Here we come to yet another Parable in Life—a historical situation with a metaphor embedded in it, just like any good story. Jesus is resolutely on his way (travel motif) to Jerusalem to face the Passion (suffering servant motif), so this scene is part of that larger setting. The time is left vague to draw us all in. “He came to a village”—the place is left vague also. This is ANYMAN going ANYWHERE.
Then we meet our character-types: Martha and Mary. The first thing we find out is that Martha open her home to him, a contrast with the Samaritans who have just rejected him. Once again, Jesus will not stay where he is not welcome, but he will go wherever he is invited in. It’s also notable at this point to recognize that Jesus welcomes women followers—not exactly a common practice in his day. But Jesus gives dignity where dignity is due, not just according to society’s rules. One more note before we go on: You’ll notice the women and men surrounding Jesus in almost every story are people who are predominantly not in what we would call normal family settings. Here two women and their brother live together, with apparently no spouses. Think about the others Jesus interacts with: the Samaritan woman at the well, Joanne, Susannah, the Canaanite mother with the demon-possessed daughter, Mary Magdalene—none of them is accompanied by a spouse. Perhaps spinsters, widows, women who have been deserted by their husbands or divorced, all find a special place in the group of people following Jesus. He ACCEPTS them, and gives them a place. He’s a fascinating guy, I tell you.
Anyway, she invited him in. Now, hostessing is a lot of work—he brings a retinue with him. After all, there were 16 people coming for dinner, and one of them was perfect. She, in her labor, symbolizes and represents the best display of work and devotion there can be. She is the archetype of dedication and ministry.
In comes character-type #2: Mary. She “sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said.” Before we go further, we have to point out a few things here as well. Here Jesus gives one of the clearest examples of what “headship” means: he honored women and treated them with respect and dignity. It was almost unheard of for a woman in the 1st century to be accepted by a teacher as a disciple. Jesus allows this. It would have shocked people in their culture. But he still observes proprieties. There is nothing romantic here, nor could it ever be construed that way.
She “sat at his feet.” Kings and prophets dreamed to do what she is doing. This is the most enviable positions of history and of the universe, in my opinion. The world should stop to sit at his feet. What I wouldn’t give to do this—to be there. Sell everything you have and buy that field, to get that pearl. I’m envious. She is the archetype of dedication, but in a completely different way. The tension in the story is building, as far as plot and plot conflict go.
“Martha is distracted by all the preparations…” Here’s where we start to learn from the archetypes. There is nothing wrong with Martha’s devotion, except that instead of centering around Jesus the way it is supposed to be, her work is drawing her in other directions. Even though it was FOR HIM, it was turning into just busyness and work, almost having nothing to do with him. She was feeling consumed, deserted, and worried. The word “distracted” is key: the focus is no longer on HIM. What is going on is something lesser, and not as necessary, as special as it all was. She was probably whipping up the best meal she knew how. Kudos to her, but she’s getting lost, maybe in the pride behind the presentation.
Well, she’s ticked. She explodes up to Jesus: “Don’t you give a rip…” She’s agitated, reprimanding, and feels the injustice. “Sure, I’d love to sit at your feet too, but there’s stinking WORK to be done!” She wants the Lord to make it right. And she’s ticked at her sister, too, the lazy deserter! Ah, it finally comes out. The problem isn’t the work, but her attitude. Jesus is very tender with her. “You’re off track. You became divided, and now you’re upset because of it.
“Only one thing is needed.” What is it?
1. It’s not “Jesus”, because Martha was the one who had opened their home.
2. It’s not “serving the Lord,” because Martha was doing that.
3. It’s not “a good heart.” Martha had good intentions. Her motives were good.
4. It’s not proper protocol. Sure, traditionally the women would work together on the meal, but Jesus ruled against the traditions and rituals.
5. It’s not “justice.” In this case Martha WAS doing all the work.
6. It’s the relationship with Jesus. Martha had been on track, but she got distracted, much like Peter walking on the water. Here is to know and grow closer to Jesus. That can certainly happen by serving people, and it can also happen in sitting at his feet. The mechanism isn’t as important as the focus: a heart-to-heart relationship.
This is summarized so well by Jean Fleming, so I’ll just quote her to the end:
Throughout the ages, Christians have struggled to discern the proper balance between the cloistered existence and the life of reckless, zealous ministry. We contend with the Mary and Martha inside us. To set aside everyday concerns and gaze uninterrupted at the Lord seems utopian and escapist. But the continual giving of ourselves in service for Christ brings a sobering awareness of our frail humanity and limited store. We become caught in the Mary-Martha dilemma, weighing the active life with the contemplative life.
True service for Christ occurs only when Mary and Martha marry—when neither isolation nor compulsion alone characterizes our lives. Action and contemplation must be very close companions. Martha is Mary’s sister. We must have a twin capacity.
Life should have a rhythm of doing and resting, speaking and listening, giving and receiving, work and worship. Jesus himself illustrates that rhythm. This rhythm is not to be found in the balance of a happy medium, or in a swath down the middle road between service and solitude. Rather, it requires pursuing distinct paths in each direction. Both require our full attention, and neither can stand alone. Service without solitude deteriorates into humanitarianism; solitude without service degenerates into self-absorption.