The story of Martha and Mary is dangerous material for preachers. By the very nature of the story, it can offend hard-working cooks. And as much as I enjoy eating, that is the last thing I want to do. A minister I knew in Illinois told me that after he preached on this passage, there was a woman in his church that exploded in anger at him, “How could you preach a sermon like that after you’ve eaten so much of my cooking!” So let’s be clear from the beginning — no offense intended!
But some other things also need to be clear. This passage is not primarily about cooking nor is it only directed to the Marthas and Marys of the world. The Marks and Mikes and Matthews are addressed by this story as well. This portion of Scripture is likely to touch a sensitive nerve in any of us who take seriously the work we do. Those of us who are conscientious and take pride in our work don’t appreciate having someone else come along to tell us we could have put our time to better use. It makes us feel put down and devalued.
Yet that seems to be what Jesus did to Martha. At first glance, we might see Jesus as insensitive. I have no doubt that any normal person in Martha’s place would feel stung. But Jesus didn’t intend to hurt her. He sought to help her to refocus her life on the one thing that is of utmost importance.
Who is Martha? Not who was Martha. She was a first-century Jewish woman, a homeowner who lived in the city of Bethany with her brother, Lazarus, as well as her sister, Mary. That’s ancient history. But the story of Martha and Mary is not found in our Bible because these women were of great historical interest. Their story is told because Martha can still be found here and now. Maybe you know her. Maybe you are her. I suspect most of us are at some time or another. Mary can be found among us as well but not as often.
Martha is the perfectionist. She wants everything to be just right. She dots the “i’s” and crosses the “t’s” in all that she does. Nothing is halfway done with Martha. She leaves nothing to chance. At work she double-checks every figure. She does original research rather than depending upon other people’s conclusions. Her projects are never late and usually she does more than is asked of her. She plans ahead and deals with unforeseen mishaps with confidence and grace. Martha is intense. Whatever she might lack in natural talent is more than made up by her dedication and determination. She hasn’t much patience with people who are halfhearted. She expects others to give as much of themselves as she does. Do you know her?
Martha is an activist, not a contemplative. She gets the job done. Without Martha’s efforts, much of the work that gets accomplished in the office or at home or in the church would grind to a halt. She supports and enriches life. The office is organized, the home beautified and the church energized by Martha. She deserves a lot of thanks for putting herself out in order to help other people and accomplish what needs to get done. Who can blame her for getting ticked off at the Marys of the world? How dare Mary sit down and leisurely listen and think and learn while Martha is bustling and hustling to get some things done.
Again I ask, do you know Martha? I do. And sometimes I’ve been Martha. I hate to admit how many weeks I’ve allowed myself to get caught up in the details of church work. Too often Friday rolls around before I settle down at the feet of Jesus, to study, learn and prepare a message to bring on Sunday morning. Sure the other activities are important — administrative matters and committee meetings, talking with staff members and visiting hospitals, nursing homes and other places. But often I need to take Mary’s example and calmly sit down with Jesus.
I imagine Martha getting ready for the visit with Jesus. She had gone to the market earlier in the day to pick out the freshest vegetables and best looking piece of meat she could find. When she got back home, she cleaned and straightened the house, getting everything just right. Then she moved into the kitchen. I imagine her flitting from one spot to another, stirring a pot, checking the bread in the stone oven, turning a skewer of lamb. She was anxiety-ridden over every detail. Martha wanted to impress the Lord. But her busyness continued after Jesus arrived.
Whatever work Mary had been doing came to an end after Jesus stepped in the house. Not so with Martha. She kept right on going. What does that say about Martha? In the little book, Live and Learn and Pass It On, a man of 64 says, “I’ve learned that how you do your work is a portrait of yourself.” What kind of portrait is painted by the way Martha worked? More important, what kind of portrait of you is being painted by the way you work?
Martha was a driven person, self-sacrificing in some ways. But as Samuel Butler noted, “Work with some … is as besetting a sin as idleness with others.” The way Martha worked painted a portrait of a person who was so concerned about doing a great job on relatively little tasks that she had no time for the absolutely important one. She worked hard for Christ without being truly Christ-centered. Martha was diligent, but she lost the point.
Have you ever lost the point of your efforts? Sometimes in our work in the church it seems we lose the point. Frankly there have been times when I have seen a Martha mentality insert itself during some of our activities. Consequently, there tends to be a bit of the behavior that we find in our text: accusing others of not doing all they should do. When we don’t accomplish everything we would like to, it’s tempting to begin blaming others for all the mishaps or oversights or organizational slip ups. It seems in our time the dominant form of self-righteousness is not moral but organizational. Instead of a holier-than-thou haughtiness, we find a more organized-than-thou-art arrogance. Either way, the spiritual point of our work gets lost. Christ gets ignored in our compulsive busyness and orderliness.
Martha is an example of a person who works desperately to do everything right yet fails to do the right thing. She didn’t know how to draw the line on her own activity. You probably are familiar with Parkinson’s law. It states, “Work expands to fill whatever time has been allotted to complete it.” Martha saw so much that needed doing that she allowed work to control her whole schedule. Not only that, but she resented someone like her sister, Mary, who wouldn’t do the same.
Finally in frustration, she exploded to Jesus, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her to help me.” Martha’s emotions have been echoed through the centuries by every person who has ever said, “Why don’t other people around here do their fair share?”
Jesus’ reply probably was not what she expected. “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled over many things. One thing is needful.” In essence Jesus said “Martha, lighten up. Don’t be so uptight about everything. Only one thing really matters.” Jesus saw that Martha placed too much emphasis on means rather than rightful ends, on procedures rather than ultimate purpose. She was like a musician so obsessed with tuning her instrument exactly right that she didn’t have the time to actually play it. Martha had planned and prepared for Jesus’ visit but once He arrived, she couldn’t find the time to be with Him and learn from Him.
Like Martha, if we don’t learn how to put a limit on our work and get control of some piece of our schedules, we won’t have time to be with Jesus and be blessed by His words. Of Mary, Jesus said, “She has chosen the better part [of life] and it will not be taken from her.” No, Martha, I’m not going to tell Mary to be a workaholic like you. There’s always work to do. Mary has chosen what matters most. It’s better to let the dinner burn and settle for a crust of day-old bread than to miss an opportunity to hear the message of eternity.
Sure, it’s true that we can’t simply ignore the needs Martha worked to meet. Jesus wasn’t saying that straightening the house or cooking a meal, or doing homework or leading a committee meeting or completing projects at work are unimportant tasks. What he did intend was to remind Martha — and the Martha spirit in us — that nothing is more important than taking some undistracted time to be with Jesus, to learn from His words and commune with His spirit.
When we find ourselves too busy to pray, read the Bible and worship with the church, something is seriously out of kilter in our lives. We need to be reminded of what matters most. Some years back, I came across a “Wizard of Id” comic strip that speaks to this point. In the first frame, a peasant is shown approaching the wizard in his workshop. The peasant asks, “Are you familiar with curses?” The wizard replies, “What’s the problem?” “A witch turned my wife into a frog,” responds the peasant. The wizard asks, “What do you want me to do?” The peasant answers, “Teach it how to cook.”
Getting things done is not what matters most. Relationships matter more. And our relationship with Christ matters most of all.