At first reading, the story of Mary and Martha in the Bible raises more questions than it answers. Why didn’t Jesus rebuke Mary for laziness? Does he really scold Martha for feeding hungry travelers? If Martha had let her guests starve and instead had sat beside Mary at Jesus’ feet, would Jesus have multiplied fish and bread to feed the crowd? Does Jesus’ response imply he has a low view of domestic work, and what should we do when people need to both eat and learn?
Hospitality was a matter of honor
Most likely, the sisters did not know Jesus was coming, as he could not open his cell phone to call ahead, and ordinary people did not send letters announcing their arrival. Given given lack of refrigeration and modern food storage, Martha and Mary were probably not prepared to feed that many visitors, no matter how organized they were.
Yet feeding the travelers was necessary. In the ancient near-eastern culture of Jesus’ day it was an honor and a responsibility to entertain guests. Hosts had to serve and guests had to eat, even if no one was hungry. Hospitality was a matter of honor and matters of honor were not taken lightly.
When Jesus appears with twelve hungry men (and who knows how many other followers), social custom required the sisters to provide a generous meal. With little warning and no modern kitchen appliances, this task would be daunting even with both of them — plus servants and neighbors — working together.
Yet Mary abandons her domestic duties in favor of the posture of a disciple — sitting at Jesus’ feet, listening to his words.
Understandably overwhelmed, Martha appeals to Jesus to send her lazy sister into the kitchen, accusing Jesus of indifference in the process.
Surely, Jesus will chastise Mary for neglecting the social customs of hospitality, for leaving the burden of work to another and for slacking in her duties! Yet while Jesus responds to Martha with compassion (the double use of her name), he unexpectedly sides with Mary.
At first reading, Jesus appears to contrast the many dishes Martha is preparing when one simple dish would do, perhaps chiding her for over-compensating in her hospitality. While that is a possible explanation, physical food is not the “one thing necessary;” sitting at Jesus’ feet is the one necessary thing. From an eternal perspective, spiritual food is more necessary than physical food.
Spiritual food takes priority
From an eternal perspective, spiritual food is more necessary than physical. Martha chose to serve physical food while Mary chose to receive spiritual food. Mary chose wisely.
But neither does Jesus condemn Martha’s service. To claim that Mary made the better choice does not necessarily imply that Martha made an evil choice. Yes, hospitality is part of gracious service, but when Jesus comes to town, all of us should drop everything to listen.
In the long run, it is more important to be a good disciple than to be a good hostess.
Women’s ministry: Discipleship over hospitality
That emphasis on discipleship is the focus of a healthy women’s ministry. While meal preparation and service are valuable acts of kindness, they are not the reason to have a women’s discipleship in a local church. Women’s ministry ought not to be personality-driven, program-driven or event-driven. It should be theologically-driven.
The goal of a healthy women’s ministry is to provide opportunities for women to “sit at Jesus’ feet” together.
If, like Martha, you are overwhelmed by work, chores and responsibilities, I encourage you be more like Mary — make time to sit at Jesus feet and listen. Find a good small group that provides both fellowship and time in God’s Word and join your sisters “on the floor”. It is the better way.