We all have heard sermons that Martha should have stopped cooking and sat down with Mary at the feet of Jesus. “Turn off the oven and sit down, Martha!”
Someone needs to cook. When Jesus was finished talking, everyone expected to eat. So, why was Mary correct and Martha wrong? We need to look more closely at their situation.
We are told that Mary and Martha lived with their brother Lazarus. Traditionally, grown women lived with their husbands—something we still encourage, by the way.
Could they have been single women? In the New Testament world, men and women married. It was normal and expected. Since Mary and Martha are old enough to travel about on their own, make decisions, etc., and since no special comments are made about being single, the far more likely explanation is that they were both widows. It was very common in the ancient world, particularly since husbands were often much older than their wives. For two widows to live with their brother would have been quite ordinary.
We also need to notice their family is wealthy—quite wealthy. John 12 tells us that Mary later anointed Jesus’ feet with a pound of nard, a very expensive perfume. John tells us it cost a year’s wages. Most of us don’t keep 30-40 thousand dollars’ worth of perfume around. We can discuss the extravagance of the gift some other time. Just to afford the perfume indicates the family had great wealth.
Thus, we have two wealthy widows, Mary and Martha. Luke tells us:
Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made (Luke 10:40).
We are not supposed to imagine Martha in the kitchen spreading peanut butter on sandwiches. There would be staff working away to prepare a meal for this special guest, Jesus, and for his band of disciples. Martha was fretting away in the kitchen, managing the staff. This is not to belittle the work of a hostess. There are thousands of details to arrange, if one is to have a successful event.
On this occasion, though, Jesus wasn’t interested in Martha successfully hosting an event—even though a successful dinner party can be a worthwhile goal. This occasion wasn’t just a dinner party. Jesus wasn’t just a guest. Something rare was happening. Mary had noticed it; Martha had not.
“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 10:41-42)
Jesus noted only one thing was needed for the event (food). The staff was handling that. It would happen without Martha hovering over it. Probably it wouldn’t be quite as neat, quite as nice, quite as successful, but something better was happening.
Elsewhere, Jesus says the same thing. Fasting is good but it is to be done when the bridegroom is gone (Mk. 2:19-20). There are plenty of occasions for handling the ordinary events of life. When we recognize the Lord is present and at work, we should prioritize his presence.
Sometimes we need to stop whatever task we are doing. The Lord is present. Whatever the task, likely it can be completed on another occasion. We need to choose “what is better,” listen to what the Lord is doing, and prioritize his presence. Someone stops by to talk or calls on the phone. You realize this isn’t an ordinary call. The Lord is present in the conversation. We need to stop the normal busy-ness of life and pay attention to what the Lord is doing.
Handling the good was making Martha miss the better.
This wasn’t just an appeal to Martha. While I am working away in the kitchens of life, there are occasions I hear a voice calling out to me: “you are worried and upset about many things.” With my head in my (good) work, I had failed to notice the better, that something more significant was happening. Whatever important thing I was doing needs to be set aside for the moment.
The Lord has shown up and I was failing to notice.