housework, now and for ever! Man was created to work, and the work we are called to do, whatever it is, is something pleasing to God. Let’s not do Martha down. It says of the virtuous woman in Proverbs 31:27: ‘She looks well to the ways of her household and does not eat the bread of idleness.’ I can remember staying in a Christian retreat centre several summers ago where perhaps this view of things prevailed. One of the bathrooms – if you will excuse me for mentioning it – was like a zoo, with spiders, insects and even frogs crawling everywhere. I don’t think it had been cleaned in months. Now – a filthy bathroom is not to be identified as a badge of Christian spirituality!
So what is Martha’s problem? It is not her workload but the state of mind that she has got into. Day-to-day matters have assumed too great a priority in Martha’s thinking. Martha was not only anxious but she was troubled. Both internally and externally, she is all agitated and a-flutter. You could tell just by looking at her that she was bothered beyond reasonable measure. It is as if Jesus is saying to her, ‘Martha, there will always be something in this house that needs to be done. A woman’s work is never done. But you’re letting your housework become the single biggest determining factor in your whole life!’
This passage does say something about hospitality. It should never be something that takes people over. It really should be a matter of hospitality rather than ‘entertainment’. Martha was preoccupied with ‘much serving’ when simply ‘serving’ would have been sufficient. She had pushed out the boat too far, to a level which made her unduly distracted. Some scholars have thought that Jesus words about ‘one thing being needful’ meant that one dish, one course was needful! This may seem laughable, but it illustrates a point. Do our preparations for Sunday lunch sometimes become so elaborate that our minds are taken up, on a Sunday morning, with just what time the chicken will be ready, and whether we’re going to roast or mash the potatoes, or whether we’re going to put the dishwasher on after lunch or after tea, and so on? When this happens, we have transgressed beyond responsible care for our household to distraction. Matthew Henry rightly says: ‘Care is good and duty; but distraction is sin and folly’.
Yes, sin. If the Lord Jesus had not warned Martha as he did, then her over-burdened concern with the household chores might have proved her ruin. She was not involved in anything sinful or unlawful. Looking after guests and the house is not an evil, wicked practice. But the excessive attention which Martha was prone to give to these things was a great danger to her soul. What are your duties, what are your pleasures? They may well be entirely innocent. But if they are not used in moderation they will crowd out what is needful, what is essential, for the well-being of your soul.
Martha had no right to interrupt Mary. We must never sin against God or against our brothers and sisters in the Lord by denying them the opportunity for regular and necessary spiritual refreshment. On the contrary, if we love them we will seek their spiritual blessing and sanctification as much as our own. A husband, spending long hours at work, does not only need time with his wife, he needs time with the Lord. Will his wife hinder this or encourage this? The wife needs to be urged to put her housework down; she must resist the tyranny of the insistently urgent. Husbands and wives, children, and all people living under one roof, need to give thought to this, to work it all out, not just for themselves but for one another.
Mary had got it right. What kind of preparation was appropriate for the coming of Jesus Christ into their home? Not the outward preparation of a lavish feast, but the preparation of the inner heart, to receive Jesus as a prophet, as a teacher, as a preacher. Not only is Jesus called ‘Lord’ throughout this passage, but Mary’s posture, sitting at Jesus’ feet, eloquently calls him ‘Lord’. The implication is that Mary sat in order to pay close and careful attention to what Jesus said. He wasn’t like a television programme on in the background while she was doing the ironing. She gave herself to one simple, but mighty and profound activity, that is to hear the words of Jesus.
All this has a particularly important bearing upon the way we hear the Lord’s word on the day he has appointed, the Lord’s Day. Do we see that our activity today is essentially the same as Mary’s? If so, we must take Jesus’ words to Martha as being wholly applicable to us today. The hearing of the word of Jesus Christ produces faith, it gives rise to life. Isn’t this the emphasis we see throughout Jesus’ teaching? The good soil consists of those who hear; ‘My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it’; ‘Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!’
When you are engaged in the business of hearing the Lord’s word, there is nothing that should be allowed to distract you. This seems to be part of what the Lord means when he says that the good portion ‘will not be taken away from her’. It means that Martha has no right, at the present time, to distract her sister away from the business in which she is engaged.
But of course it is true in an eternal sense, that what Mary is gaining is something that will never be taken from her. Leave aside the many things, the competing things, the clamouring things, for the one big, central, massive thing. This, ultimately, is the only thing that is needful for salvation and eternal life. That’s what Mary has done. Who will come to the end of their lives saying, ‘I wish I’d worked harder at my housework’? I suspect many more will say ‘I wish I’d listened better to the Word of God’.
Paul Yeulett is Pastor of Shrewsbury Evangelical Church.
Living in the World 6 November 2020
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When coming to consider plagues throughout history and some Christian responses, it is appropriate to begin with this extract from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer: O Almighty God, who in thy wrath did send a plague upon thine own people in the wilderness, for their obstinate rebellion against Moses and Aaron; and also, in […]