June 11, 2021 • De Pree Journal
Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39 She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 40 But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” 41 But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42 there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” Luke 10:38-42 (NRSV)
You have probably heard the story of Mary and Martha in Luke 10. Jesus is a house guest. Martha is running around while her sister Mary is sitting at the feet of Jesus, attentively listening to his stories. Overwhelmed and frustrated, Martha implores Jesus to tell Mary to help her. But Jesus’s response doesn’t satisfy Martha. Instead, he tells her that she should stop being anxious about all her tasks. He tells her that it’s Mary who has actually chosen to do the right thing.
Growing up in church, I was taught this story was a lesson that boiled down to: don’t be a Martha, be a Mary! While Martha was busy doing other things and complaining about her sister, Mary was sitting at the feet of Jesus. Mary was willing to forsake whatever work there was to do in order to be close to Jesus and soak in everything he had to offer. I was taught that Mary was right. Martha was wrong.
While it’s easy to see how we get to this common interpretation, I think this passage holds a deeper message, especially in regards to our work as Christians. What if it’s not such a bad thing to be a Martha, or what if we shouldn’t be comparing the two at all?
In this passage, I’d like to look at a few key places. First, in verse 38, we see the text say that Martha had welcomed Jesus into her own home. Martha took on the role of the host. And, she wasn’t just hosting anyone, but hosting the Christ himself!
In verse 40, Martha, distracted by “many tasks” or “much serving,” gets frustrated with Mary, who has been sitting at Jesus’ feet instead of helping Martha. Can you imagine throwing a party with someone who ends up doing none of the work? So, Martha goes to Jesus and asks for help to motivate her. The response Jesus gives is crucial in what we take away from this passage.
“But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42 there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’”
Many modern English Bible translations translate Verse 42 as “one thing is necessary” or “there is need of only one thing.” However, the Greek text communicates more nuance than what this English translation offers. The word found here is ὀλίγος (oligos), which most commonly means few, small, or little. Given this, a more accurate translation might read closer to what is found in the NIV: “but few things are needed—or indeed only one.” Translating the word this way provides a different insight into what Jesus was communicating.
Jesus is not telling Martha that what she was doing was not important or that valuing the work of a host was wrong. More accurately, this statement seems to suggest that Martha was going above and beyond what was necessary, causing her to overextend herself and lose sight of the whole reason for her service–the physical presence of Jesus. Jesus makes it clear that he did not desire grand gestures and was not expecting Martha to overextend herself. All he wanted was time with her. He was inviting her to slow down and enjoy his presence.
So, what does Jesus’s invitation to slow down mean for us and for our work?
When I read this passage, I relate so deeply with Martha. I seek to be hospitable, coordinate things, take on multiple things at once, and strive for excellency in everything I do. I also get frustrated when I see others not doing what I perceive as their part, leaving me to do everything myself. And I, like Martha, can easily get anxious and distracted by the many tasks I take on.
When I examine how Jesus responds to Martha, I feel both challenged and affirmed. I feel affirmed to work in my giftings and pursue productivity. I feel comforted knowing that God wired me a certain way, and that’s not only okay—but a really beautiful truth! But, Jesus’s invitation to Martha is also a challenge for me. It’s a challenge from Jesus to not lose track of what’s most important. It’s an invitation to name what work is most central and what work is probably unnecessary.
Perhaps you can relate. Perhaps you too might need to get really honest about what work is central and what work is keeping you from basking in the presence of God.
When we are working in our giftings, we are in the best position to do good work and bring glory to God, no matter the industry or type of work. As the late author Dorothy Sayers said, “The only Christian work is good work well done.” But in order to do good work, we must learn from Martha and heed the call of Jesus. Sometimes it is necessary to take a moment to sit at the feet of Jesus and refocus in order to seek out what God is calling us to.
Wherever you are, take a moment to stop. Ask yourself: am I doing too much? What is the purpose behind the different things I am doing? What important work or relationships might I be missing out on if my life is over filled? What might God be calling me to?