Mary and Martha: Celebrating the Gifts of Others

by Janet Galante, Molly Kate Hance | April 30, 2020

I want to begin this morning with a story about my family, a story about my sister and me. My sister is younger than me, and I’m proud of her. Well, most of the time. I’m usually an awesome big sister, and I brag on her until I drive people crazy, but every once in a while, I get a little more jealous than I’d like to admit. This story happened on a Mother’s Day weekend. My dad gathered my sister, brother, and me on the Friday night before Mother’s Day. He told us he would get Mom out of the house all day Saturday and it would be our job to top-to-bottom clean the house for her. 

The next morning, my dad took my mom out to run some errands, and my siblings and I leapt to work, making sure the house was spotless. Our spirits were high, but quickly, on that May Saturday morning, it became apparent that my little sister was absolutely lapping me. Every time I looked at my phone, or paused for a break, or even grabbed a glass of water, she had started a new task.

This continued until about three p.m. As I went to get a load of laundry from the dryer, I noticed her conspicuous absence. My perfect sister had stopped helping me around the house to read a book she had to finish by Monday morning for her English class. My friends, you have never seen a stack of towels so sanctimoniously folded as the stack I folded that day! Even though my sister had done more work than I could ever do that morning, and even though I knew this load of laundry was a gift to my wonderful mother, I was creasing linens with a vengeance. My perfect little sister had left me to finish the work by myself, and by the time my mom arrived home, I was in no mood to celebrate.

I don’t know if you’ve ever done that, if you’ve ever taken on a task with excitement but, by the end of it, felt overwrought and frustrated with every person in the room, but this problem is an old one. In fact, in Luke 10, Jesus encounters two sisters, much like my sister and me, getting the house ready to celebrate someone.

Here’s how the story begins:

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 few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38–42 NIV)

I love this passage, but it has some problems. There’s a problem with the text and there’s a problem in the text.

The Problem with the Story

There’s a problem with this text because nobody seems to agree on what we’re intended to learn from this story. Preparing this sermon over the past few weeks, I have felt like every book about this story offers a different point of view or take-away. Some authors believe we’re supposed to see this story as a comparison between faith and works—Mary represents faith, while Martha tries to earn her salvation with works. Some commentaries suggest this story is pointing out the difference between a good woman and a bad woman—Mary is the good, faithful, focused woman, and Martha is a woman too distracted with domestic things. One book even says that Martha, who is in charge of the house, represents a married woman, distracted with the things of this world, while Mary represents a single woman who cares for the things of the Lord. This author reads the story as a criticism of marriage!

You’ll notice, a lot of these interpretations involve pitting these women against each other. This type of woman compared to that type of woman. Which type is better? These interpretations prompt us to pick sides.

Since this text has many possible interpretations, it probably inspires different reactions from all of you too. When you heard me say we’re going to talk about Mary and Martha, some of you might have cringed. Maybe you’ve heard a message on this before that you didn’t appreciate. Or maybe you were excited that we’re talking about this text—you love talking about Mary and Martha and you learn a lot from them!

We all have different reactions to this passage because we connect with it differently. Some of us connect more with Martha and her gifts and reactions. Maybe you agree that it’s annoying when others are sitting around and you’re doing all the work. But others of us connect more with Mary and her behavior. It’s good that she’s taking a break. How wonderful that she gets to sit at the feet of Jesus and learn!

All of this shows us that there’s a problem with this text: People can’t decide what the most important lesson in this story is.

The Problem in the Story

And then there’s the second problem, the problem in the text. If you have sisters, you already know this problem. The text presents two sisters welcoming the Lord into their home, and they’re arguing! Now, of course, brothers argue too—but my perspective is as a woman and a sister, and I feel the tension in this story.

Martha is snapping at Mary, trying to get Jesus to correct Mary. Jesus instead corrects Martha. And it quickly become clear that there’s a problem in this story.

The Problem Isn’t Martha Working.

I’ll tell you what the problem can’t be. First, the problem is not Martha’s hospitality.

It’s good that Martha welcomed Jesus into her home! Her hospitality is a wonderful gift! This passage is set in the middle of a section, chs. 9–19 of Luke, that features stories about hospitality. There’s no way that Jesus is now turning the tables to say that hospitality is bad.

Jesus has actually taught earlier in this same chapter about how his ministry—the spread of the gospel—depends on others welcoming him and his disciples into their homes.

And now Jesus comes, needing to be welcomed by someone, and Martha stands ready to do just that. This story shows Martha as someone who offers Jesus a place and feeds him.

This tells us the problem is not that Martha is in the kitchen. Martha is going to great effort to welcome her honored guest, and these actions are a mark of discipleship and obedience. She’s opening her home as Jesus instructed others to. Martha has been blessed with the honor of welcoming Jesus into her home, and she has proven to be equal to this task.

No, the problem with this text is not Martha’s work, and the problem is not that she’s in the kitchen.

The Problem Isn’t Mary Learning.

We also know that Mary’s study is not the problem. Jesus explicitly says that what Mary is doing is good. It’s easy to take this for granted, so I want to take a moment to acknowledge that Jesus’s affirmation of Mary is radical. N. T. Wright, a prominent New Testament scholar, says that the most important thing we can learn from this affirmation is that Jesus makes room for women to hear, learn, and teach his message. He explains that, in Mary’s day, when you sat at the feet of a teacher, you were a student of that teacher. And if you were a student of that teacher, that meant you would someday be a teacher yourself.1 But in Mary’s day, this spot at the teacher’s feet was reserved for men. But not with Jesus. Here, Jesus insists that it is good for a woman to listen and prepare to teach, so we know that Mary is not the problem.

The Problem Is Judgment and Shame.

But still, we sense a problem in this story when Martha turns to Jesus and demands, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” (v. 40 NIV). And we sense a problem when Jesus responds, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her” (vv. 41–42 NIV).

This story is one of those that, the more I read it, the less comfortable I become with it. Every time I read it, some of the words grate on me. I can hear Martha’s voice, “Lord, don’t you care?” Doesn’t anyone care that I’m in here, slaving away all by myself, while my own sister slacks off. I can hear Martha, getting more and more frustrated the longer she talks, and I can hear Jesus, almost baffled, gently admonishing, “Martha, Martha—you’re distracted. You’re worried and upset. Even though Mary is doing a good thing, you’re asking me to send her to help you? I am your Lord, Jesus, in your living room, and you want me to join you in criticizing your sister?”

The Problem with Myself

Perhaps the real reason I can’t get comfortable reading and talking about this text is not the problem with the story or in the story. Perhaps the problem is with me? Every time I read it, I see a little too much of myself in it. I know this problem all too well because, so often, it’s mine.

I remember when my sister and I were on a mission trip in Mexico, helping build a house for a family. One afternoon I was putting insulation on the walls. The sun was beating down on me. I’m sure I was a bit dehydrated. Time was running out—we only had four days to build this family a home. Then, I looked up and saw my sister playing with neighborhood children, chatting happily and letting them play with her hair. I was fuming. I was physically exhausted while she sat in the shade getting her hair done. You can bet I tracked her down later to call her out on playing with kids while the rest of us did all the hard work!

The problem wasn’t that I was putting up insulation. The problem wasn’t that she was playing with kids. The problem was my attitude toward her service.

I don’t have to look back all the way to that trip to Mexico. The same problem is as close as the laundry room I mentioned earlier, how angry I was to be working alone, how angry I was at my sister for working differently—in a different room.

You see, the problem isn’t Martha in the kitchen, cooking Jesus’s meal, and the problem isn’t Mary at Jesus’s feet, studying Jesus’s words. The problem is that Martha is so worried and upset and frustrated at having to work by herself that she forgets she has Jesus in her living room. The problem comes when Martha diminishes Mary’s task and shames Mary herself.

Martha comes into the living room, hands on her hips, tapping her foot, demanding, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” When Jesus is in the living room, Martha knows, you get in the kitchen. If you really love the Lord, you start cooking! And it is to this attitude that Jesus responds. Jesus rebukes Martha for shaming the way Mary serves him. Jesus stops Martha from claiming that there is only one right way to respond to Jesus in the living room.

I know, it sounds silly when Martha says it. Of course, we think, if Jesus is in your house, you need people to listen and people to cook. If Jesus is in the living room, you need someone to prepare his meal and you need someone to study everything he says. I know, it sounds silly here for Martha to claim there is only one right way to respond to Jesus in the living room. But we can do this, church! In fact, it’s easy to do this. Think about it, we can get up on Sunday morning to serve in the nursery and find ourselves grumbling about all the people still in bed. We can start cooking dinner for high schoolers, only to find ourselves pursing our lips at every cold oven in the city. We can stay late to clean up after an event, and find ourselves huffing, our minds stuck entirely on the people already home with their families.

And this temptation to shame should come as no surprise to us. We see this throughout our culture. On social media, we feel the burden of shame and become voices of shame, viewing each other’s celebratory posts with bitterness. We shame each other’s jobs and skills and passions.

Men do it, and women do it. Our culture has a habit of pitting women against each other. We judge each other for the way we dress: “Why would you wear that? That doesn’t look good at all. You should wear things that I think are stylish.” Women shame each other for when they have children: “When I was your age, I had three kids. You should get started. You’re a bit behind.”

Friends, there are so many tempting voices of shame around us, and it’s easy to bring these into the church. It’s easy for your love of what you do and where you serve to become twisted, to become a belief that you’re serving the right way, and everyone else is serving the wrong way.

And very quickly, we find this does something to our hearts. You see, if you believe the way you serve Jesus is the only right way to serve Jesus, you can look around at a room full of people, and the only thing you see about them is that they’re not doing what you’re doing. All you can do is throw up your hands in frustration and demand, like Martha, “Lord, can’t you see they’re not helping?”

But that’s not what Jesus sees, and it’s not what he calls us to see either. When Jesus looks at Mary, he doesn’t see hands that should be in the kitchen; he sees someone doing exactly what he has prepared her to do. Jesus sees a student, preparing to be a teacher. He sees someone serving with their God-given gifts. And today, church, when Jesus looks at the people who didn’t come early or stay late at the event that we were sure was of utmost importance, I think there’s a good chance he sees the same thing he sees when he looks at Mary. He sees how he has uniquely gifted people in different ways, to serve in different arenas. Friends, Jesus sees the work he has uniquely prepared for them, and there’s a good chance it’s not in the ministry we’ve decided is the frontline of the gospel push.

There’s a way to serve and to celebrate our own opportunities for service without shaming and diminishing where others sit, and it starts by looking at Martha’s house.

In all of human history, only a tiny handful of people have been privileged to have Jesus in their living rooms, and Martha is one of them. Martha gets to serve her God in the most tangible way, to cook his dinner and wash his dish and offer seconds to the Lord of the universe! She is blessed to serve her God with the gift she has been given, the way she has been designed to.

But here’s the thing: Mary does too. In all of human history, only a tiny fraction of people have had Jesus in their living rooms, and Mary is one of them! Mary gets to serve her God in the most tangible way. She gets to hear his intonation, to mull his words over, to pepper him with every star-student question on her heart. She gets to serve her God with the gift she has been given, the way she has been designed to.

This is what Jesus meant when he told Martha that Mary had chosen the better thing (v. 42). We know he didn’t mean that Martha’s service was wrong—Jesus loves and honors and commands hospitality! But maybe he did mean that Martha’s service would be wrong for Mary, that Mary was designed and gifted for something different from Martha.

Again, Martha sounds so strange, so ironic! How could you shame someone for choosing what they were made for? Not only is such judgment, such shame, ironic, it’s distracting. The text says, “Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made” (v. 40 NIV), but her attitude ends up being the ultimate distraction. Avoiding shame distracts her so much that she actually stops working. Martha can’t even serve Jesus because she’s so distracted judging what her sister is doing.

What Motivates Our Service?

My heart hurts for Martha. I feel like I understand her. See, Martha was around before Paul, so maybe she never heard what I take for granted, such as what Paul says in Eph 2:10: “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (NIV).

Maybe no one ever told her, or maybe, like I do so often, she’d forgotten that she couldn’t work her way into receiving Jesus. Maybe she had forgotten that she wasn’t doing this on her own. Maybe she had forgotten this good work was prepared in advance for her.

She is distracted and has forgotten, like I forget, that every chance to serve at church or in our city or in our homes is a gift and an honor, given to us by a God who chooses to work through us. God chooses to work by giving Martha gifts and real, meaningful, precious chances to use them. She forgets that they are gifts, and she forgets that Mary too has received gifts. She forgets that when we are receiving the work prepared for us, it’s not time for shame. It’s time for celebration, of her own gifts and opportunities, and of Mary’s too.

And if you’re here this morning, and you’ve forgotten, or maybe you haven’t heard, let me tell you, God has given you gifts too. Real, unique, and precious gifts, and he’s set before you opportunities and communities where there are good works prepared for only you to do. And the people in the rows beside you, God has given them gifts and work to do, and they are almost certainly different from yours. Jesus has gifts for you, and it’s not time for shame. It’s time for celebration!

Elsewhere in the NT, in 1 Cor 12, we see a picture of how God gives this gift:

There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.

Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. (1 Cor 12:4–7 NIV)

Friends, our service is a gift, and it’s a gift that’s been given not only to us, but to every single person in our church and our city. That gift looks different in each person’s hands, but it’s the same gift. 1 Cor 12 goes on:

Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.

Now if the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body. (1 Cor 12:12–20 NIV)

If you think tangibly about what it would take to host Jesus in an actual, real-life living room, you quickly find you need a lot of people. You need some Marthas, people who are excellent at hospitality to cook the dinner and set the table! But you also need some Marys, to sit with him and talk with him and study his words. And you’re going to need a lot more people too. You’re going to need some Joes who can call everyone in town and say, “Jesus is here!” and get them to the party. You’re going to need some Sarahs who can get to the store and pick up everything you need. This party is going to be big, so you’ll need some Henrys to clean up the back rooms and the garages and the yards so there’s room for everyone. You’ll need some Alisons to provide the music and some Johns to show people where to park and put their coats. You’re going to need some Bens to hang the streamers and some Kathys to pick out the tablecloths—you’re going to need a lot of people with different, unique, and essential gifts to host Jesus in the living room. When Jesus is in the living room, there’s no time to shame anyone for the way they’re serving. When Jesus is in the living room, we’ve got to live out of our gifting and celebrate, thanking God that he’s sent us people who can do everything we can’t.

Jesus in Our Living Room

If you’re here this morning, maybe you’re Martha. Maybe you figured out the kind of work you were made to do a long time ago, and you’ve been as faithful as you can be in doing it—that’s awesome. But you’ve got to be careful. Because when you get really good at what you do, you can forget that it’s a gift.

But maybe you’re Mary. Maybe somebody has told you that people like you aren’t blessed with good work to do. Maybe somebody has made you feel ill-equipped, or underprepared, or unsure where you fit. Well, just like Mary, you’ve got Jesus in your living room too, and he’s got a place for you. It might not look like somebody else’s, but it is just as good and necessary and powerful.

Colossians 3:17 puts it this way: “whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (NIV).

Church, Jesus is in our living room. Whatever we do, in word or deed, we get to do it for him. He’s crafted what we do, what we’re good at, and who we fundamentally are into his mission. There’s no time for shame, friends. When Jesus is in the living room, it is time to celebrate the gifts of others!

Notes

This sermon was jointly written and has been preached by both authors. The form presented here is a combination of the two original versions.

1. N. T. Wright, Luke for Everyone, 2nd ed. (Westminster Joh  n Knox, 2004) 131.