One of the most misunderstood passages of Scripture is the familiar story of Mary and Martha. I can’t tell you how many women’s meetings I’ve been to where someone invariably confesses to being just like Martha.
The passage of Scripture is found in Luke 10:38-42:
38Now as they went on their way, Jesusd entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. 39And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. 40But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” 41But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, 42but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.”
Unfortunately, many people see this text as a picture of the active life versus the contemplative life. In simple terms, active is bad, and contemplative is good. Therefore, since Mary chose the contemplative life she is good, and Martha, who chose the active life, is bad. But is that really what this passage is about? No. It’s not.
Kent Hughes sums it like this, “The story of Mary and Martha is actually about the necessity of the priority of the Word of God in a life of active service for the Master. In fact, the teachings of Jesus were dramatically actualized in both women’s lives. Both are women of excellence and noble character.”(1)
You see, Martha was not rebuked for her activity. How could she be? That’s how she was wired. Martha was rebuked because her service was dragging her away from Jesus. And as a consequence she grew bitter and accusatory. Ironically, busy Martha is the author of one of the two great confessions of Christ in the New Testament (John 11:21-27). Obviously she was a student and a hearer of the Word of God! In light of this, I wanted to share the following excerpt from J.C. Ryle, which expresses the need in the church for both Mary’s and Martha’s.
“The two sisters of whom we read in this passage were faithful disciples. Both had believed. Both had been converted. Both had honored Christ when few gave Him honor. Both loved Jesus, and Jesus loved both of them. Yet they were evidently women of very different turn of mind. Martha was active, stirring, and impulsive, feeling strongly, and speaking out all she felt. Mary was quiet, still, and contemplative, feeling deeply, but saying less than she felt. Martha, when Jesus came to her house, rejoiced to see Him, and busied herself with preparing a suitable refreshment. Mary, also, rejoiced to see Him, but her first thought was to sit at His feet and hear His word. Grace reigned in both hearts, but each showed the effects of grace at different times, and in different ways.
We shall find it very useful to ourselves to remember this lesson. We must not expect all believers in Christ to be exactly like one another. We must not set down others as having no grace, because their experience does not entirely tally with our own. The sheep in the Lord’s flock have each their own peculiarities. The trees in the Lord’s garden are not all precisely alike. All true servants of God agree in the principal things of religion. All are led by one Spirit. All feel their sins, and all trust in Christ. All repent, all believe, and all are holy. But in minor matters they often differ widely. Let not one despise another on this account. There will be Marthas and there will be Marys in the Church until the Lord comes again.”(2)
In a related post called, “The Everyday Christian Woman” , Diane writes in similar spirit: “God has uniquely created each of us for His own purposes. I hope you’re content with where He has put you. Christian women should be finding joy and purpose by simply walking with Christ in every day life.” I encourage you to visit!
(1) Hughes, R. K. (1998). Luke: that you may know the truth (pp. 394–395). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.
(2) Ryle, J.C. (2007). Expository thoughts on the Gospels, Luke (pp. 334-335). Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House.