Lessons from Martha

Tony Renshaw, Heald Green, Cheshire

The five closing verses of Luke chapter ten give us the earliest glimpse in the gospels of a family in Bethany which became very precious to the Lord. The family consisted of two sisters and their brother. Of the three the accolade for spirituality and devotion is usually awarded to Mary, but comparisons can be odious. We shall review Luke's narrative from Martha's point of view. Let us begin by noticing that it was her initiative that launched the family's relationship with the Lord Jesus.

  1. Martha's Hospitality. Verse 38 describes two arrivals of the Lord Jesus, first into the village by His own choice and then into the home by Martha's choice. Luke is careful to credit Martha for the invitation which first took the Master into her home, "... a certain woman named Martha received him into her house". The idea did not come from Mary or Lazarus, though they doubtless agreed with it. We should notice the phrase "her house", for it suggests that Martha had some kind of seniority there, and that granting hospitality was her responsibility. The invitation gains significance when we consider that very few people in the gospels showed such kindness to the Lord. It is true that He was invited into other homes, e.g. those of Jairus, Simon's mother-in-law, Zachaeus, Simon the Pharisee, someone in Sychar (for two days; was it the woman at the well?). But most of those people had ulterior motives of some kind. Martha acted out of pure kindness and concern. Perhaps she had noticed the Lord making His way through the village with the disciples, and thought He looked a little tired.
  2. Martha's Sister. When the company settled down to listen to the Lord for a while, Mary moved forward quietly and unobtrusively and took her place right at the Master's feet. She wanted to hear every word, to see every expression on His face, to catch every variation in tone or gesture. It bears thinking about, for no-one in the universe could ever find a better position (at His feet) or pursue a better occupation (hearing His word) than Mary claimed that day.
    It is just possible that a few eyebrows were raised at the sight of Mary's boldness in moving so near to the Master to listen to His teachings. But we can never get too near to Him, can we?
  3. Martha's Service. Whilst Luke does not say so, we need not doubt that Martha began to prepare a meal for her guests. We may be sure it was for that purpose that she had invited the Lord into her home. The narrative is very compressed, but we can be sure that she began well. She was ministering to the Master. Let us give her credit for it. The Lord did not despise her ministry. When He finally had to rebuke Martha it was not for serving Him. He valued very much all that she was doing, and the kindness which motivated her. He always values loving service rendered to Him, however menial or insignificant it may seem to others.
  4. Martha's Distraction. "... Martha was cumbered about much serving", v.40. Other translations substitute the word "distracted" for "cumbered". Newberry prefers the phrase "drawn-different-ways", which conveys a vivid impression of what was happening to Martha. Gradually she became agitated and flustered by the task she had set herself. There was so much to do that she did not know what to do next. Why was this? It seems more than likely that it was the presence of the disciples. Luke does not mention them, but they were surely there, twelve grown men with healthy appetites. The trouble with inviting the Lord anywhere was that you got the disciples as well. So poor Martha was soon hurrying and bustling about in growing agitation.
  5. Martha's Resentment. This heading is not meant to be unkind to Martha. Her distress was aggravated by the sight of Mary sitting calmly at the Lord's feet as though there was no work to be done. Martha found this quite unacceptable. Had Mary no shame, sitting there as though oblivious to her sister's industry and anxiety? Did she not realise that the Master's teaching was for the men who were His 'official' followers, and for any neighbours who had wandered in during His discourse? Let us pause for a moment and learn two lessons from Martha's resentment, (i) Busy Christians must avoid the hazard of becoming critical of others who do not appear to be as active in the Master's service. He does not invite our opinion of His saints! (ii) It is always a mistake to assume that sisters do not need to hear the word of God expounded, so long as brethren are well-taught. The demands of spiritual growth and personal witness make nonsense of such a notion.
  6. Martha's Complaint. It is clear that the point was reached when Martha could not stand it any longer. Mary's behaviour was intolerable, and the Master would have to intervene. It was strange that He had not done so already. So Martha addressed her complaint to Him, in two forms, a question, "Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone?" and an instruction "Bid her therefore that she help me". Now the Lord always cares when we become distracted and distressed, but He does not approve of our fault-finding. Let us remember that. And let us also remember that He does not take instructions from His servants! Martha is not alone in the gospels in giving instructions to the Master, for that was the mistake the disciples made when they said to Him on one occasion, "Send (the multitude) away, that they may go into the country round about, and into the villages, and buy themselves bread...", Mark 6:36. We need never burden the Lord with the dubious benefit of our advice, and much less with our commands. Disciples are intended to obey orders, not to issue them!
  7. Martha's Condition. The Lord diagnosed her condition perfectly. "Martha, Martha" (He said-and was there a gentle smile on His face as He answered her?) "thou art careful and troubled (anxious and troubled RSV, worried and upset NIV) about many things..." So she was; about whether there would be enough food to go round, whether the Master would like it, whether she had been right to invite Him into the home, whether the Pharisees would make trouble for them later, whether she had been a little hard on Mary after all. There is no limit to the things we worry about when we allow things to get out of proportion. But how very understanding the Lord was in handling Martha's complaint. See how He goes on.
  8. Martha's Cure. "But one thing is needful..." The RSV margin suggests this phrase means "few things are needful, or only one", and this is supported by the New Amer. Standard Bible thus, "but only a few things are necessary, really only one" "... and Mary hath chosen that good part, (the good portion RSV) which shall not be taken away from her". Mary's apparent idleness was viewed by the Lord as life's great necessity. It is as though the Lord were saying to Martha in effect, "The meal can wait, Martha. We are not expecting a banquet. You could have joined Mary, here at my feet. You can still do so, right now. That is what you need most of all. I know you are preparing something for me but first I have something for you".

Why did Luke fail to complete the story? How did Martha take the Lord's gentle rebuke? Did she blush slightly, then move forward and sit beside Mary, whispering a brief apology to her as they settled down together to listen to the Master? Perhaps Luke omits an account of Martha's reaction because that is not what should concern us. What matters is our reaction rather than Martha's. We need to learn that unless we habitually settle quietly in His presence and hear His word for a season each day, our service will become laboured and self-centred.