Balancing the Martha With the Mary

Every Wednesday afternoon, I meet with a band of women to study the gospel of John.  During our study a few weeks ago, we lingered over the dynamic between the two famous sisters, Mary and Martha.   That was a few weeks ago and I still can’t shake them from my thoughts.

I always thought Martha took a bad rap, maybe because I see so much of myself in her.  The catch phrase, “stop being a Martha,” echoes in Christian circles as well meaning friends offer an over zealous hostess a gentle rebuke. After all in the illustration in the gospel of Luke, Jesus, a crowd magnet at this point, is the guest of honor.  Martha deals, however frantically, with an over abundance of house guests (probably some party crashers too). Household conveniences in Bethany were not what they are today, so entertaining a crowd in ancient times was no small task.  In that light, there is something commendable about the industrious woman who represents the exemplary hostess, a highly valued and necessary character quality in the ancient Middle East.  Martha, looks well to the ways of her household and does not eat the bread of idleness.  She provides hospitality to her visitors even during her time of mourning the loss of her brother, Lazarus.  But all that serving and entertaining was at a cost.  The hostess with the most-ess syndrome caused her to miss the sermon of a life time.

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Martha uses her gift of hospitality but then whines and complains, again, ouch, I follow this woman’s pattern.  Perhaps Martha’s complete adoration for Jesus and unwavering faith in him motivated her to pull out the red carpet for him.  She works her fingers to the bone to perfect her house, and insure the comforts of her guests, then grumbles to Jesus about, of all people.  However, Jesus gently rebukes Martha not for her serving but for her over-the-top-serving.

Now, I can see how Mary frustrated the bejeebers out of Martha.  Mary knew when to sit and listen while Martha toiled.  Mary, the epitome of an intentionally relational woman, unabashedly sits at the feet of Jesus, soaking up his every word while her sister frenzies about the house. Upon Jesus’ return to Bethany, Mary remains seated in the house visiting with family and friends while Martha flew out the door and ran down the road to meet Jesus, yes, first to go to him in a time of need but the words that roll off of her tongue: a complaint about Jesus’ timing.

Mary, on the other hand, disregards all social boundaries, literally lets her hair down and pours not dribbles expensive oil upon the feet of Jesus then cleans them with her exposed hair: a true act of humility and worship.  Mary’s act of worship foreshadows the self-denying, servant-like moment when Jesus washes the feet of his disciples.

What does scripture show me through the sisters? That I don’t have to be a total Martha or a total Mary, but to balance the knowing when to sit and the knowing when to work.  Scripture speaks clearly about the sin of idleness and Peter exhorts us to show hospitality, so yes, a bit of Martha is necessary, but Peter reminds us to do so without grumbling.

Being less of a Martha is the challenge for most women.  We are a gender who muli-tasks with panache.  That is why the idealized Proverbs 31 woman drives us so crazy because we think we must perfectly emulate every trait she encompasses.  We don’t have to be all Martha or all Mary.  We do need to know when to be more of one and less of the other.

The absolute beauty of this account in scripture is that Jesus shows us when to sit and when to work.

Lessons from Mary

  • Pour not dribble acts of worship, Jesus deserves it
  • Be genuine, intentional, uninhibited with worship
  • Listen with a sincere, contrite heart to the Teacher
  • Be self-denying, servant-like 
  • Listen intently, avoid distraction

Lessons from Martha:

  • Serve with a selfless, pure motive 
  •  Avoid the hostess with the most-ess syndrome, just be a humble hostess
  •  Offer hospitality with a joyful attitude
  • View hospitality as a ministry rather than an obligatory act
  •  Entertain but not to the point of distraction and stress/agitation
  • Control the tongue that tends to complain or whine

From now on, when I encounter Martha and Mary in scripture, I no longer feel compelled to relate completely to one or to the other.  It’s like we’re friends that have gotten to know one another better, just like my band of women at the Bible study. I, now, embrace Mary and Martha and welcome them into the sisterhood of confronting and balancing real life issues, which means real sanctification!



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