Summary: Why does Jesus praises the contemplative, dreamy-eyed Mary, sitting at His feet, but scold the busily working Martha?
The puzzling response of Jesus to Mary and Martha leave us scratching our heads. Our Lord Jesus praises the contemplative, dreamy-eyed Mary, sitting at His feet. He scolds the busily working Martha.
What gives? Martha was the one who was busily looking after Jesus’ needs and His well-being, not Mary! To us, the way Jesus responds is backwards. To our way of thinking, Jesus has it all wrong.
If it wasn’t Jesus responding in such a way, we’d give Him a piece of our mind. We’d accuse Jesus of promoting cheap grace. We’d say that He wasn’t encouraging the faithful to get off their flabby bottoms to work in His Kingdom.
Why would Jesus scold Martha and encourage Mary? Throughout His travels, He would say over and again that true discipleship consists in both hearing and doing (Luke 6:47; 8:15, 21; 11:28)? Why doesn’t Jesus, who is so compassionate toward the downtrodden, sympathize with Martha?
Had I been there, I would’ve turned it around. I would’ve had Jesus praise busy Martha and scold idle Mary. Chances are that’s the way you’d have done it too.
After all, Martha’s doing much work--good, hard work! She focused her enormous energies on Jesus’ comfort. She straightened the guestroom. She went off to market to select the best products and the needed foods for the entrée. Everything must flow together just right. The side dish must be warm. Only such and such a vintage of wine would do. She was a whirlwind. She’s the church member Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church wishes they had scores of!
But with Jesus, you don’t get to call the shots, and neither do I. He calls the shots, and He must have had a good reason for saying what He said.
So let’s be sure to get the full force of what Jesus wants us to have. The Martha that Jesus scolded was not a bad woman. She wasn’t a slacker or some loser. She was a close friend of Jesus. She loved Him. Martha was a tireless worker for God’s Kingdom. And that’s what was wrong with her. She was working too much! Yet, Martha’s action was not bad--at least not in itself.
To put the events in today’s context, Martha wasn’t sleeping in on Sunday morning instead of going to church. She wasn’t out on the golf course. She was if anywhere, in the church kitchen preparing the church dinner.
Martha was working for a good cause. She simply meant to serve the Lord. After all, isn’t that what He wanted? Yes. Jesus said time and again that His followers should serve Him. The Lord wanted activity--and she was doing it!
To all appearances, Martha was doing what was right. So sure that she was right, Martha even asked Jesus to send Mary into the kitchen. Yet, what did Jesus do? He scolded Martha for doing and praised Mary for receiving. What a surprising turn of events!
Sometimes a person has to choose between two evils. But Martha, we might say, had a choice between two goods. There was the good of serving the Lord. And then there was the good of sitting at His feet and receiving Jesus in all His fullness. Mind you, both are good. But which is better?
So get this--and let it be forever etched in your memory--the good of receiving Jesus is better than the good of serving Him. Yes, the good of receiving Jesus is better than the good of serving Him.
Hurriedly working for Jesus and hearing Him in the preached Word are both good. But hearing Jesus in the preached Word is better. Serving others and receiving Jesus in His Supper are both are good. But receiving Jesus in His Supper is better. Actively working for the Lord and passively receiving His Word are both good. But if forced to choose, it is better for the Christian to be passive and receive from Christ.
This truth is so deep that we even have to let it rewire us when we come to worship in the Lord’s house. We naturally want to be a Martha when we come to worship, to be doing stuff for the Lord, just like her. We naturally want to feed ourselves. Yet, Jesus never says anywhere, “Flock feed yourself.” Our natural understanding of worship is all wrong. We think that worship is about all that we do for God. But that’s wrong: Worship is about all that God does for us.
Don’t just do something, sit there. During this sacred hour, I, your Lord, am doing the work. If anything, your hankering to do something during the Divine Service displeases Me. I am the one who feeds you through the read Word, through the preached Word, through the Word of absolution, and through the Word in the Lord’s Supper. It is only after I have fed you with My Word, then you are to serve, as you go from this place into the world.