I’m a bad host at dinner parties. I prepare the food so it’s ready about 45 minutes after the guests are expected. I’m an introvert who quickly loses energy around people. And I go to bed early in order to take the morning shift with the kiddos. This represents a problem because my partner loves hosting parties. I get all worked up about providing food and making sure things are done at the correct time, so much so that when the time comes for the sobremesa, I’m exhausted. I focus too much on the process and not enough on spending time with our guests. Basically, I am Martha.
Most of the time, there’s nothing wrong with being Martha. She has her own house, into which she invited Jesus and his traveling companions (and in Luke 10, we know there were at least 70!). As we’ve discussed elsewhere, Martha was probably the master of a combination pilgrim hostel, hospice and poorhouse. She was used to taking care of scores of guests who couldn’t provide for themselves. She probably provided loving and lavish care for travelers, the poor and the dying. Certainly, Martha and her family are some of Jesus’ most important friends outside of those who traveled with him. Martha is not to be faulted for her hospitality or for living out of Jesus’ core instructions—to care for the hungry, the sick and the stranger.
Where Martha briefly falls afoul of Jesus is when she insists on her idea of gender roles for her sister. Mary had chosen to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen to his teaching, just as his other female disciples were doing (Luke 8:2). Apparently, Martha was trying to listen to Jesus, too, but was distracted by the great service that she was trying to accomplish at the same time (10:40). Martha scolded Jesus for not insisting that Mary should help her sister instead of studying at his feet.
But much more important than the hospitality was the time spent with Jesus, hearing his words, asking him questions, going back and forth, and wrestling with the ideas and practices of the kingdom of God.
Jesus saw that Martha was anxious and distracted. But instead of agreeing with her that Mary should be helping with the preparations, he said the proper place for her sister—and Martha too—was sitting and studying with him. Jesus insisted that the position of women who study with him would not be taken away (10:42).
Jesus loved a dinner party, to be sure. And someone did need to make the food. But much more important than the hospitality was the time spent with Jesus, hearing his words, asking him questions, going back and forth, and wrestling with the ideas and practices of the kingdom of God. If Jesus talked with people too long, he could simply multiply bread and fish, after all. Certainly the power that healed, drove out unclean spirits and raised Martha’s brother from the dead could also cater a party!
Martha was free to listen or not, of course. She was free to take a seat at the front of the class with her sister or to undertake preparing food and a place to sleep for Jesus’ massive entourage. What she was not free to do was dislodge Mary from her choice to learn from Jesus.
In Luke’s second work, the book of Acts, we learn that the early church was characterized primarily by four verbs. Together they studied, hung out (fellowshiped), ate and prayed (Acts 2:42). This pattern was no doubt modeled on Jesus’ interaction with his disciples. In the Gospels we see the disciples eating with Jesus, listening to him, asking questions, praying with him and just generally hanging out with their traveling rabbi.
Serving the poor, the dying and the traveler are exactly what Jesus wants us to do—and exactly what Jesus wanted Martha to do. But even these holy actions can be distractions that separate us from Jesus, who wants to teach us how to be disciples. This is, I suspect, a trap that most folks who engage in professional ministry fall into from time to time—doing the job so well and so completely that we lose touch with God who has called us to the work. Jesus offers a gentle corrective. Learning to spend time as a disciple at Jesus’ feet is more important than even the holiest task. Jesus won’t allow that blessing to be taken away from those who choose it.