“Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part…” (Luke 42)
Last week I wrote about a passage in Luke’s gospel which tells the story of Martha and Mary – two sisters who welcomed Jesus and his disciples into their home. However, Martha and Mary each responded differently in this situation. Martha was driven to distraction over meal preparation for her honored guest and his followers. In Jewish households of this era, it was a woman’s role to prepare such meals for the family and guests.
Mary chose to flaunt Jewish religious tradition and spend her time among Jesus’ other disciples as they received training. When Martha complained to Jesus about Mary’s lack of help in the kitchen Jesus replied that Mary has “chosen the good portion – and it will not be taken away from her.” (v. 42) He was saying it was Mary’s destiny (or assignment) to be a disciple.
But what was Martha to do, without Mary’s help? In this particular situation it is important to take into consideration the cultural ramifications of having guests in the home. In the ancient near east, showing hospitality to someone was a very important and elaborate social function, where a host was expected to go all out when receiving guests, as Abraham did for his visitors (see Genesis 18:1-10a). Luke tells us that Martha, “opened her home to Jesus.” (v. 38). The word, opened, literally means, “to receive hospitably, to take under one’s care, as if placing the hand or arms under a person or thing…” (The Complete Word Study Dictionary of the New Testament, p. 1421)
This is a startling image – the placing of one’s hands under a person. It makes the duties of a host sound more like those of a nurse than for someone who, according to our modern standards, simply makes a guest feel welcome. Yet, the word, hospitality, comes from the word for hospital. Therefore, in ancient near-eastern culture, those who attended to guests were more like nurses. A host was someone who was expected to go to an extraordinary amount of effort in order to assure his or her
guests were comfortable. This was the position Martha found herself in. And her sister, Mary, wasn’t lifting a finger to help.
So when Luke described Martha as being distracted with much serving, we can appreciate why. The word used to describe her state of mind means, “To draw different ways at the same time; to distract with cares and responsibilities.” (ibid, p. 1149) Who hasn’t experienced, at some point, what it feels like to go two different ways at the same time? Many cooks probably feel this way when entertaining family and guests for Thanksgiving. It isn’t hard to comprehend why Martha is upset.
So, Martha turned to Jesus, expecting that he would uphold the social conventions and expectations of the day and tell Mary to get up and go help out her sister. But he didn’t do that. Instead he said, “Martha, Martha, you areanxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosenthe good “portion” (or destiny) which will not be taken away from her.” (v. 41-42)
However, if only one thing is necessary, what was Martha to do about all the food, and her guests, and the tradition of showing hospitality? The point Jesus is making is that time “at his feet” should come before everything else we feel obligated (or want) to do. And when we make time with Jesus our highest priority, the significance of all other duties and activities in our lives will become clearer. Most likely, we will discover some of our concerns are not as important as we originally thought.
Next week: What it means for modern Christians to be “at the feet” of Jesus and how to make it our utmost priority in life.