Martha – The Harried Hostess

The average person is unable to handle wealth. “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God” (Matt. 19:24).

There are, however, by God’s grace, those who have wealth and handle it wisely. There was an Abraham, who used all of his vast wealth to serve God in humble faith. There was the woman in Shunem who housed the prophet Elisha and was rewarded with a son. There have been throughout history various others, also, who used their wealth to support the work of the kingdom of God.

One such woman was Martha. Martha appears to have been the wealthiest woman in the small town of Bethany, not far from the bustling city of Jerusalem. Her home was a prominent one of which she was the owner. Perhaps her husband was dead; we do not know the circumstances in which she received the home. But head of the home she was—head of a large home, head of a family consisting of her younger sister Mary and her younger brother Lazarus. She had wealth and control of her wealth and she used it well.

The Gospel evidence suggests that once Jesus left his own parents’ home at Nazareth, this home in Bethany is one of the few places where he was able to rest in peace. Near Capernaum, he was often found at the home of the apostle Peter, whose wife and mother ministered to his needs. And here near Jerusalem, Martha and her siblings took in Jesus, and, undoubtedly, also his disciples when they were present. Here he was able to rest. Here he was able to teach in the courtyard and at meals. Jesus loved being here with this devout family.

Martha and her sister Mary were the ones who made this possible. There is no doubt that Martha was a paragon of efficiency. She kept a well-ordered home where it was possible to have guests and to serve meals to one or to several. Her sister Mary assisted her in her work. There was love between the sisters and brother, a closely knit family. And there was a desire to be of service wherever service was needed. The family viewed their wealth not as something desirable for personal pride but as a tool for service.

When Jesus loves, He does not love because of wealth. He does not love rich people more and poor people less; all of Scripture refutes this idea. Rather, when He loved this family in Bethany, it was due to the great faith which this family possessed, not due to their wealth. He loved them because they belonged to Him, were among the elect for whom He would die. He loved them because they believed in Him—not fully understanding, but believing as much as they did understand. They responded to His teaching and acknowledged Him as God, as Messiah, as “He who should come.” And, believing, they threw everything they had into supporting and aiding Him and His ministry. They were truly godly leaders, true disciples of Jesus. He was at one in fellowship with them; He loved them!

All of this was made possible by Martha, the godly owner and leader of the home. Her faith and love made the framework in which her sister and brother were able to exercise their faith and love without hindrance. Mary and Lazarus responded without resentment to her authority, working as an harmonious family, serving God in blessed unity.

Is this how I view my possessions? Like this family, do I practice true hospitality? Do I use all that I have to serve God and His kingdom?

In this context, Jesus near the end of His life visited this family again. As was His custom, He sat in the courtyard while supper was being prepared. Doubtless, as a good hostess, Martha had first spent some time also listening to His words, visiting with Him. And most likely she also heard Him speak things she would rather not hear: words of His impending trouble at Jerusalem, His suffering and death. Jesus would have tried to prepare His friends, just as He was trying to prepare His disciples, for His death. Mary heard.. .and couldn’t tear herself away. If Jesus’ life were soon to end, she wanted to hear every word she could while He was still here! She wanted to be with Him, hearing Him, worshipping Him every minute that breath lasted.

Martha, too, heard…but couldn’t stand the dark atmosphere and got up to dispel the atmosphere with her usual hospitality. A good hostess must insure pleasantness, right? So, let’s get rid of this negativism by a good meal and some light sociability! Quickly, she began putting together the best meal she could muster, with several delicious food courses and flowers on the table and her best silverware, all the best, the best…for her Master…

Do I really listen when God is speaking? Or do I, like Martha, push away unpleasant topics—such as my sin—by crowding them out with daily trivia?

Do I also make myself too busy to listen??

To accomplish all this, Martha needed help! She whispered to Mary to come and help, but Mary didn’t even hear her; she could only hear Jesus. She attempted for a while to do it all alone but it was too much; she wanted to do so much, and everything must be perfect! No, just a simple hot dish wasn’t enough, or even one meat and one vegetable; for her Lord, it must be two or three meats, three or four vegetables, a bowl of fruits artfully arranged, and anything else she could think of…yes, surely a few pastries for dessert…and…

The more she attempted, the more she became flustered. The more flustered she became, the more irritated she became at her sister, just sitting there and doing nothing! What was the matter with Mary? Usually Mary also would help, but now she just sat there! And Jesus…He must know that she needed Mary’s help, didn’t He? Why couldn’t He tell her to help? Was He blind, not to see how much work she had, that she needed help?

Finally Martha could stand it no longer. Disregarding the usual courtesies of a hostess, she disrupted the instruction Jesus was giving and spoke to Him. Plaintively, suggesting that He was an insensitive guest, she cried out, “Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone? Bid her therefore that she help me!”

How frequently I see this happening! When my children are given work to do, how quickly they look at the brother or sister and say, “But him…what about him?”

Notice that her anxiety over much serving had caused Martha to make three errors of judgment:

  1. She failed to love her sister. Usually she was a compassionate sister and usually Mary was a good helper, but this time Mary’s need to hear Jesus was greater than her call to work…and Martha failed to sympathize with that need and to give Mary what she needed.
  2. She failed to honor Jesus as she ought to have. She dishonored Him as Guest but, above all, she dishonored His motives. She felt He was honoring Mary who was being lazy rather than herself in her work of compassion for Him. He did not care about the work she did for Him!
  3. She failed to meet her own spiritual needs. She, too, like Mary, needed to sit at Jesus’ feet and absorb His words, preparing her soul for His passion and death. But she was too absorbed with the present material needs to accept this need.

It is easy for me, also, to fall into this snare, isn’t it? I, too, can begin my work in a right way, wanting to do it for God’s sake, but then bye and bye find the work itself becoming the important thing, rather than God and listening to God. I, too, can begin to feel sorry for myself because my work makes me so busy…instead of seeking ways to cut down on my work and spend more time listening to God.

I love the way Jesus responds to Martha. He gives her His undivided attention! He is not just an irritated male, impatient at her interruption. He is not a male chauvinist who considers a woman’s work unimportant, belittling her service. Neither does He, however, excuse her error and preoccupation. Her error needs correction! So, gently, gently, He calls her name, twice. The gentle reproach in His voice reaches her: “Martha! Martha! Thou art (full of cares) and troubled about many things”—her spotless house, a huge meal—“but one thing is needful and Mary hath chosen that good part!”

Knowing our own pride, our own irritation with having our faults pointed out, especially when we have felt someone else was in the wrong, it is remarkable that we do not find Martha angry with Jesus’ rebuke. Jesus had called her name and His calling with her was effective: she heard! She responded! We do not know just how she responded but she definitely was won over to see that He was right, that Mary was right, and that she, too, must pause to listen, putting first things first.

Like Martha, we need our sins pointed out, too. Sometimes God points them out through fellow Christians who speak to us about them…maybe even our spouses or children. Sometimes He points them out through the stress of our lives which overwhelms us until we pray about this. Sometimes He uses our own Bible study in the quiet of the night. Most often He uses the week after week preaching of His Word through His ambassadors in church. Through these means He calls our names, too—just as gently, just as lovingly, and just as forcefully: “My child! My child!” We hear Him speaking to each of us personally about our own sins.

Am I listening? Each Sunday, am I listening? In Bible societies, am I straining to hear Him speak to me? Am I the Martha needing rebuke…, or the Martha who hears the rebuke, learns the lesson and joins Mary at the Savior’s feet?