Sitting or Serving


Ms. Deb Swets, Inquirer for Ministry led worship

Our second lesson for today comes from Luke 10:38-42.

Listen now to the reading of God’s word.

Now as Jesus and his disciples went on their way, he entered a certain village where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who also sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

This is the word of the Lord.


Some years back, I received a book entitled Having A Mary Heart In A Martha World: Finding Intimacy with God in the Busyness Of Life. I don’t remember much of this book’s contents anymore, but the title has stuck with me. And books like this are common. A quick search that I did also brought up the titles: Having a Martha Home the Mary Way: 31 Days to a Clean House and a Satisfied Soul, and maybe my personal favorite: Can Martha Have a Mary Christmas? Untangling Expectations and Truly Experiencing Jesus.  As you might be able to tell by the titles, the message directed at the women who read these books is similar; we all have two sides to us – the busy, distracted, modern person; and the quiet, meek, disciple. How do we stamp out the Martha side of us and become true followers of Jesus like Mary? Here’s a quote from one of the books: “We want to worship like Mary, but the Martha inside keeps bossing us around.” And all of these books tend to have a dramatized version of this passage – Martha is a nagging, angry, bitter woman – an honestly horrible host. And Mary is an adoring and innocent angel, sitting in the living room with a halo around her head, gazing up at Jesus.

            Now, I don’t want to ignore the fact that many people find these books helpful as they seek to be better and more intentional followers of Jesus. There is something to be said for slowing down, for setting aside our work and for being in the presence of God. But I think we take the story of Mary and Martha farther than we need to. Martha is forever relegated to the role of second-rate sister, lesser disciple. “Distracted Martha.” “Busy Martha.” (By the way, we do this with other characters in Scripture too – when was the last time we talked about the disciple Thomas without calling him “Doubting Thomas?”)

            I’ve seen this passage used to try and drown out the energetic spirits of young women – “Be quiet and gentle like Mary. Be meek like Mary. Do the right thing like Mary. Choose what is better like Mary.”  It gets quoted alongside 1 Peter 3: “Rather, let your adornment be the inner self with the lasting beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious in God’s sight.” There is a time for quietness and gentleness, but that doesn’t mean that we can never be strong, or feisty, or outspoken. I believe deeply in the value and goodness of contemplative prayer, but you can ask the women over at Rock Prairie how “contemplative” I am when playing cards. We don’t need to stamp out our personalities and become someone else to somehow fit into the category of “perfect disciple.” By the way, the Bible doesn’t give testimony to “perfect disciples.” The people about whom we read in Scripture are human – flawed, struggling with faith and doubt, sometimes concerned about the wrong things. We can find ourselves in the pages of this book when we take time to read it. 

When kids are taught to read in school, they are taught the importance of context. I remember my teacher saying in second grade, “If you don’t know what a word or a sentence means, look around it for context clues.” We have these handy chapter and verse numbers and story titles in our Bibles, which are great for many reasons. But sometimes they lead us to think that the Bible is just a bunch of random stories pieced together. Context is as important in the Bible as it was in second grade. If we come up with an interpretation of a text that doesn’t fit the context clues, we might need to rethink our interpretation.

This text isn’t about comparing two women and asking which has more faith. It’s also not about whether active faith or contemplative faith is better, although this is an easy conclusion to come to if we study the story by itself. Luke 10 is a chapter about discipleship and how followers of Jesus give and receive hospitality. Toward the end of chapter 9, Jesus has “set his face” toward Jerusalem. He is purposefully and steadily marching toward the cross. During the next 10 chapters, Jesus is teaching his followers the way of the cross, the way of discipleship. In chapter ten, the chapter that our story is in, Jesus sends out 70 disciples in pairs and teaches them how to receive hospitality (or the lack thereof) in the towns to which they will go.

“Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.’” When these disciples return to Jesus, he tells the parable of the Good Samaritan. His question to the lawyer is, “Who was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” Discipleship is an act of doing, of loving God and neighbor in real, tangible ways.

“’Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ The lawyer said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’” From this verse, we go directly into the story of Mary and Martha.

In this story, Martha is trying to be hospitable. She has opened her home to a whole bunch of men, who were probably dirty and hungry. She is doing what is expected of a woman in the first century – women were expected to manage the household affairs and to serve. Mary, by contrast, is shunning the role expected of her and sitting and learning at the feet of a teacher – a place reserved only for men. Most rabbis would refuse to teach and disciple women. In this story, Jesus is protecting Mary’s right to learn and to listen. “Jesus rebukes Martha for doing what is expected of her, and commends Mary, who is abandoning her traditional woman’s role.”  What Mary has chosen will not be taken away from her.

Martha is attempting to be hospitable as she opens her home to Jesus, but she goes about it in an unhelpful way. Jesus does not condemn her actions but directs her to a new understanding and employment of hospitality in light of the good news he is bringing. Jesus’ rebuke is tender. “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.” It seems to me that even here Jesus is saying, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Jesus, in his response to Martha, has effectively become the host. He has taken over Martha’s home, and rather than adhering to cultural standards and roles, he, as he so often does in Luke’s gospel, turns things upside-down. He is no longer guest in Martha’s home, but host. And Martha and Mary are no longer women who are stuck in their traditional cultural roles, but disciples who hear Jesus and obey.

There is a story which comes from the third century Christian community involving some of the Desert Fathers. The Desert Father were hermits and monks who lived in the Scetis Desert in Egypt. The story goes like this: “A wandering monk came to abbot Silvanus at Mount Sinai, and when the monk saw the brethren busy in the fields he said to them, ‘Why do you labor for the meat that perishes? For Mary chose the part that was good.’ The abbot then told his assistant to give the monk the Scriptures to read and put him in a cell with nothing in it. By mid-afternoon the monk was gazing out his window hoping for news of dinner. When the hour had come and gone he came to the abbot and asked why he had not been called to eat. Abbot Silvanus replied, ‘You are a spiritual man, and you did not think food important. We, on the other hand, are flesh and blood; we need to eat, and that’s why we work. You, however, have chosen the good part, for you read all day and don’t need to eat.’ On hearing this, the monk was ashamed and said, ‘Forgive me, Father.’ The abbot answered, ‘So Martha is necessary to Mary, for because of Martha is Mary praised.’”

This story from the Desert Fathers shows the harm in pitting Mary and Martha against each other. Both active faith and contemplative faith are needed in all of us. I think the pause and ponder is a perfect summary, “If we censure Martha too harshly, she may abandon serving altogether, and if we commend Mary too profusely, she may sit there forever.”  Mary and Martha’s story is situated after the parable of the Good Samaritan on purpose. The parable of the Good Samaritan is more than just good advice about serving those in need – it is born out a posture of listening to Jesus and being moved to obey. And the story of Mary and Martha is not just a pious reminder that the life of study and devotion is important – it leads to a life in which we love and care for the needs of those around us, a life in which we ask, “Am I being a neighbor, am I one who shows mercy?”

The answer to the question posed by the sermon title – Serving or Sitting? – is not one or the other. We don’t need to eliminate Martha and search for our inner Mary. Both are necessary. The answer to “serving or sitting?” is YES. 

  January 2018  
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