A Girl’s Gotta Eat (and so does everyone else): In Defense of Martha

This is one of those posts that reflects years of thought.  I’m not kidding.  I have been pondering this story since before the birth of my second child, and he just turned nine.  I once got accused of being a Martha because I pointed out that, if our plan included a meal, someone would have to organize it.  Food does not magically appear on the table (although Papa John’s online ordering with to-your-door delivery is surprisingly close).

I have always thought that Mary’s sister, Martha, gets a bad rap in Christian circles. This is probably because I am so much more like Martha than like Mary.  I’m a practical girl.  You say, “Let’s take a trip!”  I say, “Do we have enough gas to get there?”  The kids say, “Let’s watch a movie!”  I say, “Will it finish before bedtime?”  In defending Martha, I am defending myself.  So let’s really unpack this story (Luke 10:38-42) and get to the bottom of Martha’s situation . . . okay, her sin.  Because there is no way she was wrong to fix those guys something to eat!

It seems that Jesus enjoyed being at Martha’s house. In fact, he came to love Martha and her siblings (Mary and Lazarus) intimately and even stopped in to see them one last time on His way to Jerusalem before His crucifixion (John 12:1-3).  This is the family that He trusted enough to let them endure profound grief for His glory.  (See John 11.  I wrote about this previously.)  But the scene for today occurred earlier.  Perhaps this was the first time Jesus ever ‘set foot’ in their home.  We don’t know.  At any rate, Martha invited Him and his companions to come in and have something to eat.  The Scriptures say, Martha opened her home to him (Lk 10:38), demonstrating the natural hospitality of near-Eastern culture.  Then she got busy.  They had been travelling and were most certainly hungry.  Since they couldn’t order delivery pizza, it was necessary to actually cook.

Now this is where things get dicey. Martha got distracted by the preparations (v. 40a).  Let’s look at some of her options.

  • We can safely assume that Martha was fairly wealthy. Otherwise, she wouldn’t have invited all these people into her home. Therefore, she probably had several servants. She could have trusted them to prepare something nice and left it alone. But she didn’t.
  • Martha could have ordered food from other people (like catering) and paid them for their work. No one needed to know . . . unless they found all the take-away containers. This too was unacceptable.
  • If she wanted to do it herself, Martha could have made something simple—maybe some fruit and grilled meat if they wanted to eat quickly—or thrown some beans and rice in the whatever-functioned-like-a-crockpot-in-those-days and walked away.  [Semi-random aside:  Remember when Abram prepared a meal for his three guests (Genesis 18)?  They had to slaughter an animal and bake bread.  Those things take quite a while.  Sure, this is thousands of years later, but not much had changed.  In many parts of the world, people still don’t expect to eat quickly.]

It’s clear that Martha had some pride issues because the preparations were taking every ounce of her energy and focus. She wanted to make German Chocolate Cake when no-bake cookies or boxed brownies would have been sufficient.  But before you slam her, consider the fact that her motives may have been good.  When I have someone special in my home, I want to serve them to the best of my ability.  I want to give them the very best I have to offer—not for myself but as a way to honor that person.  Perhaps Martha already recognized that Jesus was someone special; perhaps she was already growing to love Him (speaking platonically here); perhaps her heart was not that different from the widow with two small coins, who gave so generously (Luke 21:1-4).  All of us have walked that fine line between honoring our guests and wanting to be honored for our exceptional hospitality (or any other gift from Him).  My kids ask me why we have to clean the house before company comes over.  There are days when it’s hard to answer honestly.

When the focus of that award-winning German Chocolate Cake jumps from the eater to the preparer, we have entered into sin. This is why God said He hated the Israelites’ worship in Amos 5.  They went through the motions of worship, but with impure hearts.  Just think about it:  (paraphrasing) “I hate your offerings because they are about you, not about Me.”  He might say to me, “I hate your freshly mopped floors and your delicious muffins because you did it to make yourself look good, not to honor Me.”

Ouch.

We can’t really know Martha’s motives. I have read between the lines far more than is acceptable just because I see myself in Martha so often.  Here’s what we know for sure:  Martha went to Jesus and complained (v. 40b).  I can imagine her walking around behind the other men, stooping to whisper in Jesus’ ear.  You see, Mary was behaving counter-culturally.  She wasn’t supposed to be sitting in that room with all the men.  There were clear lines of gender separation in that culture.  So on top of being jealous because Mary got to listen to Jesus while she didn’t, and frustrated because she couldn’t get all the work done, we can assume that Martha was slightly embarrassed by Mary’s behavior.  Her tone could have been a little whiney, or it could have been indignant.  I lean toward the latter because I don’t think Martha was afraid of hard work or long hours.  She wanted everything to be handled properly and in a socially-acceptable manner.  Things just weren’t going the way they were supposed to go, and surely, Jesus—of all people—could see that!  So she offered a solution that would help them both:  tell Mary to go help in the kitchen.

Before we look at what Jesus said, let’s look at what He did not say.  This is significant.  He didn’t deny that there was a lot of work to be done.  He didn’t tell Martha to quit making the preparations; He didn’t tell her to sit down; He didn’t suggest a simpler meal.  He also didn’t say that He was hungry, though, or tell her about His favorite food.

Instead, His words make me think He reached out and laid his hand on her arm. He connected with her, looking beyond the dirty apron, the burn on one hand and the worn-out potholder on the other, the sweat dripping down her temple, the frizz of hair that had escaped her headscarf.  He stopped whatever deep and important conversation was developing (or whatever joke was being told, because we know Jesus liked to laugh!), waiting until her eyes met his, and spoke into her heart:  “We don’t need a lot, Martha.  The social conventions aren’t important; I’m not going to ask Mary to leave here when she is learning so much about Me.”  Perhaps I’m going too far, but I like to think that there was gratitude in His tone . . . something which told Martha that He appreciated her service and understood her situation.

I spent years trying to comprehend the “one thing” of which Jesus spoke. Remember?  He said, Few things are needed—or indeed only one (v. 42).  This just puzzled my Martha mind . . . until recently.  Mary chose to focus on Jesus.  Martha chose to get distracted, and she complained.  In those actions, we see her sin.  She invited these people into her home then didn’t pay attention to them.  The one thing needed was to prioritize Jesus.

I don’t think Jesus expected Martha to drop the potholder, wipe the sweat from her brow, ignore the burning rice, and sit down there with the others. We don’t know for sure because –frustratingly—the Word stops there.  We don’t even know how Martha responded.  It seems more likely, however, that she simply needed to adjust her mindset.  While Mary sat and worshipped, Martha would serve and worship.  Both functioning within the will of God.

Later, Paul would say, In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus (Philippians 2:5).  Your mindset has nothing to do with sitting-haha!

So, my fellow Christ-following Martha-types out there, there is NOTHING WRONG with cooking dinner. There is certainly nothing wrong with hospitality, and there is nothing wrong with giving God your absolute best.  Go ahead and bake the German Chocolate Cake if you can do it without losing focus and without detracting from your one-on-one time with Him . . . because the sin is in the why.  Are you distracted from knowing Him by serving Him?  Are you more interested in what people will think than how God will be glorified?  Get these things sorted out, and your service becomes an act of worship, which is what God intended when He created you.

Serve God for His pleasure, not your pride.

But Lord, this stinketh . . .

I’m old enough to remember when the only version of the Bible that people read out loud was the King James. As a kid, I thought “stinketh” was a great word . . . okay, I still do. Martha (the ever-practical one) says this to Jesus when Jesus tells them to open Lazarus’ tomb (John 11:39). But these days, the part of the story that really floors me is earlier:

So the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Lord, the one you love is sick.” 

When he heard this, Jesus said, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory; so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. Yet when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days.  -John 11:3-6

You know what happens. Lazarus dies while Jesus sits around twidling His holy thumbs.  That’s just wrong! Why would Jesus do that?

Because Jesus waited, Lazarus suffered to the point of death.

Because Jesus waited, Mary and Martha experienced three days of immense grief.

Because Jesus waited, Mary and Martha questioned Jesus’ purpose on earth (Jn 11:21).

Because Jesus waited, Lazarus may have had to return to earth from Heaven. That would be awful.

Jesus waited because He loved this family. That sounds backward. They were His friends–possibly the best friends He had outside of the disciples. Where does he go just before the triumphal entry? To see Lazarus (Jn 12:1). What makes Jesus weep? Mary and Martha’s grief (Jn 11:35).
With love comes trust. Jesus entrusted Mary, Martha, and Lazarus with a very difficult task, knowing that they would be faithful all the way through it. He wanted to show His power over death, and they could join Him in doing it. Jesus knew that–more than anyone else–Mary, Martha, and Lazarus could ‘handle’ this time of darkness. This is what Jesus does to/with His friends.

Jesus knew these friends could
handle this time of darkness,
even when they didn’t know it.

It’s worth noting that Jesus doesn’t ask this family if they want to undertake this difficult task, if they are willing to help Him, or if they are ‘up to it’. He knows them better than they know themselves, so He knows what they can and can’t endure. If He had asked, they probably would have said ‘no’. So would we.

I think we’re being presumptuous or careless when we say “I am a friend of God.” Really? Have you considered what happens to Jesus’ friends? Are you sure you want to say that? According to tradition, Peter was crucified upside down. Ten other disciples were martyred, and John was exiled for years. Even Jesus’ own mother had to watch Him be crucified. Think what that did to her. And Jesus knew in advance that it was going to happen. God has shown me several other examples that I will post later, and I think the Hebrew exodus (see Between a Rock and Hard Place) fits here, too.

Jesus said, “You are my friends if you do what I command” (John 15:14). That doesn’t sound like a very equal friendship to me. The closer we get to Jesus, the more He will ask of us. That’s scary. In fact, the only possible comfort in such a thought is that we are THAT close to Jesus.
Well, there is another comfort. (Did you really think I wasn’t going to mention it?!?) It’s for His glory. Jesus said those very words to the disciples (John 11:4). If He asks something difficult from you or me, He already knows that He will get more glory by our endurance than He would if we didn’t go through it. Our experiences aren’t sport or entertainment for Him. He doesn’t want us to suffer. He weeps with and for us just like He wept with Mary and Martha. Everything He allows to happen has a singular, ultimate purpose: His glory. His secondary purpose is usually our personal, spiritual growth, but don’t loose sight of His primary purpose!

Everything He allows to
happen has a singular,
ultimate purpose: His glory.

God started showing me these things more than a year ago. It didn’t take me long to realize that He was preparing me for something…that increased intimacy with Him also meant increased expectations from Him…that something was going to happen in my life or my family’s life to potentially shake us to the core. About three months ago, we watched one of  our children crumble under a difficult set of circumstances. But because I knew that Jesus Himself had walked us directly into the situation, I also knew He would and will be glorified through it. Like Martha said to Jesus, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world” (John 11:27), we said, “We believe that You are sovereign and that Your primary objective in this situation is Your own glory.”

Did that make our situation easy? No. Knowing that Jesus claims us as friends…knowing that He is sovereign…the situation, well, it still ‘stinketh.’ And like Martha, we told Jesus straight-up that it stunk. He already knew anyway. He already knew that it would be difficult, but He knew that He could trust us to stay close to Him, to stay faithful to Him, through the difficult situation. That’s why He could let it happen to us.

So when He sends you through something difficult, don’t run away. Don’t fall back. Hold your nose and watch for God to raise glory from the stink.

Stinky situation? Hold your nose and watch for God to raise glory from the stink. (click to tweet)

What about you? When have you experienced God’s glory through a difficult situation? Please, do share in the comments!