At the Feet of Jesus

Principle Scripture: Luke 10:38-42 

Jesus and his disciples have come to visit Martha and Mary, so Martha wants to demonstrate her hospitality. Martha rolls up her sleeves and gets to work; but, her sister, Mary,  has failed to respond likewise. Their mother did not raise them like this. Martha pokes her head into the room where Jesus is, perhaps hoping to get Mary’s attention. Martha wants help but all Mary does is sit at the feet of Jesus and listen. 

Is Martha so wrong to want help? So, she says, 

“Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.”

Luke 10:40

This story can be irksome. The story can sometimes become an exercise in choosing — Mary or Martha? Who is more important… more faithful… more valuable? Which of the sisters are we most like? It’s tempting to launch into an enthusiastic defense of Martha? I admit that often when I read this story, my first response is a mild irritation that Jesus didn’t come to the defense of Martha! Indeed, Jesus did elevate the status of women by affirming their place as disciples. When Jesus allows Mary to sit at his feet to study Torah, Jesus and Mary are dismantling a social norm whereby only male disciples could sit at their teacher’s feet as they studied Torah. The flipping of this expectation is big — don’t take it for granted! But, still, I am left just a little disappointed that Jesus had not done more for Martha. Indeed, I wish that Jesus had gotten up and taken Martha’s towel, rounded up the men who were there and ushered them into the kitchen, directing them to bake the bread, fry the fish, and chop the vegetables. Martha could have taken a well-deserved nap. I wish he’d put each one of the men to work, and said to them, “Oh, in case you’re wondering: The stuff that Martha is doing is no prelude to the sacred – it is the sacred.”

I’m usually left with more questions than answers — Action or contemplation? Service or worship? Hospitality or prayer? For as long as the church has existed, we’ve debated these dichotomies. Which is more important – kneeling at the altar, or mopping the church floors? What should we prioritize? How should we find a good balance between the mystical and the practical? 

Jesus’ arrival at Martha’s house does not appear (at least by the look of the narrative) to have been planned. Martha probably had little to offer but, as a child of Abraham, she would most certainly have wanted to serve them as if  “[entertaining] angels unaware” (Hebrews 13:2). Martha puts the proverbial soup on and sets a table before her guests. We don’t know how long Martha’s patience holds. It might have been hours in the kitchen, as she simmered, her frustration finally boiling over. She marches into the other room and confronts Jesus, not Mary:

“Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.”

Jesus, of course, does not do as he’s told — he rarely does unless his Father first speaks. Indeed, he doesn’t react to Mary at all, neither chastising nor redirecting her. Instead, Jesus redirects Martha:

 “You are worried and distracted by many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, and it will not be taken away from her.”

Now, I find it helpful here to slow down our reading of the narrative to really hear what Jesus is saying to Martha. Note, importantly, that Jesus does castigate Martha for the work that she is doing – the hospitality, the cooking, the serving. The Greek used in this narrative for “do the work” is diakonein, meaning “to serve” or minister.” (It is the word from which our English word “Deacon” comes.) The implication seems to be that Martha is objecting because she is doing all the serving or ministering! But, again, Jesus is not castigating Martha for the work that she is doing; rather, Jesus names a spiritual problem: 

“Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things.” 

Now for a little more etymology (the study of words and word origins). Note that Jesus says two things about Martha — she is “worried” and she is “distracted.” First, the noun “worried” (merimna) comes from the Greek verb “merizo” which means “to divide.” In its negative usage (such as here), merimna means to separate into parts, forcibly dividing or dragging apart something that should be whole. Second, the noun “distraction” (tubaze) comes from a root that means “to make a great commotion or noise.” Related words with the same root can mean “riot,” “conflagration,” or “commotion.” The word strongly hints at noise besides just the inner turmoil that causes distress or division. The words that Jesus uses are violent words that describe a wounded or fractured person, a person in a state of mind that is rendered incoherent, divided, and un-whole. 

Jesus found Martha in just such a state. It was a condition in which Martha could not possibly enjoy Jesus’ company or receive anything that he was teaching or receive any love. Instead, all she could do was challenge Jesus, questioning Jesus’ love for her (“Lord, do you not care?”) and fixating on herself (“My sister has left me to do all the work by myself”) and triangulating (“Tell her then to help me.”).

I have tried and tried to read Mary and Martha’s story as a story about balance. But I don’t think Jesus’s ringing endorsement of Mary’s “choosing the better part” will allow me to get away with that tepid reading. Because this story is not about balance. This story is about choosing the one thing, the best thing — and forsaking everything else for its sake. The story is about single-mindedness. About a passionate and undistracted pursuit of a single, mind-blowing treasure. 

Think of Jesus’s most evocative parables; they all point in this same direction. The pearl of great price. The buried treasure in the field. The lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost son. Christianity, it seems, is not about balance; it’s about extravagance. It’s not about being reasonable; it’s about being wildly, madly, and deeply in love with Jesus and our neighbors.

As soon as Jesus entered Martha’s house, he turned the place upside down. He messed with Martha’s expectations, routines, and habits. He insisted on costly change. Perhaps Martha’s mistake was that she assumed she could invite Jesus into her life – and still carry on with that life as usual, maintaining control, privileging her own priorities, and clinging to her much-beloved agendas and schedules. What was Jesus’s response to that assumption? No. Absolutely not. That’s not how discipleship works. 

In contrast, Mary recognized that Jesus’s presence in her house required a radical, countercultural shift. Which is to say, a wholehearted surrender. Every action, every decision, every priority, and every life choice, would have to be filtered through this new love, this new devotion, this new passion. Why? Because Jesus was no ordinary guest. He was the Guest who would be Host. The Host who would provide the bread of life, the living water, and the wine that was his own blood, to anyone who would sit at his feet and receive his hospitality. 

To be clear: we are called to work — for justice and peace. We are called to bring liberty to the oppressed and comfort to the afflicted. We are asked to feed, clothe, and satiate our neighbors. But it’s easy to lose sight of Mary in our work-frenzied, performance-driven lives. It’s easy to believe that pondering, listening, waiting, and resting have no value, and to roll our eyes at spiritual earnestness. In a world that is profoundly broken, it’s easy to argue that we should leave contemplation to the monastics, and throw all of our time and energy into social engagement. 

Does any of this sound familiar? Is your service or your hospitality rooted in an anxious perfectionism that strangles you? Is your inner life so fragmented, so incoherent, that you struggle to give and receive love? Has your busyness become the mark of your faithfulness? Are you so distracted by your work that you keep from being present, engaged, and fully alive? Are you using your packed schedule to avoid intimacy with God or with others? 

If I’m honest, my answer to many of these questions is yes. If yours is yes, too, then I wonder if we can hear Jesus’s words to Martha – not as a criticism – but as an invitation. Not as a rebuke, but as a soothing balm. Jesus knows that we ache to be whole. Jesus knows that we place devastating expectations on ourselves. Jesus knows that our resentments, like Martha’s, are often borne of fear and envy. Martha longed to sit where Mary sat. She longed to take delight in Jesus’s words. She longed to surrender her heavy burden and allow Jesus to host her. Maybe we long for these beautiful things, too. 

If so, here’s the good news: there is need of only one thing, and if we choose it, no one will ever have the power to take it away. So let’s choose it. Let’s learn a hospitality grounded in love, not fear. Let’s begin where God’s Spirit invites us to begin — at the very feet of the One who came to serve.

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