Summary: Following God’s will means going to unexpected places and doing unexpected things. But if we are willing to follow Christ’s boundary-breaking call, Christ will meet us there, and he will prepare us to serve!
Much like the lawyer’s question and the parable of the Good Samaritan last week, this story of Mary and Martha I’m sure is quite familiar to many of us. This scene of Mary and Martha hosting Jesus in their home in Bethany has gained much popularity among Christians in our modern, very busy world. Scholars have poured over every word of this brief passage, analyzing Martha’s actions, and Mary’s actions, and Jesus’ words. Entire books have been written on this single passage, suggesting how we might have “a Mary heart in a Martha world.” Surely, this is a parable that speaks strongly to us in the busyness of our modern lives. And we church-goers often debate our attributes: “I am more like Mary,” some will say. “I have quiet time each day with God. I talk to God and listen too.” Then others will say, “I’m more like Martha. I just have to be doing something, serving others, or I am not satisfied.” There is a problem in debating this story this way, though, and perhaps many of us have recognized it: if you, like me, tend to be more like Martha, this story makes you feel as if you are an inadequate Christian because, according to Jesus’ thinking, “Mary has chosen the better part.” So we “busy-bodies” begin to fret and worry because we are too busy to be attending adequately to our need to sit in Jesus’ presence.
But here’s the thing about the Christian life, it must be both active and contemplative. It must be both Mary and Martha. Not only should we take time to pause and listen to the Master’s teaching like Mary, we must also be active in serving in Jesus’ name like Martha. “Action and contemplation are of course both important. Without the first, you wouldn’t eat, without the second you wouldn’t worship.” Without contemplation, we would never be strengthened and empowered to do God’s work in the world, and if we are not active in the world like Martha, people in our neighborhoods, communities, and around the world would never know the love and grace of Jesus Christ! Certainly some of us tend one way or another; we prefer worship or we prefer service, and we are probably all called to some unique balance between these two aspects of the Christian life. So the point of this story about Jesus’ time in the house of Mary and Martha is not about how we should value one aspect of the Christian life over another. No, we should both worship and serve! And when we think about this story of Mary and Martha, we should see that its meaning goes far beyond a simple debate about action and contemplation in the Christian life. Like the parable of the Good Samaritan, the story of Mary and Martha is radical!
In order to fully understand the significance of Mary and Martha’s encounter with Jesus in their home in Bethany, we need to have a good picture of Jesus’ mission and the customs of the culture during the time that he was among us on earth. You see, people were expecting something BIG when God’s promised Messiah came among them, but Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection blew all of their expectations out of the water; it was radical. The Israelites never expected that a Samaritan would be lifted up as the one most closely following God’s command to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself.” And the Jews never expected that Jesus would praise the actions of a woman sitting at his feet as he taught. In a great sense, everything that Jesus did was unexpected. The Jews thought the Messiah was their savior and their savior alone, come to deliver them from all the oppressive forces of the earth. But as we know, Jesus is the Savior of the whole world. And “not only was [Jesus] redrawing the boundaries of God’s people, sending out a clear message about how the gospel would reach to those outside the traditional borders. He was redrawing the boundaries between” Jew and Greek, slave and free, and even male and female; “blurring lines which had been clearly laid down.” And here is where we begin to see the significance of this story about Mary and Martha.
Jesus and His disciples had come to the home of Martha and Mary, and Martha was busy and “distracted by all the preparations that had to be made.” But then something happens that makes Martha stop dead in her tracks. She rubs her eyes and looks again, to make sure she’s seeing rightly. There is her sister, Mary, sitting at Jesus’ feet, hanging on Jesus’ every Word. Doesn’t Mary know she has work to do? Doesn’t Mary know that her place is in the kitchen? What’s gotten into her, that she would cast her responsibilities aside, and go and join the men? And that is the key to this situation. The real problem between Martha and Mary wasn’t the workload that Martha had in the kitchen. No. The real problem was that Mary was behaving as if she were a man!