Today I’m linking up with the Chasing History crowd on It Just Takes One for our series on Women in the Bible. Today I’ve chosen a woman close to my heart: Martha.
As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. 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!”
“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” Luke 10:38-42
I used to think I was bossy. I’ve always been the one who likes to be in control, who would rather make a wrong decision than no decision, a person who values action. And then I stumbled on Florence Littauer’s book The Personality Tree and took a Training Union class on it. (If you weren’t raised Southern Baptist you might not know what Training Union is. Basically it’s like Sunday School except on Sunday nights.) That’s when I discovered that God made me this way. That my tendency to want to get things done and my practical nature were both inborn traits and that my Choleric personality has its good and its bad aspects.
I have always felt and continue to feel that Martha gets a bad rap in these verses, maybe because we have so much in common. I understand that Luke was using the difference between the sisters to make a point, which I’ll get to in a minute. But I’d just like to point out that without Martha’s hardworking, get ‘er done nature, her guests would have had to wait for their meal, if they in fact got it at all. Yes, maybe Martha was getting all riled up over some things that weren’t necessary (ironed tablecloths, perhaps) but a certain degree of preparation is necessary when you have houseguests. Am I right, or am I right?
Today I want to point out three observations about Martha and how they relate to spiritual gifting, and next week I’ll write about another episode in Martha’s life.
First, Martha had the spiritual gift of hospitality. Verse 38 says she opened her home to Jesus, and presumably, also to those traveling with Him. She’s practical. She knows that for Christ to be able to spread His message, He’s going to need a place to stay, food to eat, and possibly even financial support. Some people who are smarter than me claim that Martha was a leader of an early house-church and she frequently welcomed traveling missionaries, giving them food, shelter, and money to continue their work. ((The Storyteller’s Companion to the Bible, Volume 13: New Testament Women, Dennis E. Smith and Michael E. Williams, Editors (Abingdon Press, Nashville, 1991))
I’ve had houseguests before, and if you think caring for your family on a daily basis is a lot of work, adding several others into the mix sure doesn’t simplify things. There are so many things to think of: sleeping arrangements, meal plans, making sure there’s enough tissue in the bathrooms, etc. And in Martha’s day there was no calling up to have pizza delivered for the crowd. So by being hospitable to Jesus and his disciples, Martha was willing to take on a huge job and it probably wasn’t the first time she’d done it.
At our house, we love having people over for dinner or games or whatever. It’s extra work but the community and developing of relationships are so worth it.
Secondly, Martha had a highly tuned sense of justice. Basically, in verse 40 when she says that Jesus should tell Mary to help her with all the prep work, she’s repeating the refrain of every 4-year-old in the history of ever: It’s not fair! Oh, Martha, I can so relate to you! I tend to see situations in black and white with very little gray area (that’s due to my spiritual gift of discernment) and most of the time a thing is either right or it’s wrong. No situational ethics problem here.
One of the hardest things I’ve had to do in my adult life is accept the fact that life is just not fair, and to realize that God never promised it would be. In fact, He told us we’d have problems. John 16:33 says (in part): “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” So why are we surprised when things don’t go our way, when the “good guys” get stomped and the “bad guys” seem to be getting everything they want? It’s because deep down, our inner kindergartner still thinks life should be fair.
And lastly, Martha cared about the details and she wanted to get it right. In verse 41 Jesus tells Martha she is worried and upset about many things, and He’s correct, of course. I picture her trying to set the table and counting heads to see how many plates she needs, and meanwhile there’s her sister just sitting there, listening to Jesus teach. I’m sure Martha would have liked to sit and listen too, but somebody has to get the house ready for all these people since it sure isn’t going to be Mary. Or maybe I’m projecting. Clearly I feel an affinity with Martha.
I think Martha has the spiritual gift of service, and I’d go a step further and propose that it might also be her love language. I believe she thought she was showing love to Jesus by taking care of His practical needs.
By the way, have you ever noticed that when you do something in love, it isn’t always received as love? And have you ever noticed that you always expect other people to feel the same way you do? It’s pretty self-centered, if you think about it. Why don’t you feel the same way I do? (verse 40: “Lord, don’t you care…”?) Don’t you see what I see? And the simple fact is, we don’t see things the same way, we don’t feel things the same way, we don’t understand things the same way, because we are not the same person. I think that idea could take on a life of its own. Maybe it needs its own post.
And Jesus reassures Martha by telling her that there’s really only one thing needed, and of course He’s right again. I don’t think He’s telling Martha that all her work is frivolous and unnecessary. Just that her priorities are skewed. “Martha, there are only a few true ‘musts’, and really just one – your relationship with Me.”
Luke paints it as one sister is the “good” one and doing the right thing, and the other one is the “bad” one, getting all crazy over place settings. I think we know who is who in that scenario.
Luke doesn’t tell us what happened next because he’s made his point. But here’s what I like to think happened: Martha hung up her dishtowel and sat down next to Mary, where they both listened to Jesus teach with open hearts, soaking up every word. Then, when He had finished, Martha and Mary got up and finished the chores together. Because isn’t that the kind of thing He would teach them – that in community we share the work? Sit and listen to Me first, then go and work together, showing each other the love that I’ve shown you.
Because what I get from this is not that housework is “bad” (boy, don’t we wish!) but that we need to let the first things be first in our daily lives. It’s a cliche, but starting the day with Bible study and prayer – time spent with our God – really does make the day go smoother. It sets the tone for everything else. And yes, a clean house is nice, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of worshiping Him.
Next Monday: More about Martha!