I have two sisters and they are very different. I suppose that is an understatement of the fact; they are as different as night and day. One is quiet and reserved; the other more boisterous. My mother has nicknamed each of her children (no one ask what my nickname is) and she calls one “bunnie” and the other was “the hurricane.” Certainly you can see the difference between the two in that vivid contrast. Their personalities, characteristics, etc. are all different and these differences spill over into their Christian walks: each serves the Lord in different capacities. One service is not greater or above anothers, they are just different.
In Luke 10.38-42, we have the account of two very different sisters. And each renders a service to Jesus in their own capacity. Martha offers the service of hospitaity and Mary the service of homage. Luke tells us this account took place in “a village” (v.38), a very vague description which is uncommon for the precise historian. We can venture to guess that this may have been Bethany since Martha and Mary as said to have lived there in John 11.1. Martha opens her home to the Lord and the scene is set for a sibling scuffle.
When Jesus has fully settled in at the home, Mary takes her place at the feet of the Lord. Notice, these are the Lord’s feet; that is, she recognizes his authority and lordship of her life. This is the proper place for her to be. Meanwhile, in the kitchen, Martha is busy with all the preparations. I picture a lady with serveral pots on the stove, many about to boil over. Countertop space is devoted to different aspects to an elegant meal. Notice this: Martha too recognizes the lorship of Jesus. However, the manifestation of this recognition is in devoted service. Indeed the word used here in the Greek is diakonian, from which we get our English word “deacon” but is perhaps better translated as “service, ministry.” These are what “Martha’s” in the church are: servants and ministers. And we need Marthas in the church. But what we don’t need are Marthas who exhibit a Martha complex.
What happens when Martha sees her sister Mary sitting around with Jesus, not helping with the preparations. Well, I think there are some feelings of resentment, anger, frustration. These are expressed in her statement in v.40 where she commands the Lord to demand her sister get in the kitchen with me. Literally, Martha asks for Jesus to tell her sister to “take hold of” the burden of service she is bearing. The Martha complex is when a minister of the Lord’s church (and I am not just talking about the “pastor” or the Preacher) sees a Mary and diminishes their service to the Lord. As Jesus will point out, Mary has chosen some thing that is good. Therefore, don’t take away from it. Paul says it this way in Romans 12.6, “We have different gifts according to grace given us.” Hence, the manifestation those gifts are expressed differently in different people.
A word of caution must go out, though. Marys of the church: do not abuse the service you render by making it an excuse to be lazy or skip out on work with Marthas. There is a time to bury the nose in a book or in the Word, but then there must be time where we physically do what Jesus has said to do. As the half-brother of Jesus says, “Do not merely be hearers of the word and so decieve yourself; do what it says” (James 1.22). There must be times when the Marys mobilize into situations where they roll up their sleeves and bear the burden of service with the Marthas.
Martha makes her complaint and the Lord gently chides her for the remark. Jesus repeating the name of Martha surely points to the gentleness. He says she is anxious or worried about many things. In few years from then, Paul would say “be anxious for nothing…” (Phil 4.6). She is also troubled in mind (upset) because of all the things she has going on. Jesus says there is only one thing that is needed, that is, it is not about having the best food. Jesus is digging deep into the root of the problem. Martha has an improper attitude behind the actions she is engaging in. Mary denomstrates the better spiritual perspective of the two. Martha had chosen to serve in hospitality and Mary in homage; both had correctly chosen and the Lord loved them for it. But what mars the service of Martha is her improper attitude concerning the service rendered by her sister. I think that is what the Mary’s service “what is better.”
Here is the challenge to every member of the Lord’s body and every congregation summed up by John Phillips: “Blessed is the congregation that has plenty of room for both types of people.” Let us learn to live with and respect one anothers ministry and service to the Lord. Let us avoid bickering and scuffling in the family of God. Let us be slow to anger, quick to listen and slow to speak. And let us not take away from our brother or sister what they have chosen in service to God, be they a busy Martha or a listening Mary.