I must admit, I’ve always related more to Martha than to Mary. In this story, Jesus goes to visit Mary, Martha, and Lazarus in their home in Bethany. Martha begins to prepare a meal, while Mary sits at Jesus’ feet to listen to his teaching. At one point, Martha goes out to ask Jesus to tell Mary to come and help her. In most retellings, Martha is unattractive, rude, and self-centered. She is portrayed as a first-century curmudgeon – griping when clearly Mary was in the right.
However, there has always been a little problem with this in my mind. The problem is that the meal did have to be cooked. It was culturally expected that there would be a meal, and that it would be prepared by the women. Beyond that, Martha undoubtedly wanted to give the very best to Jesus, an honored teacher and close friend. Mary was doing something that was going against the cultural norms, against the “rules” of society. She was sitting with the men and listening to the teacher, rather than helping in the kitchen which was her expected role. So, Martha had pretty good reason for complaint when she went to Jesus. She wasn’t just being an overbearing tattle-tale – she wanted Jesus to remind Mary of what was right.
Jesus, however, turned things upside down. He didn’t say it was “right” for Mary to be in the kitchen, but that it was better for her to be with him. And if it was true that it was better for Mary to be with him, doesn’t that imply that it also would have been better for Martha? But how could Martha have taken the time to sit down? Someone had to cook that meal! And we are back to the original question. What was Martha to do?
I asked this question to a teacher once, and they told me there were servants that could have cooked the meal. Martha should have sat down and listened while the servants cooked. But again, if being with Jesus is better for Mary and Martha, wouldn’t it also better for the servants? I can’t imagine a servant coming to listen and Jesus saying, “No, not you. You actually do need to prepare the food!”
I was pondering this question one day as I reviewed my ministry presentation. I often use an illustration from the story of Jesus feeding the five thousand, and as I looked at that story it suddenly struck me that the answer was right there! Jesus fed all of those people with five loaves of bread and two small fish. No one was prepared, and He miraculously provided. Martha didn’t have to cook the meal, because Jesus could have provided food for them if needed. She had to trust in his provision.
I think, however, that trusting God to provide gets a little tricky in these kinds of situations. When we are faced with very important things that need to be done or spending time with Jesus, the to-do list does seem higher priority. After all, Jesus never said to Martha, “Just sit and listen and I’ll take care of the meal.” She would have had to sit down without any assurance that the meal would happen. She would have had to say, “Even if it doesn’t happen and I look like a fool in front of all these people, I would rather spend time with Jesus.” This seems like radical faith to me – letting go of all the things that keep life together and being with Jesus instead. It is in the midst of this kind of radical faith that God provides. We have the promise that God will provide – He shows that over and over in His word. We, however, have to prioritize our relationship with Him. What is the most important thing? It is spending time with God: listening, learning, growing, and simply being in His presence.
I think Martha realized this as well. The next time recorded in the Bible that Jesus went to their house was when Lazarus had died. When she spoke to Jesus, she gave a simple but profound confession of her faith in Jesus as the Messiah. She accepted Jesus’ new definition of what was the best. She called for him, trusted in his provision, and confessed her faith in him.
While there may be other “Marys” out there who already have this radical faith, I am glad to have the example of Martha, where I can learn the value of putting aside even the things that are important in order to grow in faith by spending time with Christ and trusting in his provision.