There are no careless or wasted words in Scripture. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, human authors recorded with perfect precision the exact message God intended to deliver to His church.
That means that even simple vignettes—like the Lord’s visit to the home of Martha and Mary—offer us important instruction from God. And as we’ll see both today and next time, there is much we ought to learn from these two sisters and how they interact with their divine houseguest.
Now as they were traveling along, He entered a village; and a woman named Martha welcomed Him into her home. She had a sister called Mary, who was seated at the Lord’s feet, listening to His word. But Martha was distracted with all her preparations; and she came up to Him and said, “Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to do all the serving alone? Then tell her to help me.” But the Lord answered and said to her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and bothered about so many things; but only one thing is necessary, for Mary has chosen the good part, which shall not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38-42)
Jesus’ gentle admonition to Martha is first of all a reminder that we should honor others over ourselves. Scripture elsewhere says, “Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor” (Romans 12:10). “Be submissive to one another, and be clothed with humility, for ‘God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble’” (1 Peter 5:5, NKJV). “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3-4).
Humility had been a constant theme in Jesus’ teaching, and a difficult lesson for most of His disciples to learn. Even on the night of Jesus’ betrayal, each of the disciples had ignored basic hospitality rather than take a servant’s role and wash the others’ feet (John 13:1–7).
In the Luke 10 account, Martha’s external behavior at first appeared to be true servanthood. She was the one who put on the apron and went to work in the task of serving others. But her treatment of Mary soon revealed a serious defect in her servant’s heart. She allowed herself to become censorious and sharp-tongued. Such words in front of other guests were certain to humiliate Mary. Martha either gave no thought to the hurtful effect of her words on her sister, or she simply didn’t care.
Furthermore, Martha was wrong in her judgment of Mary. She assumed Mary was being lazy. “Who are you to judge the servant of another? To his own master he stands or falls” (Romans 14:4). Did Martha imagine that she, rather than Christ, was Mary’s true master?
In reality, Mary was the one whose heart was in the right place. Her motives and desires were more commendable than Martha’s. Jesus knew it, even though no mere mortal could ever make that judgment by observing the external behavior of the two women. But Jesus knew it because He knew the hearts of both women.
Martha’s behavior shows how subtly and sinfully human pride can corrupt even the best of our actions. What Martha was doing was by no means a bad thing. She was waiting on Christ and her other guests. In a very practical and functional sense, she was acting as servant to all, just as Christ had so often commanded. She no doubt began with the best of motives and the noblest of intentions.
But the moment she stopped listening to Christ and made something other than Him the focus of her heart and attention, her perspective became very self-centered. At that point, even her service to Christ became tainted with self-absorption and spoiled by a very uncharitable failure to assume the best of her sister. Martha was showing an attitude of sinful pride that made her susceptible to several other kinds of evil as well: anger, resentment, jealousy, distrust, a critical spirit, judgmentalism, and unkindness. All of that flared up in Martha in a matter of minutes.
Worst of all, Martha’s words impugned the Lord Himself: “Lord, do You not care . . . ?” (Luke 10:40). Did she really imagine that He did not care? She certainly knew better. Jesus’ love for all three members of this family was obvious to all (John 11:5).
But Martha’s thoughts and feelings had become too self-focused. Because of that, she also fell into an all-too-common religious trap described by Paul in his letter to the Corinthians: “They, measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves among themselves, are not wise” (2 Corinthians 10:12, NKJV). She turned her attention from Christ and began watching Mary with a critical eye. Naturally, it began to ruin the whole evening for Martha.
Mary, by contrast, was so consumed with thoughts of Christ that she became completely oblivious to everything else. She sat at His feet and listened to Him intently, absorbing His every word and nuance. She was by no means being lazy. She simply understood the true importance of this occasion. The Son of God Himself was a guest in her home. Listening to Him and worshiping Him were at that moment the very best use of Mary’s energies and the one right place for her to focus her attention.
One thing that stood out about Mary of Bethany was her keen ability to observe and understand the heart of Christ. Mary’s temperament seemed naturally more contemplative than Martha’s. In Luke 10, she wanted to listen intently to Jesus, while Martha bustled around making preparations to serve the meal. In John 11, when Jesus arrived after Lazarus had already died, Martha ran out of the house to meet Him, but Mary remained in the house, immersed in grief (John 11:20). She was absorbed, as usual, in deep thoughts. People like Mary are not given to sudden impulse or shallow activity. Yet while Jesus had to coax a confession of faith from Martha (John 11:23–27)—and even that was pretty shaky (v. 39)—Mary simply fell at His feet in worship (v. 32).
Mary seemed to be able to discern Jesus’ true meaning even better than any of the twelve disciples. Her gesture of anointing Him in preparation for His burial at the beginning of that final week in Jerusalem shows a remarkably mature understanding. That was the fruit of her willingness to sit still, listen, and ponder. It was the very thing that always made Mary such a sharp contrast to Martha, whose first inclination was usually to act—or react. (Martha had a lot in common with Peter in that regard.)
If Martha had truly preferred Mary over herself, she might have seen in Mary a depth of understanding and love for Christ that surpassed even her own. She could have learned much from her more quiet, thoughtful sister. But not right now. Martha had a table to set, a meal to get out of the oven, and “many things” she was “worried and bothered about” (Luke 10:41). Before she knew it, her resentment against Mary had built up, and she could no longer restrain herself. Her public criticism of Mary was an ugly expression of pride.
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