One of the hardest things about being a parent is that my children do not act the way I did when I was their age. They fight, bicker and get jealous. Not once as a child did I ever get in a fight with one of my siblings or get jealous about what they got for Christmas or their birthday. That might have been different if I wasn’t an only child.
I really find the whole sibling rivalry to be rather confusing. I had a friend who put red ants down his sister’s pants and when she cried for their parents, he put red ants down his own pants so he could blame another guy. My children have not gotten to that stage. Yet.
An entire book could be written about sibling rivalries in the Bible. In the Old Testament especially, we have some pretty unhealthy relationships from Abel and Cain to Joseph and his brothers. Somehow, no matter what the circumstances, siblings can find fault with each other. The story from the New Testament continues this theme. We will look at the details in a moment, but for now notice that one sister complains to Jesus about the other sister. But this story is not simply about sisters having a disagreement. The story goes more deeply than that, providing a lesson that challenges us all.
Their Sitting and Serving
It helps for us to have a bit of cultural background. One of the greatest virtues in the ancient world is that of hospitality. Even in homes that were poor, people would do all they could to make their guests feel welcome. Hospitality is still important to many people, but in the ancient world and in that area of the world, hospitality ingrained deeply into the culture. There would be a deep shame if you did not provide proper hospitality to a guest.
With that in mind, when the story begins with Martha working hard to serve Jesus and make him feel welcome in her home, Martha was doing the right thing. She was fulfilling the cultural expectations and no observer would have accused her of acting improperly.
The conflict begins with who is involved in the hospitality. While Martha is working hard, her sister Mary is just sitting there. Have you ever been in a situation like that? You are working hard and there are people around you who are just sitting there, refusing to lift a finger to help. It can be pretty frustrating. By the way, we know from the Gospel of John that Mary and Martha also had a brother named Lazarus. What was Lazarus doing during all of this? Culturally, it would have been more acceptable for a man to sit out of the housework than a woman.
Actually, gender roles play a very important part in this story. It is not just that Mary is skipping out on the serving, it is also about the alternative that she chooses. Sitting at Jesus’ feet is not a sign that she is being lazy or is too tired to work. Sitting at the feet of a teacher was the sign of discipleship. The fact that Jesus allows her that position indicates that he accepts her as a disciple. This is extremely radical, in the Jewish, Greek and Roman cultures of the day. No teacher would take on a female disciple and Jesus does this forbidden thing.
The simple interpretation is that Jesus rebukes Martha for working and affirms Mary for taking the role of the disciple. That is not quite what is going on here. If we look carefully, the story is bit more complicated. Jesus does not say to Martha, “Would you please stop fussing around and sit down beside your sister!” Jesus only speaks to Martha in response to what she says to him.
The problem was not that Mary was sitting and Martha was serving. The problem was that Martha was angry that Mary was sitting and not serving. Jesus’ rebuke of Martha was not for her work but for criticism of Mary. It was inappropriate for Martha to condemn Mary for taking on the role of the disciple.
Notice how the story starts. Martha opened up her home to Jesus. At that moment, it was Martha who was volunteering to take on the role of host. Mary was free to be the disciple. If Martha had just continued to serve with a humble heart, I don’t think that Jesus would have said a harsh word to her.
Our Sitting and Serving
What does this mean for us? Is the moral of this story that we should just give up on working and we should just sit in the presence of Jesus?
The problem with that interpretation is that we have many examples in the Gospels where Jesus is working and where he calls his disciples to work. Working for the spreading of the Kingdom of God is not a bad thing. God calls not to be a passive church but an active church. So what does this mean?
Normally, I don’t bother to tell you about the Greek behind a particular word. But in this case, it is relevant. The NIV translates what Martha is doing as ‘work.’ There is a Greek word that means work but that is not what is used. The word that is used is the word from which we get deacon from and it means specifically to minister or to serve.
The truth is that it is important, as individuals and as a church, that we minister and serve. Not only does the Bible tell us to do this, when we minister and serve, we can see God at work in our actions. Doing Martha work is not a bad thing.
But it is also important for us to be a Mary. We need to sit at Jesus’ feet. Before we take on the role of a minister or a server, we need to be a disciple. What is a disciple? A disciple is a learner or a student, a disciple is one who sits under a teacher.
This does not pit the roles of learning and serving against each other. These are meant to go hand in hand. Imagine that you have to get surgery and you are brought into the operating room. You ask the surgeon where he went to medical school and he informs you that he didn’t go to medical school because he is more of a hands-on person than a classroom person. How comfortable would you be?
We are called to be disciples before anything else. As disciples, we learn skills and concepts about ministry. But we should also be learning by sitting at the feet of Jesus. This takes place through prayer, meditating on the Gospels, silence, worship and the practice of other spiritual disciplines. We need to have quality time with God.
Here is the key to this passage. It is not for us to judge whether someone else is supposed to be sitting or serving. We are responsible for our own spiritual formation. While we can help others, we are not to judge them.
You don’t have to be serving all the time, you can sit. In the same way, you shouldn’t be sitting all the time, there is a time to serve.
As I read this story, I must confess that I identify with Martha. My tendency is to do things, especially things where I can see immediate results. Sitting at the feet of Jesus does not come naturally. I would rather read the Bible to prepare a sermon than to feed my soul. I would rather pray for a sick person in a hospital than to draw closer to God in devotional prayer.
But I have discovered that I cannot serve unless I also sit. It is by devoting oneself to becoming a better disciple that we are better able to do the work of God. Quiet yourself in the presence of Jesus and then roll up your sleeves and get about the business of the Kingdom. It is not sitting or serving but sitting and serving.