Here is Part One.
Here is Part Two.
And now for a closer look at one of the controversial figures in the New Testament: Martha. Of all the women in the Bible, I believe I identify most with Martha. She is the in-charge type, who likes to control the situation, and who gets pretty frustrated when things don't go her way. She tends to take her frustrations out on people, and she tries to get other people to take sides--her side--in every argument. When she is hosting an event, she likes to have everything just right. The food, the house, the arrangement of the furniture, the clothes her family members wear, the way everyone has their hair combed--all has to be just right.
Martha has a very hard time "going with the flow" when something disturbs her idea of perfection. She likes to orchestrate everything and everybody, and she gets all out of sorts when people and things don't perform up to her standards.
I have just described Catherine Margaret Smith Newton. Somebody out there in blog world has just said to themselves, "So that's why she's always defending Martha! She's really just defending herself!" And that's how it was when I first started to study Martha 18 months ago, when a dear friend preached about her. I did not like the picture he was painting of me, so I decided to do some word studies connected to both accounts of Martha and her beloved sister Mary.
Almost everybody I know who as done any kind of devotional or sermon or article on Martha and Mary focuses on one against the other. Martha this BUT Mary that. Mary worships BUT Martha serves. Mary progresses in her worship BUT Martha continues serving. And this is how I usually saw myself. Wanting to worship BUT being stuck in the nursery. Wanting to spend hours in prayer and Bible study BUT having to work with my children. Wanting to sit and feed on the Word in the adult Sunday school class BUT having to teach a class myself. What I most resented was that I saw no way possible for me to "choose the better part" because there was no choice for me. I HAD to serve.
When I took a good hard look at myself 18 months ago, I saw the truth about myself in a way that I never wanted to admit before. The truth is this: given the choice, given the wide-open door of opportunity to "choose the better part" without distraction, guess what? I would still find some way to be "encumbered about much serving."
So here I was, embarking on a journey, setting out to prove to the world once and for all that it is okay to be a Martha. That we all have different personality types, and God can use us all within our different personality types. Martha can serve while Mary worships, and God will bless us both. And I fully expected to have people, even the best commentators, totally disagree with me. And I was loading my guns in preparation for fighting back.
So I started tooling around with my wonderful E-sword, and to my surprise, most of the commentators were sympathetic toward Martha! Well, that sort of took some steam out of me. And in wondering how to interpret the two Martha-serving passages, I proceeded with my word study.
Luke 10:38 Now it came to pass, as they [the Lord and His disciples] went, that he entered into a certain village: and a certain woman named Martha received him into her house.
This is an interesting verse. Martha, Mary and their brother Lazarus lived together in one house. Yet it was not Lazarus' house, it was Martha's. Normally single women lived with their father, brother, uncle or other male relative. But here's a case where the home is owned by the woman. Now, I want to be careful not to read too much into this, but based on the following verses I think it's safe to say that Martha was an "in charge" type of person. She was the boss of that house. There is no way for us to know which sibling was the oldest, but I can imagine it might have been Martha. She sounds like she was used to running the show. Even her name means mistress!
Verses 39 and 40: And she had a sister called Mary, which also sat at Jesus' feet, and heard his word. But Martha was encumbered about much serving, and came to him, and said, Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone? bid her therefore that she help me.
And here the contrast is drawn: Mary sitting in peace at the Lord's feet, Martha bustling about, becoming more and more agitated to the point of actually giving orders to the Lord Himself!
What is Martha actually doing here, that she thinks is so important? The phrase is "encumbered about much serving." The first three words emphasize each other in relation to the amount of serving this woman was doing.
Encumbered: To be over-occupied, too busy, about a thing; to be mentally distracted.
About: In excess, with completeness, through and through.
Much: Many. Large. (As in, "the hostess with the mostest.")
The picture in my mind is this: Days, maybe even weeks, of preparation. The best food in town purchased for this one meal. Perhaps servants are sent to nearby Jerusalem for items Bethany doesn't have. The house cleaned from top to bottom and beautifully decorated. The cushions arranged for maximum comfort. The dishes of food carefully prepared and exquisitely garnished. Each course exactly timed so that nothing is too hot or too cold when set before the guests. And she certainly would not have neglected the common welcome of the day as one Simon did. She would have had plenty of fresh, warm water, the best soaps and the fluffiest towels for washing her guests' feet.
In other words, Martha went WAY over the top with this one meal. And for what purpose? Why all this effort? Something I read once suggested that Martha was showing off. I don't think so. I think she saw the Lord as Someone very important, and she wanted Him to have the best she could offer. But her best was too much. It encumbered her, distracting her and drawing her away from simply sitting at the Lord's feet and fellowshipping with Him. He didn't want all that fuss and bother. He wanted her. He would have been perfectly satisfied with a simple meal such as they normally would have eaten, in order for her to have time with Him.
Verses 41-42 And Jesus answered and said unto her, Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things: but one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.
Careful: Anxious, troubled.
Troubled: Disturbed, troubled in mind, disquieted.
The Lord used two synonyms to describe Martha's mental state. He wanted to make sure she got the point, like when we caution a child by saying, "That water is boiling hot." It's not enough to just say boiling or hot; we have to say boiling hot. So the Lord says careful and troubled.
Now let's fast-forward a year.
John 12:1-3 Then Jesus six days before the passover came to Bethany, where Lazarus was which had been dead, whom he raised from the dead. There they made him a supper; and Martha served: but Lazarus was one of them that sat at the table with him. Then took Mary a pound of ointment of spikenard, very costly, and anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped his feet with her hair: and the house was filled with the odor of the ointment.
On the surface, it appears as though Martha has not learned anything. Lazarus is sitting with the Lord, Mary is worshiping Him in a way that suggests she understands perfectly that He is about to be killed, but Martha is serving again. I'm going to suggest that she did learn something, something essential.
Martha was probably a wealthy woman. Matthew Henry suggests that she was possibly a widow, which would explain why this is her house, not her brother's. Perhaps she came from a poor family and married a wealthy man. This might explain why Mary and Lazarus lived with her: maybe their father had no property for them to inherit. The point is, Martha most likely had many servants ready to do her bidding. In Luke's account, Martha was overseeing a huge feast. There was way too much for one, or even two, women to do. Servants would have been bustling back and forth with wash basins, cushions, appetizers, etc. Martha would also have been bustling about making sure everything was going just right, driven to distraction by the mental strain of it all.
In John's account a year later, there is a startling difference.
They made Him a supper. The main meal of the day, one that would take a little extra effort than for breakfast or lunch, just as many of us do for our own families every day. In other words, nothing more or less special than normal, everyday fare.
And Martha served. Martha. Not her servants. Martha herself brought the Lord His food and set it before Him. She served in His presence, and without the mental distraction of the previous feast. She had learned to use the gift of hospitality God had blessed her with to serve with simplicity and in quietness of heart out of love for her Lord. I quote Matthew Henry:
Christ had formerly reproved Martha for being troubled with much serving. But she did not therefore leave off serving, as some, who, when they are reproved for one extreme, peevishly run into another; no, still she served; not as then at a distance, but within hearing of Christ's gracious words, reckoning those happy who, as the queen of Sheba said concerning Solomon's servants, stood continually before him, to hear his wisdom; better be a waiter at Christ's table than a guest at the table of a prince.