38Now it came to pass, as they went, that he entered into a certain village: and a certain woman named Martha received him into her house. 39And she had a sister called Mary, which also sat at Jesus' feet, and heard his word. 40But Martha was cumbered about much serving, and came to him, and said, Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone? bid her therefore that she help me. 41And Jesus answered and said unto her, Martha, Martha, thou art careful [anxious] and troubled [disturbed] about many things: 42But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.
– Luke 10:38-42
This short passage reveals much about what is wrong in the church today. It reveals that there are many who want to serve God, but that they want to serve him in their own way and in their own time. Eventual frustration leads them to seek approval and recognition at another’s expense in an attempt to bolster their own importance: the idea being that what they’re doing is more important than what you’re doing; and so their suggestion to you is to drop what you’re doing and join them in what they’re doing. But let’s have a closer look.
Martha was a very hospitable woman, and Jesus loved them all (Jn. 11:5). But note that Martha tried to please our Lord but also note that she didn't know how. There was nothing inherently wrong with what she was doing, but there’s a time to serve and then there’s a time to serve by sitting and learning; and on this occasion, Mary had made the better choice. But Martha couldn’t discern this, and so she turned to Jesus for help.
But why didn’t Martha ask Mary herself? She could have. She should have. Maybe she did. She was sitting right there. But Mary was so focused on Jesus that she either didn’t notice or thought that whatever needed to be done could be done later. Martha may have asked, and Mary could have replied that she’d be there “in a minute” – only to have that minute last a little longer than Martha’s patience could endure. But for whatever reason, it’s apparent that Martha was frustrated with Mary – so frustrated that she tried to get Jesus to compel her to stop listening and help.
But Jesus’ response was immediate and corrective. Martha’s request implied there was something wrong with Mary, but Jesus quickly responded that the only person in the room with a problem was her. He told her that she was anxious and disturbed about many things; that she had a lot of “outstanding issues” and that she was a basket case with nothing but a head full of trouble – to put it in the modern vernacular. The strength and candor of his response shows that he himself was perturbed with Martha’s actions – else it wouldn’t have warranted such a strong reaction. It shows that the situation had been building. Martha had in one way or another kept interrupting their conversation and Jesus had finally had enough, and so when she asked for him to get Mary to help her, it was the final straw; and he let her have it… and he did it in front of others.
This of course wasn’t what she wanted to hear. Scripture doesn’t record her response, if any, but it must have been one of stunned silence. In appealing to Jesus she was hoping to have a respected authority acknowledge her good works; thereby implying that she was correct in all that she was doing, but Jesus wouldn’t have any of it. Had he complimented her, she would have taken all the glory. Many times preachers want to do all of the work themselves so they can receive all of the glory; but when their bodies start breaking down or their efforts seem fruitless, frustration invariably leads them to cry out and accuse others – all in the name of God of course. This kind of restlessness is that of the heart and it cannot and will not be satisfied through achievement; so sometimes less is more.
Martha was a Christian girl but she was consumed by her problems – whatever they may have been. This passage and others leaves one with the impression that Martha was overly concerned with the things of this world with little or no thought for the eternal; and that’s why she couldn’t perceive that Mary had made the better choice to sit at Jesus’ feet. Martha lacked discernment. So when Jesus told her that Mary had made the better decision, it must have come as a shock.
Martha wanted to serve, but she wanted to serve God according to her own understanding: she wanted to please God her way. But her “good works” actually keep her from learning about God and how to please him. So something can be “good” but not right. She was “[en] cumbered” meaning that she must have been taking more upon herself than she should have. Jesus said that his yoke was easy and that his burden was light (Mt. 11:28-30), but evidently she didn’t make it to church that day.
Martha was probably the oldest of the three siblings, but it seems that she may have crossed the line between being an older caring sister to one of trying to be the matriarch of the family. As the eldest sibling this is somewhat natural, but it must also be tempered with the realization that she isn’t their mother – she’s only their older sister. Jesus was friends with this family and so it leaves one with the impression that they were somewhat close in age. This means that they were all adults, but it also seems that Martha was “mothering” over them.
Mary, on the other hand, had decided to focus upon one thing and that one thing would NOT be sacrificed to accomplish the many other things that Martha wanted her to do. Jesus told her that “one” thing was needful, not “many.” But her busyness didn’t allow time for her to do the “one thing” that was needful, which was to sit and receive instruction.
But did Martha ever learn her lesson?
About a year later, Jesus again visits Mary and Martha just before entering into Jerusalem for the final time. When he arrives, Martha serves dinner. She’s still serving. But Mary takes some expensive oil and breaks it over Jesus’ head; thus anointing him for his burial; and once again her actions are called into question; but this time it’s the disciples who are mumbling: Judas Iscariot in particular (cp. Mt. 26:6-12; Mk. 14:3-9; Jn. 12:1-8). Judas complained that the oil should have been sold and the money given to the poor; but Scripture reveals that he was a thief and a robber and so he was only in the ministry for what he could get out of it: money – something of which we’re commanded to avoid (1 Tim. 3:3, 8; Tit. 1:7, 11; 1 Pet. 5:2 etc.).
But as a result of sitting at Jesus’ feet, Mary has perceived what’s about to happen. She understands that Jesus is the lamb slain from the foundation of the world and that he’s about to die upon the cross for our sins. This in turn evoked a repudiation of all that was worldly in an attempt to bring honor to the Lord (pouring out of the expensive oil). But she knows this because she’s been sitting at Jesus’ feet – learning. (The disciples had been sitting at his feet too, but apparently they were slow learners.)
But do you see the progression here? Mary’s own immediate family members couldn’t see that she was pleasing to the Lord nor could the disciples. Worse, there was a false brother in their midst stirring them up by bringing about false accusation under the guise of piety and the care for others (2 Tim. 3:3; Tit. 2:3). Judas was accusing them both of being wasteful and selfish. Typical. Man is always looking to find fault with God – for such is the weakness of the flesh.
But if this happened to Mary, it can happen to us. Often times it’s our close family members and the members of our churches who understand our walk with the Lord the least. They’re often in leadership positions, they constitute the majority, and they’re busy doing the most things; but neither are they pleasing God – although in their self-deception they believe they are. They can’t discern that their actions are wrong no more than they can discern that yours are right. Neither can they discern the false brethren in their own midst. Why? Because they haven’t been sitting at Jesus’ feet!
But did you notice how quick Jesus was to defend Mary? Jesus said that one thing was needful and that it wouldn’t be taken from her; and this is true for us as well. If we’re willing to sit at Jesus’ feet, he’ll reveal more of himself to us just like he did Mary. But this is also where many falter. We start sitting and then the persecution comes. Our accusers are in the majority and they’re often prominent; but we all have to make a choice as to whether we’re going to endure the shame or succumb to the pressure (Mt. 19:27-30).
But how does all of this apply to the Church?
I’ve already thrown out a couple of hints, but let’s briefly sum up Martha’s actions – bearing in mind that her attitude and disposition is representative of your average church and preacher.
§ Martha wanted to serve God but didn’t know how.
§ Martha was busy doing and caring about all the wrong things.
§ Martha’s busy schedule didn’t allow time for godly instruction.
§ Martha was encompassed and plagued by many personal troubles although she was doing many things.
§ Martha couldn’t perceive or discern the work and will of Christ in her own life let alone his will and purpose for others.
§ Martha was completely convinced that she was doing the right thing and had no idea that she was in complete and full error. Thus, she was spiritually blind and deceived.
§ Martha found fault in people who were doing the right things.
§ Martha (and the disciples) also found fault with Jesus (uncaring, wasteful, selfish).
§ Martha sought vindication for her own actions at the expense of others.
§ Martha saw her own works as being more important than the work of others; i.e. pride. She was up working while Mary was down (sitting at Jesus’ feet).
§ Martha never seemed to learn her lesson.
Most pastors know that if people are involved then they’re more likely to stay. They don’t want to lose members ($) and so they want you to be actively engaged in some facet of the ministry as a demonstration of your faith – that’s the spin anyway. This usually means submitting to whatever they want you to do and involving you in something of which God has no interest. But their motives are wrong and so their efforts are ultimately doomed to failure; but in the meantime they can cause a whole lot of agony, grief, and sorrow. They tried it with Mary; they’ll try it with you – even if Jesus is sitting right there! They’ll try and get you to stop listening to God in an effort to get you to start listening to them because they think that they have the mind of God when they don’t; and if you “rebel” they’ll marginalize you.
Of course the assumption here is that you’re actually hearing from God. The other side of the coin is that we’re to submit ourselves to authority; but submission doesn’t infer blind obedience, either. Being different just to be different for difference sake is nothing more than a prelude to rebellion; and so this is not encouraging individualism; it’s encouraging discipleship. So what churches should do with new converts is to have them "sit" instead of putting them to work. (And when I say discipleship I’m not talking about some lame newcomers class!) Unfortunately, this seldom occurs.
But, admittedly, getting caught up in the work of the ministry is easy to do no matter who you are. This often occurs at the individual level, but with your average church the problem is systemic because they've embraced a corporate mentality that feeds into the religiosity that believes that “God needs our hands.” No he doesn’t. God needs nothing and wants us to do nothing except to sit and learn of him so that when the time does come to serve, we'll have something to offer. Yes. We will be led to do good works – not for salvation, but in appreciation and of a sincere desire to minister to others – in whatever capacity. But to truly be productive we must first sit at his feet. Selah.