The Church of Martha

By Joel A. Hess

Perhaps more than any other story in scripture, the story of Mary and Martha has been the most scandalous. I am serious. Every time I read and preach on this episode of Jesus’ journey, I get frustrated feedback.  Frequently the critics do not just direct their angst at me, but Jesus. And there is no beating around the bush!

From Luke, chapter 10:

As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said.  But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”

 “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

Without exception this passage will illicit the following responses.  “Jesus is unfair. Martha is right. She is doing all the work.” “Jesus really commends them both. There is a time to work and a time to listen.”  Or my favorite, “The church is made up of different people. Some people are Marthas and some Marys.”

We are so trained in thinking Christianity is all about service, work, do your part, carry the load, keep busy, got time to lean you got time to clean. Sorry, that last one was from my days stocking shelves at Great Day in Cedar Springs, MI.

Jesus flips our religion on its head.  We tend to think the radicalness of Christianity lies in Jesus command to love one another.  Surely, we should and, yes, that is a part of it. But like Mike Sampson, a recent Christian songwriter who renounced Christianity said: “Lots of things help people change their lives, not just one version of God… Love and forgive absolutely. Be kind absolutely. Be generous and do good to others absolutely.”

Ironically, Sampson says he rejects Christianity but then goes on to invent his own religion which looks at lot like… Christianity. But as he says, you can find do-gooder talk anywhere!  He is right. And if this is what he thought Christianity was, then he is certainly right to find it wanting.

But Christianity is not radical because it preaches people should love others. Christianity is radical because it tells us God loves sinners.  More importantly, God gives everything, pardon and life, to people who were His enemies.  The center of Christianity is not you, your behavior, your loving, your forgiving, your following.  The center of Christianity is Christ and His service to you!

Yeah, most Christians would nod their heads to all that.  Martha would definitely agree!  She probably would then say, “Well, this is why Mary should get off her butt and serve Him.”  But Jesus service to us is not just the beginning of our relationship with Him.  Jesus service to us is the ongoing status of our relationship.  Heavily one sided!  We are not just brought into salvation by the work of Christ, we are sustained in this new life by the work of Christ through His words and body and blood.  So, sit down Busy Betty.

Recently in my sermon on this passage I apologized to my congregation for ever giving them the impression serving God and others was the center of the faith.  I would like to say that.  I would like to tell people they better get out there and tell others the good news.  Or they better give more in the offering plate.  Or they better join a board or committee. I would love to yell at them like Martha and make them think it all depends on them.

But it is not true. Jesus rose so we can sit, relax, listen and receive His service.  He is not the guest in our home. He is the host. We are the guest.

I might suggest this passage be read every single Sunday, because every Sunday someone needs to shut-up and shut-down and even crucify the Martha in us.  Come to Me all you who are wearied and heavy laden and I will give you rest.


One thought on “The Church of Martha

  1. You have brought up some interesting thoughts in connection with Luke 10, and the episode of Martha and Mary, and Our Lord’s admonition to Martha about being anxious. Her anxiety was caused by the fact she was doing the practical work of the household while Mary was just sitting on her duff listening to Jesus speak. Fair enough, Mary chose to listen to the Lord, leaving Martha to do the work. On a human scale, we can understand Martha’s situation. Martha loved the Lord as much as Mary, but somebody had to serve the food, feed the guests, do the dishes. Martha was troubled by the need to handle the practical duties And your analysis also included references to avoiding the tendency to put work and service as the center of our faith. Fair enough, but when we examine the entire word of God, we read conflicted messages focusing on God’s command to serve, to be stewards, to do good works, to obey, to be kind, steadfast, wise, to have a heart for the lost, the suffering, the troubled, the poor in spirit, and so we cannot deny that these are slices of the pie which metaphorically represents the Christian faith. It is all one pie with a set number of slices making up the whole. I suppose Jesus wanted us to remember that there is a time to work, and a time to rest in Him. Maybe that was His point? I don’t know, just assuming?


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