We don’t often consider the lessons we might learn from the strife between siblings—even when it is recorded in Scripture. But through a brief episode in Luke’s gospel, the Holy Spirit has much to teach us about the nature of faith and worship.
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)
The Priority of Worship over Service
It’s interesting to read this narrative and try to imagine how the average woman might respond if placed in a situation like Martha’s. My strong suspicion is that many women would be inclined to sympathize with Martha, not Mary. After all, it would normally be considered rude to let your sister do all the hard work in the kitchen while you sit chatting with guests.
So in a real sense, Martha’s feelings were natural and somewhat understandable. That may be one reason Jesus’ rebuke was so mild. In normal circumstances, any older sister would think it obligatory for the younger sister to help in serving a meal to guests. In other words, what Martha expected Mary to do was, in itself, perfectly fine and good.
Nevertheless, what Mary was doing was better still. She had “chosen the good part” (Luke 10:42). She had discovered the one thing needful: true worship and devotion of one’s heart and full attention to Christ. That was a higher priority even than service, and the good part she had chosen would not be taken away from her, even for the sake of something as gracious and beneficial as helping Martha prepare Jesus a meal. Mary’s humble, obedient heart was a far greater gift to Christ than Martha’s well-set table.
This establishes worship as the highest of all priorities for every Christian. Nothing, including even service rendered to Christ, is more important than listening to Him and honoring Him with our hearts. Remember what Jesus told the Samaritan woman at the well: God is seeking true worshipers (John 4:23). Christ had found one in Mary. He would not affirm Martha’s reprimand of her, because it was Mary, not Martha, who properly understood that worship is a higher duty to Christ than service rendered on His behalf.
It is a danger, even for people who love Christ, that we not become so concerned with doing things for Him that we begin to neglect hearing Him and remembering what He has done for us. We must never allow our service for Christ to crowd out our worship of Him. The moment our works become more important to us than our worship, we have turned the true spiritual priorities on their heads.
In fact, that tendency is the very thing that is so poisonous about all forms of pietism and theological liberalism. Whenever you elevate good deeds over sound doctrine and true worship, you ruin the works too. Doing good works for the works’ sake has a tendency to exalt self and depreciate the work of Christ. Good deeds, human charity, and acts of kindness are crucial expressions of real faith, but they must flow from a true reliance on God’s redemption and His righteousness. After all, our own good works can never be a means of earning God’s favor; that’s why in Scripture the focus of faith is always on what God has done for us, and never on what we do for Him (Romans 10:2–4). Observe any form of religion where good works are ranked as more important than authentic faith or sound doctrine, and you’ll discover a system that denigrates Christ while unduly magnifying self.
Not that Martha was guilty of gross self-righteousness. We shouldn’t be any more harsh in our assessment of her than Christ was. She loved the Lord. Her faith was real, but by neglecting the needful thing and busying herself with mere activity, she became spiritually unbalanced. Her behavior reminds us that a damaging spirit of self-righteousness can slip in and contaminate even the hearts of those who have sincerely embraced Christ as their true righteousness. Martha’s harshness toward Mary exposed precisely that kind of imbalance in her own heart.
Jesus’ gentle words of correction to Martha (as well as His commendation of Mary) set the priorities once more in their proper order. Worship (which is epitomized here by listening intently to Jesus’ teachings) is the one thing most needed. Service to Christ must always be subordinate to that.
The Primacy of Faith over Works
Another vital spiritual principle goes hand in hand with the priority of worship over service and is so closely related to it that the two actually overlap. This principle is the truth (taught from the beginning to the end of Scripture) that what we believe is ultimately more crucial than what we do.
Martha’s “preparations” were a distraction (Luke 10:40) from the “one thing” (v. 42) that was really needed—listening to and learning from Jesus. Religious works often have a sinister tendency to eclipse faith itself. Proper good works always flow from faith and are the fruit of it. What we do is vital, because that is the evidence that our faith is living and real (James 2:14–26). But faith must come first, and it is the only viable foundation for true and lasting good works. All of that is wrapped up in the truth that works are not the instrument of justification; faith is (Romans 4:4–5).
Martha seems to have forgotten these things momentarily. She was acting as if Christ needed her work for Him more than she needed His work on her behalf. Rather than humbly fixing her faith on the vital importance of Christ’s work for sinners, she was thinking too much in terms of what she could do for Him.
Again, this seems to be the natural drift of the human heart. We wrongly imagine that what we do for Christ is more important than what He has done for us. Every major spiritual decline in the history of Christianity has come when the church has lost sight of the primacy of faith and begun to stress works instead. Virtually every serious doctrinal deviation throughout church history has had this same tendency at its core—beginning with the error of the Judaizers, who insisted that an Old Covenant ritual (circumcision) was essential for justification. They denied that faith alone could be instrumental in justification, and that undermined the very foundation of the gospel.
Human instinct seems to tell us that what we do is more important than what we believe. But that is a false instinct, the product of our fallen self-righteousness. It is a totally wrong way of thinking—sinfully wrong. We must never think more highly of our works for Christ than we do of His works on our behalf.
Of course, such a thought would never consciously enter Martha’s mind. She loved Christ. She genuinely trusted Him, although her faith had moments of weakness. Still, on this occasion, she allowed her anxiety about what she must do for Christ to overwhelm her gratitude over what He would do for her.
I’m very grateful that Christ’s rebuke of Martha was a gentle one. I must confess that it is very easy for me to identify with her. I love the privilege of serving the Lord, and He has blessed me with more than enough to stay busy. It is tempting at times to become swept up in the activity of ministry and forget that faith and worship must always have priority over work. In these hectic times, we all need to cultivate more of Mary’s worshipful, listening spirit and less of Martha’s scrambling commotion.
Martha and Mary also remind us that God uses all kinds of people. He has gifted us differently for a reason, and we’re not to despise one another or look at others with contempt, just because we have differing temperaments or contrasting personalities.
Martha was a noble and godly woman with a servant’s heart and a rare capacity for work. Mary was nobler still, with an unusual predisposition for worship and wisdom. Both were remarkable in their own ways. If we weigh their gifts and their instincts together, they give us a wonderful example to follow. May we diligently cultivate the best instincts of both of these extraordinary women.