May 12, 2024

Martha or Mary?

A Bible story that, if they admitted it, most women don’t appreciate.

Merle Poirier
Photo by Sage Friedman on Unsplash

My daughter had her first baby almost a year ago. She began taking the baby to Sabbath school within weeks after her birth. Our church has a wonderful beginner’s program for ages 0 to 24 months, complete with songs, felts, waving flags, and seasonal themes during which the children are first exposed to Jesus. The room is brightly decorated and filled with parents (and grandparents). When the baby was about 3 months old, she called me.

“The program is cute, and the baby loves it!” she exclaimed. “But I realized that before she was born, I was spiritually fed through my own devotional study; attending an adult Bible discussion class; and listening to sermons. I was reading multiple books for Christian encouragement. All of that has completely vanished! My devotional time is taken up with baby care; I haven’t listened to a full sermon since she was born; and what happens in her Sabbath school, while good for her, isn’t enough for me.” I didn’t say it, but thought it: Welcome to motherhood.

My older daughter has two boys. She has spent the past six years in the same younger Sabbath schools. Parents with three, four, or more children can be in beginner Sabbath schools for 10-plus years, where the theology for children is great, but doesn’t often go deeper than “Jesus loves me” and Creation.

Sitting Versus Doing

There’s a story in Luke that doesn’t mention babies or Sabbath school, but it hits home at this dilemma unique to those who care for children. In Luke 10 Jesus, along with His disciples, arrived at the home of Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. It’s a place Jesus found welcoming, restful, and open to His teachings. Martha was in the kitchen fixing the meal. Mary was seated at Jesus’ feet listening, when we come to this verse: “But Martha was distracted with much serving, and she approached Him and said, ‘Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Therefore tell her to help me’ ” (Luke 10:40).

I have yet to find a woman who likes this story. All of us have had those moments in the kitchen when we’re doing all the work and everyone else is watching the game or visiting in the living room or playing outside. And all of us at one time or another have banged a few pans, slammed a few cupboards, or rattled some silverware to hopefully send a message. We don’t like this story because we completely understand Martha’s complaint, and Jesus sides with Mary. Or does He?

Jesus’ response to Martha was kind in tone. “Martha, Martha,” He began. Note that He didn’t tell her to stop preparing the meal. Martha was a gifted host. She had a welcoming home, which is why we find Jesus there. In preparing the meal for Him and those with Him, she was serving, using her gift of hospitality. It’s exactly what we are all called to do with whatever gifts we are given. But beware: service should be out of our love for Jesus. And this is what Jesus references. It wasn’t what Martha was doing, but her attitude toward Mary. As she worked, she compared what she was doing to what someone else was not doing, causing grumbling and, like us, perhaps banging a few jars in the process.

Mary, on the other hand, was sitting at the feet of Jesus. When Jesus responded to Martha, He chose an interesting word. He told Martha that “Mary has chosen that good part” (verse 42). The Greek word used for “part” is merida, and some believe it was used here in reference to a meal. When it’s understood this way, Jesus didn’t say Mary chose better, but that while Martha was busy preparing, Mary was “eating,” and what she ate couldn’t be taken away. Like us, the meals we eat are soon over and gone (literally), but our spiritual meals stay with us forever. In other words, while Martha was preparing a banquet, Mary was feasting at one. Martha was serving Jesus, but Mary was learning from Him. Just as we need to use our gifts in service, we also need to sit at the feet of Jesus.

Discovering Our Inner Mary

Can you see the tension? It’s what my daughter is discovering. Women, especially mothers, are consumed with service. Raising children in the Lord is the ultimate service one can give, and we need to give our all. In this we excel in Martha, but we also need some Mary. Serving and learning. Doing and sitting. Jesus didn’t pick one sister over the other. He called Martha to discover her inner Mary. And we can assume Mary was encouraged to practice a bit of Martha.

It isn’t easy. It takes some practice and perhaps a little patience, too. While it may appear in the text that Jesus was scolding Martha, she did listen to Him. We know this because when we see Martha again, it’s at the event of her brother’s death (John 11). When she heard that Jesus was coming, she left her guests to go to Him. Martha, the annoyed host consumed with feeding her guests in the first story, leaves her guests to seek Jesus in the second. And while she reproved Jesus for staying away, she affirmed His resurrection power, acknowledging Him as the Son of God (verse 27). Martha got the message.

So whom do you most identify with—Martha or Mary? Let’s practice ways to balance our Martha and Mary because both—those who serve and those who learn—are who Jesus wants us to be.