05 Dec “In Defense of Martha” by Stephen Hutchins
As Pastor Dave often reminded us, the Bible is two stories. First, it’s God’s story—who He is; what He’s like; how He works in human affairs to name a few of its themes. It’s also our story—who we are; what we’re like; how we can become right with our Creator. In addition to the many teachings concerning us, we also encounter numerous characters that, in many ways, remind us of ourselves. One such character is Martha. Though you may not see yourself in her especially, she still has much to teach us all. She’s only mentioned three times in the Bible, once in Luke’s gospel, and twice in John’s, with each depicting unique intersections in hers and Jesus’s life. It’s her encounter with Jesus that Luke records for us in chapter 10 (vv.38-42) that I’d like to focus on here.
You know the story- Jesus visits the home of Martha with her sister Mary present. Martha’s resentment toward Mary for not assisting with hostess duties boils over to the point where she confronts Jesus with this perceived injustice, apparently seeking His empathy and perhaps His alliance in correcting Mary’s seemingly selfish behavior. Up till this point, Mary has taken the place of a disciple and planted herself at the feet of Jesus taking in His every word. Jesus, lovingly and gently, admonishes Martha’s perspective and holds up Mary as an example for her to follow. Ouch!
If we dig a little deeper, though, I think there may be more to this story. Like many in our own culture and generation, I think Martha struggled with anxiety. What makes me think this? The key verse is 41 where Jesus says, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and bothered about so many things.” The Greek word for “worried” that Luke uses means “to have anxiety about” and is only used in one other place in the New Testament. Paul uses it in the Book of Philippians when he exhorts believers to “be anxious for nothing.” The other word Jesus uses to describe Martha’s feelings, “bothered,” comes from a Greek word meaning “trouble” or “disturb” and this is its sole usage in all of the New Testament. The last word I’ll focus on is “many”, which translated from the Greek can mean “many,” “much,” “plenteous,” “abundant,” etc. (you get the idea). Now, unlike the other two words, this word is used numerous times in the NT, over 200. Some examples include the last verse of John’s Gospel where John writes: “And there are also many other things which Jesus did, which if they were written in detail, I suppose that even the world itself would not contain the books which were written.” Another example comes in the Book of Revelation where John is describing the scene in heaven where he says, “…I heard the voice of many angels around the throne and the living creatures and the elders; and the number of them was myriads of myriads, and thousands and thousands…” (Rev. 5:11) Sounds like a lot. In every NT usage of this word for “many,” the context requires an amount closer to vast as opposed to a few.
Now if Martha was just miffed because Mary was shirking the duties of pulling her hostess weight (e.g. setting the table, preparing the side dish(es), picking up the clutter, etc.), then Jesus’ word of exhortation seems a bit overkill to me. There are other Greek words to denote “many” that have a less voluminous meaning. No, I think Martha, like so many of us (myself included) struggle with failure to “live in the moment,” allowing anxiety to overtake us as our minds race with all the burdens of life, ministry, and everything that “has to be done.” Like Martha, we’ve deprived ourselves of the peace that comes from resting or being still in the moment God has us in, taking each minute, hour, day, week as He gives them to us.
Our culture seems to recognize our collective need to slow down and focus as evidenced by the proliferation of adult coloring books, therapists, and yoga classes, among other aids. I suppose many of these have a value to some extent. For the Christian, though, these disciplines are exponentially more powerful and effective if Jesus is at the center of them. The Psalmist said, “…Cease striving and know that I am God….”
For Martha, it really wasn’t about the meal preparations that Mary was “neglecting.” In my view, if it weren’t that, Martha would’ve found something else to be consumed about with the byproduct being anxiety. I love Jesus’ tenderness with her as He gently helps her to see her need to quiet her mind and focus on what is “necessary.” Mary, as she sat there listening intently to Jesus’ words, became the living illustration of His counsel to Martha.
As stated earlier, the only other place in Scripture where the same Greek word is used for “anxiety” that Luke uses here to describe Martha’s emotional state is in Philippians 4:6-7. It’s included in a command accompanied by a promise:
“Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, shall guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
Mary knew the secret. Martha learned the secret. Jesus, through the Apostle Paul, teaches us the secret of freedom from anxiety along with a promise. How great is that?!