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When Martha was Mad at the Master (Luke 10:38-42)

In his excellent book, Loving God, Charles Colson tells the story of Mickey Cohen, the “number-one bad boy” of Los Angeles. Through the testimony of Jim Vaus and the ministry of men like Billy Graham, Cohen allegedly had a conversion experience. But when it became apparent to him that being a Christian meant that he could no longer be a gangster, he balked. That was too much. Colson calls the chapter of his book which deals with Cohen, “A Christian Gangster?” We all know better than to think that a man like Cohen could claim to be a Christian and yet carry on with his work in the underworld.

As strongly as we believe this, Christians fail to realize that it is not only a matter of occupying ourselves with the right kind of work, we must also go about our work with the right attitude. A preacher can preach with the wrong attitude, as Paul tells us (Philippians 1:15-18). Someone who shows mercy by distributing food and clothing to the poor may be wrongly motivated in what they do (cf. Romans 12:8). Thus, we must not only be careful to be doing the right thing; we must be concerned with doing it with the right motivation.

It is often true that we begin our ministry with the right motivation, but somehow we get off track. This appears to be what happened to Martha. In a very familiar story, found only in Luke’s gospel, Martha becomes greatly distressed in the midst of preparing a meal for Jesus. I some people suffer from “burn out” in ministry, Martha is “burned up” in hers. This woman is really angry, and with Jesus no less! As one song has put it, Mary was … “‘Workin’ like the Devil, Servin’ the Lord.”

Who could think of a lovelier thing for a woman to be doing than to be showing Him the hospitality of a meal? And yet Martha virtually explodes with anger, due to the fact that her sister, Mary, is not helping, but rather is sitting at the feet of Jesus. And not only is Martha angry with her sister, she is greatly upset with her Lord. What happened to Martha’s ministry? What went wrong with her motivation? Why was Martha mad at Jesus? The answers to these questions can be found in the Bible. Let us listen well to the words of this text, and let us seek to learn from it those lessons which God intended for us, since it was preserved for our edification.

The Background of Our Story

At the 9th chapter of Luke, Jesus began to work with and through the disciples a great deal. This is due to the opposition to His ministry, His approaching rejection and crucifixion, and the need for the disciples to be trained for their work in His absence. Jesus first sent out the twelve apostles to preach the gospel (9:1-6), and then the seventy (10:1-20). Peter has made His great confession about the identity of Christ, and God has given His testimony as well at the mount of transfiguration (9:18-36). The Lord has taught the disciples much about ministry, both through their successes (e.g., the feeding of the five thousand, 9:10-17, and the healings and exorcisms of those sent out), and their failures (the failure of the 9 to exorcise the young man, 9:37-43).

Jesus has emphasized the evangelization of the cities in the sending of the seventy, and the importance of joy as the motivation for ministry in his response to their report on their return (9:17-24). In answer to the question of the lawyer about what he should do to inherit eternal life, Jesus told the man to do what the law commanded (9:25-37).

It might appear from the story of the “Good Samaritan” that Jesus was advocating salvation by works. Jesus was, in reality, doing the opposite. He was attempting to show this expert in the law that in order to be saved through law-keeping, he would have to do that which he had not been able to do (that is why he felt the need to justify himself), and that no one could do, for salvation through the law required perfect, progressive obedience to the law, without one failure.

The story of Martha and Mary underscores the futility of works as well. It was not the frantic activity of Martha which impressed Jesus, and which won His commendation, but the inactivity of Mary, sitting at the feet of the Savior, listening intently to His teaching. If one would place too high an emphasis on works, this story will put things back into perspective.

What We Know of Mary and Martha

There are several texts of Scripture which speak to us about Mary and Martha (and also Lazarus, their brother). I will place these texts in the order in which they seem to fall chronologically.

Luke 7:36-50 Now one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, so he went to the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. When a woman who had lived a sinful life in that town learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, she brought an alabaster jar of perfume, and as she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them. When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner.” Jesus answered him, “Simon, I have something to tell you.” “Tell me, teacher,” he said. “Two men owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he canceled the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt canceled.” “You have judged correctly,” Jesus said. Then he turned toward the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little.” Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” The other guests began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

Luke 10:38-42 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 only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

John 11:1-39 Now a man named Lazarus was sick. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. This Mary, whose brother Lazarus now lay sick, was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair. So the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Lord, the one you love is sick.” When he heard this, Jesus said, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. Yet when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days. Then he said to his disciples, “Let us go back to Judea.” “But Rabbi,” they said, “a short while ago the Jews tried to stone you, and yet you are going back there?” Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? A man who walks by day will not stumble, for he sees by this world’s light. It is when he walks by night that he stumbles, for he has no light.” After he had said this, he went on to tell them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.” His disciples replied, “Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better.” Jesus had been speaking of his death, but his disciples thought he meant natural sleep. So then he told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead, and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” Then Thomas (called Didymus) said to the rest of the disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Bethany was less than two miles from Jerusalem, and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home. “Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” “Yes, Lord,” she told him, “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.” And after she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary aside. “The Teacher is here,” she said, “and is asking for you.” When Mary heard this, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet entered the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. When the Jews who had been with Mary in the house, comforting her, noticed how quickly she got up and went out, they followed her, supposing she was going to the tomb to mourn there. When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. “Where have you laid him?” he asked. “Come and see, Lord,” they replied. Jesus wept. Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. “Take away the stone,” he said. “But, Lord,” said Martha, the sister of the dead man, “by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.”

Matthew 26:6-13

Mark 14:3-9

John 12:1-8

Now when Jesus was in Bethany, at the home of Simon the leper, 7 a woman came to Him with an alabaster vial of very costly perfume, and she poured it upon His head as He reclined at the table. 8 But the disciples were indignant when they saw this, and said, “Why this waste? 9 “For this perfume might have been sold for a high price and the money given to the poor.” 10 But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why do you bother the woman? For she has done a good deed to Me. 11 “For the poor you have with you always; but you do not always have Me. 12 “For when she poured this perfume upon My body, she did it to prepare Me for burial. 13 “Truly I say to you, wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, what this woman has done shall also be spoken of in memory of her.”

And while He was in Bethany at the home of Simon the leper, and reclining at the table, there came a woman with an alabaster vial of very costly perfume of pure nard; and she broke the vial and poured it over His head. 4 But some were indignantly remarking to one another, “Why has this perfume been wasted? 5 “For this perfume might have been sold for over three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor.” And they were scolding her. 6 But Jesus said, “Let her alone; why do you bother her? She has done a good deed to Me. 7 “For the poor you always have with you, and whenever you wish, you can do them good; but you do not always have Me. 8 “She has done what she could; she has anointed My body beforehand for the burial. 9 “And truly I say to you, wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, that also which this woman has done shall be spoken of in memory of her.”

Jesus, therefore, six days before the Passover, came to Bethany where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. 2 So they made Him a supper there, and Martha was serving; but Lazarus was one of those reclining at the table with Him. 3 Mary therefore took a pound of very costly perfume of pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped His feet with her hair; and the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4 But Judas Iscariot, one of His disciples, who was intending to betray Him, said, 5 “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii, and given to poor people?” 6 Now he said this, not because he was concerned about the poor, but because he was a thief, and as he had the money box, he used to pilfer what was put into it. 7 Jesus therefore said, “Let her alone, in order that she may keep it for the day of My burial. 8 “For the poor you always have with you, but you do not always have Me.”

As I understand the chronology of these events, Mary was the one who anointed the feet of Jesus, as recorded in Luke chapter 7 (to which John referred in John 11:2). The incident recorded by Luke in our text takes place some time after this, followed by the raising of Lazarus (John 11), and finally by the last anointing of Jesus’ feet, in preparation for His burial (Matthew 26:6-13; Mark 14:3-9; John 12:1-8). Some have explained the mention of the house of “Simon the Leper” by Matthew (26:6) and Mark (14:3) by suggesting that Martha was married to Simon. A tombstone found in that area with the names Simon, Martha, Mary, and Lazarus have been cited as evidence of this. It is my opinion that Simon offered the use of his house for this meal since it was larger, and that Martha did the serving, as stated in John’s gospel (but which doesn’t say whose house the meal was served in).

Based on all the texts in which Mary and Martha are described, I think we can infer several things about these two women. Martha appears to be the older of the two sisters. In our text in Luke chapter 10, Martha is depicted as the hostess, who invited Jesus into her home. Martha seems not only to be the older, but the more aggressive and outspoken of the two women. It is she who went out to meet Jesus after Lazarus died, and to inform Him that this would not have happened if He would have been there sooner. Mary will later repeat this same words, no doubt echoing Martha, but with a different tone, as I read them at least. Mary’s words convey only sorrow and regret. Martha’s words may subtly convey a rebuke, in effect saying, “If you hadn’t delayed, if you were not so late in coming, Lazarus would not have died.” This is not far from saying, “It’s all your fault, you know!” Even though Martha professed to believe in Christ as the Messiah, and in His ability to raise men from the dead (John 11:22-27), she objected concerning the stench of the tomb when Jesus ordered it to be opened, and Jesus’ response reveals her lack of faith (John 11:39-40). In Luke chapter 10 Martha is very aggressive and outspoken. She explodes with anger at Mary’s failure to come to her aid, and at Jesus’ encouragement (or at least His toleration) of her conduct. All of the texts combined paint a picture of Martha as the older, the more dominant (and perhaps domineering), the more outgoing, and the more vocal of the two.

Perhaps the two women can best be seen in contrast to each other, based upon John’s account of the raising of Lazarus in chapter 11.

Martha went out to wait for Jesus

Martha didn’t tell Mary, who remained at home

Martha stood (it seems) before Jesus

Mary fell at Jesus’ feet

Martha gently rebuked Jesus

Mary wept

Jesus talked with Martha

Jesus wept with (and for?) Mary

Mary and the Feet of Jesus

Martha was upset because Mary remained at Jesus’ feet, listening to Him teach, while the burden of fixing the meal fell entirely on her. What was Mary doing at Jesus’ feet? How did she get there? I think I know.

Mary was always at Jesus’ feet. Indeed, in every text which speaks of her she is at Jesus’ feet. In Luke chapter 7 she was behind Jesus, quietly (and unobtrusively) washing Jesus’ feet with her tears and her hair. In John 11 she fell as Jesus’ feet when she found Him. In John 12 and its parallels, Mary was again at Jesus’ feet, anointing Him with expensive perfume, preparing Him for His death. I believe that in Luke chapter 10 she immediately found herself at Jesus’ feet, washing them from the dust of the journey He has taken. The account of Jesus’ washing the feet of His disciples in John chapter 13 sheds much light on this, as well as these words of Jesus, previously recorded by Luke, spoken to the Pharisees who had invited Jesus to dinner at his house:

Then he turned toward the woman [Mary?] and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet” (Luke 7:44-46).

Mary, I believe, was at the feet of Jesus, doing what every good host or hostess would have done—washing the feet of their guest. It is my opinion that Mary just never got up. Mary was not content to make a quick job of it. Jesus began to speak, and she was captivated by His words. She was so inconspicuous, her actions so gracious, and Jesus so grateful and affirming, that she never thought of getting up and slipping away to the kitchen. I suspect that virtually everyone else in that room could hear the sigh’s of Martha, and the clanging of the pots and dishes as she proceeded to get angrier by the moment. But not Mary. She had eyes only for the One who had forgiven her, and who loved her, as she loved Him. She had no ears for Martha’s clamoring, but only for the gracious words spoken by her Master. Was she normally subject to Martha? Not so today, and Jesus was grateful to have her at His feet. The warmth of the love of that woman must have caused the room to glow. Who would dare to suggest she leave, no matter what Martha might want?

A Word About Martha

There are several things about Martha that we should take note of, before we consider our Lord’s words spoken to her.

(1) It is Martha who is the central person in our text, not Mary. We might all agree that Mary is the hero, she is the model, but she is not the dominant personality of our passage. Luke’s account records not so much as one word spoken by Mary, and there is but one brief verse describing her actions (v. 39). The remaining 4 verses are divided between Martha’s actions (vv. 38, 40) and Jesus’ response to Martha’s tantrum (vv. 41-42).

(2) Martha was not jealous that Mary was spending time with Jesus, but angry that Mary was not helping her. One thing struck me as I have been thinking about Martha’s response to Mary’s actions: Martha was not envious of Mary, but angry with her. If Martha had said, “I would like to sit at your feet, too, Jesus,” that would have been one thing. But Martha did not say this. Martha seems to have felt that working in the kitchen was the “better thing,” not only for her, but also for Mary. How sad that Martha did not have the longing which Mary evidenced, the longing to do nothing else than to sit at Jesus’ feet, and to hear Him teach. Here was “bread” for which Martha had too little concern, or so it would seem.

(3) Martha does not see any problem with herself, but she blames those who are innocent of wrongdoing. Martha accused both Mary and Jesus of doing wrong against her, and found herself innocent. Jesus refused to grant Martha’s demands, even though forcefully put. Jesus praised Mary for the choice she had made and informed Martha that she was in the wrong.

(4) It is not Martha’s service which was wrong, but her attitude in that service. I do not think our text suggests that both Mary and Martha should have been sitting at Jesus’ feet, and that no meal should have been prepared. Martha was not wrong in serving, but her attitude in serving was clearly wrong. Martha had a serving ministry, but not a servant’s heart.

(5) Martha’s frustration, anger, and temper tantrum may not be excusable, but it is at least understandable. If Mary’s delight at sitting at the Master’s feet is easily understood, so is Martha’s chagrin. It is not excusable, but it is understandable. Let me remind you that Martha, as the hostess of the house, may well have been faced with entertaining a sizable group. We know that Jesus was often accompanied by a large party. One can hardly imagine the 12 disciples not being there, not to mention some or all of the 70, and then, of course, the women who accompanied and attended Jesus (Luke 8:1-3).

Some years ago, when my younger sister was married, my parents entertained a large group at their home. At least 50 or 60 people were there for at least one meal. There was a great deal of planning and preparation involved. My wife, Jeannette, played a large role in this, and she can testify to the work involved. I gather from this experience that Martha likewise had no mean job. She could have used all the help she could get.

Another factor in Martha’s anger at Mary’s absence may have been a cultural one. In that day and time (as is still often the case in the Eastern world) the men would sit about talking “man talk” while the women were going about their more “domestic duties.” For Mary to have been in the “living room,” as it were, and not in the “kitchen” may have been unusual. Martha may not have sensed the Lord’s encouragement for Mary to stay, or, she may very well have observed it, which would explain her outburst of anger toward Him. Was she reminding Jesus of how He should “take the leadership” here?

Woman’s work was in the kitchen, fixing meals. Men’s work was to talk theology, in the living room, with Jesus. Mary had no right, Martha told herself, and if we had been in her sandals, we would likely have thought the same thing.

(6) Martha’s words reflect not only an anger, but a lack of reverence and a lack of submission. Martha charged Jesus with not caring for her, with condoning wrongdoing on Mary’s part, and then publicly demanded that Jesus concede His “error” by making Mary go to help her sister. One must say that this is hardly proper conduct. If Martha thought that Mary was not conforming to her “womanly role” how much more so for herself.

Jesus Response to Martha’s Rebuke

Jesus’ words in response to the stormy protest of Martha may not tell us all that was wrong, but they surely inform us as to what the primary problems were. Notice several things about Jesus’ words to Martha.

(1) Jesus did not respond to Martha’s anger in anger. How easy it would have been for Jesus to have a scorching, or at least a sarcastic response to Martha, but no trace of anger can be seen. Our Lord’s response is truly gracious, and His rebuke most gentle. That same compassion which drew Mary to Jesus’ feet, is that which characterized Jesus’ response to her sister.

(2) Jesus found Martha’s charges wrong on every count, and at the same time found Martha to be the one in the wrong. Her tears and her rebuke, no matter how strongly put, do not put Jesus on the defensive. Jesus made no attempt to clear Himself, defended Mary’s decision as the better one, and found Martha’s outburst unjustified, and a symptom of more serious problems. Angry accusations and outbursts, especially those which are disproportionate (as was that of Martha), often point to deeper problems. It is to these problems that our Lord’s words will point.

(3) Jesus’ response was evidence of His refusal to superimpose some kind of stereotypical “woman’s role” model on Mary and Martha alike. Mary and Martha were both women, but nothing in Jesus’ words deals with either of them as women. Mary was not only free to sit and learn at Jesus’ feet, she was commended for it. Martha was not forbidden or rebuked for serving, but only for insisting that Mary do likewise. Jesus deal with these women as individuals.

(4) Jesus dealt more with the attitudes of these women than He did their actions. Martha was rebuked for her wrong attitudes of being “worried and upset.” While Mary was motivated by love, gratitude, and pure joy, Martha was running on the steam of distress and consternation. This was not way to be serving her Lord.

(5) Jesus exposed a problem with Martha’s priorities. Mary had chosen that which was “better” and “necessary” (v. 42); Martha was frazzled and frustrated by a whole host of things (“many things,” v. 41). What was that “better” thing, that which was “necessary,” that which Mary had chosen, and Martha had not? In brief, I think that the “better thing” was abiding in Christ, drawing strength and instruction from Him. It was being taught at the feet of the Master. If there is any one element of discipleship, it is being a learner, and this is what Mary had chosen to do. Martha was preoccupied with ministering to Jesus; Mary with the ministry of Jesus. In the final analysis, He is not dependent upon our ministry to Him, but our life in Him is totally dependent upon His ministry to us. In seeking to serve Jesus, Martha was hindering the sustenance of Jesus in her life, and she even demanded that it be kept from her sister as well.

(6) Jesus exposed a problem of responsibilities. Martha had greatly overstepped her areas of responsibility. Simply put, Martha was responsible only for her attitude, for her service. Martha had extended her responsibility to “many things,” things which were not hers to assume. She felt responsible to direct Mary’s ministry, and even to dictate our Lord’s responsibilities (by demanding He correct Mary). She had begun to assume responsibility for others, while ignoring her own accountability.

Conclusion

We should first seek to understand this event and its meaning in the context of Luke’s gospel. What is the Spirit of God teaching us here, at this point in Luke’s developing argument of the life of Christ? I believe that this story illustrates many of the things which Luke has been emphasizing up to this point, as well as correcting any possible misconceptions. I believe that Luke is, by means of this incident, illustrating what true discipleship is. The essence of discipleship is not our service rendered to Christ, but finding our sustenance in Christ. It is not being a Martha, but a Mary. Discipleship is not so much a teeth-gritting devotion to duty, as a joyful devotion to and dependence on Christ.

Our story is also further evidence of the priorities which characterize our Lord and which should characterize His disciples. One of these priorities is that of being sustained and strengthened by the Word of God as opposed to finding our strength from earthly sustenance, namely food. In the temptation of our Lord by Satan to command stones to become bread, our Lord’s response was, “It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone’” (Luke 4:4).

Later in this same chapter, when the disciples found Jesus in prayer, they urged Him to return to the place where He had been, for many were waiting for Him to heal them. Jesus’ reply expressed the priority of the Word of God to meeting man’s physical needs,

At daybreak Jesus went out to a solitary place. The people were looking for him and when they came to where he was, they tried to keep him from leaving them. But he said, “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent.” And he kept on preaching in the synagogues of Judea (Luke 4:42-44).

In the gospel of John, the same emphasis on deriving our sustenance from Christ is found, but this time using the analogy of a branch finding its life from the vine:

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. “I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples (John 15:1-8).

In the gospel of Matthew, learning from Jesus is not only taught, but it is taught in such a way as to prevent men from the very things which were eating away at Martha. Learning of Christ is the key to finding rest in Him:

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).

Later on, in the book of Acts (also authored by Luke), we see the priority of the Word of God to service emphasized in this event:

In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Grecian Jews among them complained against those of the Aramaic-speaking community because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “it would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.” This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them. So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith (Acts 6:1-7).

The New Testament, then, has much to say about the priority of the Word of God in the life of the Christian and in the life of the church. It is not, as some would say, that we “worship the Bible,” but rather that because we worship the Living Word, the Lord Jesus Christ, we fellowship with Him and find sustenance from Him through His Word. By emphasizing the Word of God in the life of the Christian I do not mean to say that we sit at the feet of Jesus like Mary did by sitting through a sermon. Sitting at the feet of our Lord, learning from His word, may be furthered by the insight of gifted teachers, but ultimately we sit at Jesus’ feet when we personally study the Word of God.

I want to be honest with you at this point. While I believe that God has given me the gift of teaching, I am very frequently tempted to forsake my study and the hard work of grappling with the Word of God by finding other ways of serving God. I find that it is a lot easier, in the terms of our text, to be in the kitchen with Martha than to be in the living room with Mary, at the feet of Jesus. Jesus had many hard things to say, many things which the disciples did not want to hear, like Jesus’ instruction concerning His rejection and death. Serving God can often be an excuse for not studying God’s Word. Let us all beware of letting a good thing like service get in the way of the better thing, abiding in Christ through His Word.

But how can we say that being in the Word is more important, “better,” than serving Him? We can say this because abiding in Christ through His Word provides us with both the motivation and the means for serving Him. Service may not result in the study of God’s Word, but honest searching of Scripture will produce service. Just as a branch cannot produce fruit by any other means than by abiding in the vine, so we cannot produce fruit apart from abiding in Christ through His Word.

I believe that Martha’s explosive reaction to Mary’s failure to join her in the kitchen is indicative of a very serious problem in her life. I believe that her problem may be summed up in this way: MARTHA WAS WRONG IN MEASURING HER SIGNIFICANCE IN TERMS OF HER SERVICE

Martha felt that her service was so vital she could demand that Mary come to help her, even though it meant not being there to learn at the feet of the Savior. Martha was so violent in her response that she accused the Lord of wrongdoing by not giving her the “support” she needed in her ministry.

I do not think that Martha would have been so touchy about her ministry if she did not have her “meaning in life” invested in it. The kitchen was the one area which was under Martha’s authority. It was by preparing meals and offering hospitality that Martha saw herself as having value to others. When Jesus’ actions threatened her ability to perform in this area, she strongly reacted. Martha found her ministry to be of too much value to her. She could not put it aside for anything, not even in order to learn at Jesus’ feet. And she could not allow Mary to set it aside, either.

It is amazing that while Christians have come to the point of renouncing their performance, their works, as having anything to contribute to their salvation, they somehow think that their ministry does determine their significance to God, or at least to others. The Scriptures simply do not teach this, for our spiritual gifts, our ministries, and our level of effectiveness are all sovereignly given us by God (1 Corinthians 12:4-6). The one who has a great ministry cannot take the credit, any more than the one with a seemingly insignificant ministry can take any blame. It is only required that we be faithful in using that which God has given us, in the context in which He has placed us.

Over the years I have seen many young men enter seminary and attempt to become pastors primarily because they (often told or taught this by other Christians) believe that this is a more significant ministry, which makes them more significant people. I think this same error lies under much of the struggle women have with the “role of women” taught in the Bible. Why are some women so up tight because they cannot teach and lead men? Because, I fear, they think these are more significant ministries, which would make them more significant people. When we think this way, ministry becomes our master, as it was for Martha. When we think biblically, our Master is our ministry, as He was for Mary.

I find it interesting to note that when our significance is not measured by our service, we are willing to accept either “success” or apparent “failure” in ministry as from God. John the Baptist rejoiced in the demise of his ministry, because he had played out his role, and the Master was being magnified. Paul dealt with many reverses in his life, and yet he was able to see them as from the hand of His sovereign Lord, and he could rejoice, even in the worst of circumstances (cf. Acts 16:25; 2 Corinthians 6; Philippians).

Our Lord’s words to Martha inform us that the magnitude of our ministry is not nearly as important as the motivation of our ministry. It will not be until the day of judgment that the motives of men will be revealed, and thus our ministries should not be judged by us now (cf. 1 Corinthians 4:1-5). Let us beware of seeking to appraise the value of our ministries, since this is something which only God can judge with accuracy.

I was reminded this past week of some excellent work done by Gordon MacDonald, in his book, Ordering Your Private World. He does an excellent job of differentiating between the “called” person and the “driven” person. I believe that given MacDonald’s terminology we would think of Mary as being “called” and Martha as being “driven.” I would like to change the labels and to add a category. I would like to think of Christians as falling into one of three categories: (1) the committed (the “called”), (2) the compulsive (the “driven”), and (3) the complacent. Allow me to briefly summarize each in the chart below:

The Committed,
The Compulsive, and the Complacent

Compulsive People

Committed People

Complacent People

Highly, but wrongly motivated

Rightly motivated

Unmotivated

Motivated by self interest:
Achievement
Power
Praise
Fear/guilt

Rightly motivated:
Love
Joy
Grace

Motivated by self interest (or spiritually unmotivated):
Pleasure
The world

Has a religious look

Cares little about the appearance, but only of the Lord’s favor

 

Result/success orientation (bottom line)

Servant/faithfulness orientation

Avoidance orientation

Product orientation

People orientation

Pleasure orientation

Want to use God

Want to be used by God

Want to be blessed, indulged by God

The committed are those who love the Lord, and whose love and joy motivates them to serve faithfully. The compulsive have to serve, but for the wrong motives, whether it be guilt, fear, or one’s need for approval. The complacent just don’t care. The love is cold, their loyalties divided.

My fear in teaching this passage of Scripture is that someone who is complacent will gratefully say an “Amen” to what they think I have said, so that they are excused from doing anything, but sitting. There are too many sitters already. Mary, I would suggest, was serving while she was sitting. She was, I believe, washing feet, just as Martha was serving in the kitchen. The difference between Mary and Martha is not that one served and the other didn’t, but that one served out of joy and love, the other out of a compulsive need to serve, for her own benefit. Let us be like Mary, serving the Lord with a pure heart, our of gratitude, not guilt or fear or compulsion.

There is yet one final thing that I wish to say as I close. There is no better place to be, no place we are more welcome to be, than at the feet of our Lord. When we fall at His feet, we acknowledge His majesty, power, and goodness, and our need. When we fall at His feet, we rightly reflect the response of the creature to the Creator. No sinner in the New Testament that I am aware of ever hesitated to come to Jesus’ feet. The self-righteous would not be caught dead there, because of their pride and arrogance, but the sinner found the feet of Jesus a place of welcome. You are always welcome at His feet.

But I must say that all men will someday find themselves at Jesus’ feet. His saints, those who have trusted in Him for salvation, will be at His feet in worship, adoration, and praise. But those who have rejected Him will also be at His feet, or, more accurately, under His feet. As I close this message let me remind you of what God Himself has said of the enemies of Christ,

“‘THE LORD SAID TO MY LORD, “SIT AT MY RIGHT HAND, UNTIL I MAKE THINE ENEMIES A FOOTSTOOL FOR THY FEET’” (Acts 2:34, citing Psalm 110:1).

May you come to His feet now, like Mary, in humility, in dependence, and in adoration, for it is He and He alone who welcomes and saves sinners, and who urges them to learn from Him whose yoke is easy and whose burden is light (Matthew 11:28-30).

Related Topics: Spiritual Life, Issues in Church Leadership/Ministry, Leadership