38 Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. 39 And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. 40 But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” 41 But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, 42 but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.” Luke 10:38-42 ESV
I’ve longed joked with my husband about making a shirt that says “Martha is my homegirl.” You know, Martha of Mary and Martha. The busy one in the kitchen. I cringe at even describing her that way because she holds such a dear place in my heart. I used to feel defensive and contrary whenever she was brought up from the pulpit or in a bible study. I decided I should probably unpack the urge to fight someone every time I heard a diss about her. And clearly, I didn’t need to unpack much at all before it was so blatantly apparent that the reason I was so defensive over Martha, is because I saw myself as her. And what I saw was just all sorts of wrong. I saw Mary as the good one and Martha as the bad one. I saw Mary getting praised and Martha being publicly rebuked. I saw Mary being loved by Jesus, and Martha being rejected. I saw everything the wrong way. I saw through my own feelings of rejection. Feelings that ultimately led to me believing the lie that Mary was loved and Martha was not. Of course, I would have a strong response to that.
Believing it was high time to sort through this, I opened up my bible and prayed that I would see this story of Mary and Martha accurately maybe even for the first time. I realized that neither Martha nor Mary is the main character of this account. This is a story about Jesus. If I believed that to be true, how would my understanding of this text be different? Well, “in all the ways” would be the correct answer. But I listed out a few biggies for reference:
Jesus entered their lives on purpose
Jesus is in his final pursuit of Jerusalem at this point. He is making intentional stops along the way but his face is set toward Jerusalem for the coming crucifixion (Luke 9:51). On this journey, he enters a village and a woman named Martha welcomes him into her home. We know that nothing Jesus does is by happenstance, but instead is the perfect will of the Father (John 5:19). Entering this village and going with Martha was indeed the will of the Father. And it was good. My passed assumption of Martha being the rejected one is already started to destabilize. She was the one who welcomed him in, and He was the one who entered her home. Not rejected, but pursued.
After Martha welcomes him in, we see Mary introduced. She is the sister of both Martha and Lazarus. We’re told now that Mary is sitting at the feet of Jesus. Culturally, not something a young woman does at this time. The thing that’s out of sorts here isn’t that Martha is in the kitchen, but that Mary is at the feet of Jesus. Now comes the tension in the story that’s introduced in the word “but.” “But Martha was distracted with much serving.” That “but” seems to draw a contrast between Mary and Martha. The tension is real here, and Jesus willingly enters into it.
Jesus knew about Martha’s heart long before dinner
Martha’s distraction and busyness aren’t surprising to Jesus. Long before this dinner, before creation, God saw Martha. He knows her heart fully (Psalm 139:2). As he does Mary and everyone else in that house that evening. He had seen her in every anxious moment up til that day. He knew her deepest suffering and her biggest sins. He was not put out by any of it.
Jesus desired for Martha to cast her cares onto him
After the “but Martha was distracted with much serving” we see Martha go to Jesus and ask a question and then make a demand, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” A bold thing to say of Martha. She lacked no audacity, this one. And though it is plain to us and perhaps easy to see only the fault of Martha here, she does in fact go to Jesus. Jesus, who says he desires us to cast our cares onto him (1 Peter 5:7). She does just that. Is there sin in her heart at this moment? Obviously. But let’s not forget that a heart full of sin and suffering is always best surrendered in the hands of Jesus. For it’s only God that can change our sinful hearts (Ez 36:26). So although we see her brokenness, we see Jesus being there right with her in it, beckoning to take that burden from her.
Jesus knew Martha couldn’t save herself, so He did
Martha makes her feelings plain to Jesus by asking him to make Mary help her. Jesus doesn’t oblige. Instead, Jesus does what he always does. He addresses the heart above the behavior. He tells her the truth, that she is anxious and troubled about many things (Luke 10:41). But only one thing is necessary. It’s Him. And Jesus tells her that Mary has chosen that necessary thing, the good portion (Luke 10:42). And that portion will never be taken away. Finishing making dinner on her timeline, having her sister submit to her will, or even Jesus doing what she wants him to do isn’t going to fix Martha. It isn’t going to save her from distraction and anxiety. It won’t save her soul. But Jesus Christ can. He knows this even if she doesn’t yet. And it’s why he came (Luke 5:32).
Jesus loves Mary and Martha and died for them both
Martha isn’t the only sinner under this roof. Martha isn’t the only reason that Jesus came to dinner. Jesus came to this home because the Father willed it. Shortly after this meal, the Father would also will Jesus to go to the cross and die for crimes he didn’t commit (1 Peter 2:22). Jesus would do this willingly. Because he loves Martha. And he loves Mary. It isn’t because Mary was good enough that he loves her. And it wasn’t because Martha worked hard enough to earn his favor. He lived and died and rose for all men because we couldn’t please God on our own. Because he loved us in our utter darkness and depravity (Romans 5:8).
It’s easy for me to read a passage like this and want to jump to the application right away. Application is good. But to skip straight to application points. . . well isn’t that sort of what Martha was doing? Both hospitality and application are good things. They just aren’t the best thing. Sitting at the feet of Jesus is better. Jesus, Mary, and Martha have changed the way I read my bible. Instead of looking to identify with certain people or to glean a holy “to-do” list, I try to read knowing that every verse is first an account of God. He is the better portion than the comfort a relatable character can bring me.
This story of Mary and Martha is a story about Jesus. A messiah that entered our broken world to save us from it. A story about a God who sees us in our kitchens, distracted and anxious. And he loves us. He longs to carry the burden of our sin and suffering so we can freely sit at his feet. It’s a story about a Savior that wasn’t distracted or anxious about the cross that lay ahead of him. He made the time to visit the heart-sick sinners along the way to show them the portion that exists in him. Because he loves us. Jesus came here for Martha. He came here for us.