May I suggest that a closer look at the story may clear some things up about Martha, and that Jesus did not intend a blanket vilification of who Martha was? Here is the oft-retold story from the book of Luke.
“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
In the next verse, everyone is situated in Martha’s home, and Jesus is sitting with everyone, except that Martha is busy with meal preparations. Mary has left the kitchen and is with Jesus. Martha has become irritated. There is no Biblical statement here that Martha is always irritated, that she has no interest in sitting at Jesus’ feet, or that what she is doing is innately bad or sinful. It may be possible that she is feeling left-out, and deeply desires to be next to Mary, spending time with Jesus. Like many of us, she thinks that she is “(choosing) what is better.”
Martha is doing what she thinks she should be doing
to serve her Master.
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.”
This version says that Martha’s complaint is not that Mary did not help at all, but that Martha was left to “serve alone.” Perhaps Mary did help with the preparations, but then did not follow through to see things cleaned up and put away, as Martha believed she would. Given this perspective, her disappointment, her “being pulled in different directions” makes even more sense. She is authentically frustrated that she is missing the “Kick off” of the Big Game, so to speak.
Martha’s wrong assumptions about how she would best please Jesus, and how she had failed to thus far “(choose) what is better,” is not so far-fetched. In general, Jesus is very encouraging about having a servant’s heart. When He washes His disciples feet, He says:
"You call me 'Teacher' and 'Lord,' and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another's feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them." (John 13:13-17)
Paul also teaches wholeheartedly about serving, further reflecting Jesus’ teachings;
"We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man's gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith. If it is serving, let him serve...." (Romans 12:6-7)
"Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving." (Colossians 3:23-24)
In Romans 12:13, we are told to “practice hospitality.” Martha is not doing anything horrible. She is not doing what is best. Her frustration is authentic, but her words seem harsh, demanding, and even immature. She reverts back to childhood sibling behavior, and pleads; “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself?” She is bold because she clearly thinks that she is doing what is required of her.
We are told to “practice hospitality.” Martha is not doing anything horrible. She is not doing what is best.
Jesus acknowledges the burden that she feels; “you are worried and upset about many things,” validating her feelings. Then He corrects her. He does not scold her; He lets her off of the hook. He takes the burden from her and gives her freedom to do what her sister has done; “but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
Jesus’ love for both sisters comes through when He defends Mary. It is possible that his defense of Mary is proof to Martha that it would truly be acceptable, and even better, to put down the salad bowl, to tell people that the meal is turning into a buffet, and to sit down next to Mary at His feet.
Jesus has given Martha permission to give her worries to Him by sitting in His presence and trusting Him to take care of what seems is being neglected. He never scolds her for serving. He does, however, correct her for judging her sister. It is that same big brother, little brother situation seen in the story of the Prodigal Son. The oldest child feels that the younger child is getting better treatment. The reality is that all that the Father has, was there for both siblings, all along. This can be a revelation for all older siblings, throughout Scripture, and throughout time.
Martha’s story teaches us that time with Jesus is the best thing. Matthew 6:33 tells us, “ But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.” Martha had not yet learned this.
She had not yet learned that God is not impressed with works alone. She needed to understand that He should be our first priority, that He wants a relationship with us. Martha could have been the hostess who never visited with her guest. Her Guest made sure that did not happen.
Martha could have been the hostess who never visited with her guest. Her Guest made sure that did not happen.
The story of Mary and Martha should not leave us feeling condemned, unappreciated or scolded. It should leave us feeling loved, drawn into His presence and set free. Henceforth, may this story be one of affirmation and acceptance to each us, whether we be more like Mary, or Martha. We have all been given permission to sit at His feet.