When Martha welcomed Jesus and his contingent into her home in Bethany (Luke 10:38–42) there could have been a hundred or more people. The seventy-two had just rejoined Jesus after their itinerant ministry tours. And considering his fame at this point, no doubt his visit attracted a number of locals.
And when the group had packed inside, Jesus taught them. But Martha wasn’t one of “them” because she was too busy to listen. Luke describes her as “distracted with much serving” (Luke 10:40).
Now, removed from the situation it’s tempting to be condescending. Oh for goodness’ sake, Martha! Jesus is in your house and you’re too busy to listen to him?
What About You?
But put yourself in Martha’s place for a moment. How distracted would you be if a hundred people crowded into your home? Add to this your high cultural value of Near-Eastern hospitality with its keen fear of dishonoring guests, especially important ones. Then remember that it’s Jesus in your home. He’s the Messiah, the most important person in your nation’s history, and, in fact, human history.
Would you be distracted by how your place looked or how you would feed this crowd or how many trips must be made to the well (no pre-packaged food or running water to help)?
It seems to me that Martha isn’t the strange person in this story. Mary is. What’s remarkable is that Mary wasn’t distracted. She ignored the insistent to-do lists so she could listen to Jesus.
And this irritated Martha. She was working like crazy while Mary just sat there. Martha considered this either laziness or negligence. Exasperated, she finally appealed to Jesus: “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me” (Luke 10:40).
How Jesus Called It
Now, Jesus loves to commend diligent servants:
Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom his master has set over his household, to give them their food at the proper time? Blessed is that servant whom his master will find so doing when he comes. (Matthew 24:45–46)
But in this case Jesus didn’t commend Martha. He reproved 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 10:41–42)
To just about everyone else present, Martha’s serving probably appeared to flow from a gracious servant heart. But Jesus discerned differently. He saw that Martha was serving out of anxiety, not grace.
Subtle and Deceptive
What was making Martha anxious? We know she was anxious about “many things.” But we need only examine our own similar anxieties to guess the likely root. I think Martha was anxious over how she pleased or impressed Jesus and her guests. She was troubled at the thought that her home and serving might reflect poorly on her and her family. And this anxiety blinded her to the “one thing necessary” — listening to Jesus — and made many unnecessary tasks feel compulsively urgent.
This kind of anxiety is very subtle. It has a selfish root but its fruit looks deceptively like unselfishness. It’s the desire for approval dressed up to look like the desire to serve. It’s my caring what you think of me dressed up to look like my caring for you. It can be so subtle that we don’t see it clearly. It looks so much like the right thing that we believe it is the right thing. That’s why Martha was confident that Jesus would agree with her about Mary.
But Mary had chosen the “one thing necessary,” the “good portion.” At that moment, Mary was more enthralled with Jesus than with Mary. She cared more about what Jesus said than what others thought of her or her home. And because of this Jesus commended her choice not to serve.
Stop, Rest, Listen
Jesus’ gentle rebuke of Martha was an act of love — to her and to us. We are all Marthas at times. And through this correction Jesus is asking us: whom are we serving in our serving? No one’s motives are ever completely pure. But when we feel compelled to “serve” out of a self-conscious anxiety over what others think, it’s likely we are serving our own glory and not Jesus’ glory.
And Jesus seeks to free us from this slavery by inviting us to stop working, rest at his feet, and listen to him.