During the Baptist Women In Ministry Mentoring Program Retreat in January, Bianca Robinson Howard, Julie Long, and Dorisanne Cooper shared reflections on Mary and Martha. Their words were powerful for the women at the mentoring retreat, so we gladly share these reflections to the BWIM blog.

“Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”” (Luke 10:38-42, NRSV)

In many sermons, Sunday School lessons, and other interpretations of this Luke 10 passage, Martha is set up as the negative example, the one not to be. But as one who tends to act more like Martha than Mary most of the time, I want to defend Martha a little. I know what her gifts can be. I know how much she’s needed.

It was Martha who opened up her home to Jesus, offering the radical hospitality that he talked about. It was Martha who filled his hungry belly. Martha was the one who provided the space for Mary’s encounter with Jesus to happen.

Martha provides the ministry of making space. The ministry of making space is an important one.
Table fellowship cannot happen if no one has cooked the meal. The missions offering can be collected but it will not make a difference to the people it’s meant to serve unless someone delivers it. Worshippers may not find sanctuary if no one has bothered to cut on the heat and the lights, and they can’t experience the beauty of an anthem if the choir has not rehearsed, and they cannot remember Jesus through the taste of the bread and juice if the elements have not been bought and prepared.

Martha is the one who misses the choir’s Christmas production because no one else wanted to keep the nursery that day. Martha directs Vacation Bible School every year. If you want to know where the Christmas decorations are stored or how to run the industrial dishwasher in the church kitchen, ask Martha. You can count on Martha to always show up with a casserole.

Martha’s strength is taking the lead where action is required. She wants the job done well, and she is infuriated when she counts on someone else and they drop the ball.

You know her. You, too, may be a lot like her. And you give thanks to God for her because Sacred moments that take place in sacred spaces because of Martha.

You know these things, and surely Jesus does, too. So what does he mean by seemingly reprimanding Martha? Is he not appreciative of all that she does?

A few interesting things to consider about this story and this relationship:
•I think it’s helpful for us to consider the context of this story. This story comes right after Good Samaritan story, in which Jesus has shown us the importance of taking action. “Go and do likewise,” he says. And then, in the story of Martha and Mary, Jesus affirms Mary’s desire to sit and be attentive to the Word. “This is the better part,” he says. So which is it?

We need both stories. The model for the disciple is found in the juxtaposition of the two. Disciples often need more discrimination, not more vigorous effort.

• When Jesus responds to Martha’s complaint about Mary’s unhelpfulness, surely he’s not unappreciative of all she has done. He doesn’t criticize Martha’s active service. Rather, he focuses on the fact that she is “anxious and troubled about many things.” Her service is “distracted,” and it is this anxious, driven service that Jesus contrasts with “the one thing that is needful,” which is Mary’s attentiveness.

Jesus doesn’t say Martha is to abandon her work. But he does invite her to center her life. This is not a story about the supremacy of a life of prayer over a life of action. It’s an invitation to move from being distracted to being attentive—in our prayer as well as in our action.
When we busy ourselves out of our fear or anxiety or jealousy or a need to control, we have come off center. Jesus was inviting Martha to reconsider why she was doing what she was doing and to realign.

• Jesus may have been encouraging Martha to step out of the box that she found herself in. Martha is fulfilling the role assigned to her by society. In contrast, “By sitting at Jesus’ feet, Mary is acting like a male. She neglects her duty to assist her sister in the preparation of the meal and violates a clear social boundary. Jesus allows Mary to claim the same role that the disciples later claim for themselves – not to leave the ministry of the word to serve tables.

To love God with all one’s heart and one’s neighbor as oneself meant then and now that one must often reject society’s rules in favor of the codes of the kingdom. Perhaps Jesus was empowering Martha to break the rules and follow Jesus’ example.

There’s nothing wrong with “everything in its place” and “wanting a well-run household,” is there? No, there’s not. But when the process or the product become more important than the people served, Martha has become unhealthy. This is what Jesus reminds Martha of.

Julie Long is associate pastor and minister of children and families at the First Baptist Church of Christ at Macon, Georgia