We can well imagine that day in Bethany. The kitchen was bustling with activity. The sweet smell of baking bread wafted from the oven. Pungent Mediterranean food simmered in pots over a crackling fire. The roasting meat mingled with herbs rendered a most savory aroma. Martha was putting forth her best culinary effort, and it was all worth it. Jesus was visiting, and they must serve him the choicest they had. She was determined this would be a feast fit for a king. Yet something was amiss: Martha lost her sous-chef.
Mary was not helping Martha with the dinner, but was sitting at Jesus’ feet instead. She was engrossed with the words of her Master. This troubled Martha. Her gourmet meal was taking much time and effort. Vegetables need chopping, the butter churning, the fire tending, the pots stirring. Martha was cumbered about much serving, and a bit over her head in haute cuisine. “Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone? Bid her therefore that she help me.”
Jesus had a better idea. Rather, Martha would be the one to learn a lesson here. In this teachable moment, Jesus gently answered her. “Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things: But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:40—42).
Jesus put true Christian service into perspective. Martha thought she was doing an important act of service. Though Martha loved Jesus very much, her work became a distraction that day. To make matters worse, she tried to deter her sister from listening to Christ. Anxious and worried, Martha could take no time to listen and learn from the very one she served. She had no time to learn from the Master Teacher and Prophet of all time. Martha had elevated outward service over inward meditation.
Jesus corrected Martha with precise words. He did not say that Mary chose one of the needful things. He did not say Mary chose the most needful thing. Rather, Jesus said one thing was needful—just one. Mary had chosen that good part. This is so uncomplicated, that even our children can grasp it. The one thing needful is simply to learn at Christ’s feet with all our heart.
What was so special about Mary that she could nail this down? Some Bible commentaries analyze the personality differences of these two sisters. They surmise that Martha was a take-charge, type-‘A’ sort of woman. She would have made a great group organizer for worthy and needy causes. Some say that Mary, on the other hand, was quiet, thoughtful, placid, and sweet. As enjoyable as Mary may have been, we know that she was a sinner like the rest of us. Further, her very nature was at enmity against the one she sat before. No pleasant personality trait could have ever caused her to do what she did that day. It was, rather, entirely a work of God’s grace.
It is by God’s grace that we perform every good work, including cooking, housework, and other acts of service. When done by faith in the right spirit, they are important acts of love. But Martha at this moment was not performing her work out of faith. How often we also are weak in faith. We forget in our hearts to sit at the feet of Christ while taking care of our families, making meals for one another, helping at our Christian schools, or visiting widows and the sick. At such times, we become irritable and bicker with one another as Martha did. I am ashamed to think of how many times I have done this. We must all learn to be more like meditative Mary, that we might be best prepared for true Christian service.
What an example Mary is for us. For what is more fundamental in serving Christ than learning to understand His will and lovingly doing it? We can learn from her. May we pray for the humble spirit, the ardent desire to learn of Christ, and the deep love for Him that she had.
Our problem is that by nature we really do not like being taught. As Winston Churchill once said, “I am always ready to learn, although I do not always like being taught.” When we walk in pride and self-reliance, we find we do not learn, and our problems just get worse. “…for God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble” (I Pet. 5:5b). Mary humbly chose the one thing needful because she understood that she knew nothing on her own.
A first step in imitating Mary is recognizing that learning and discussing theology is not only for the men. Years ago, when my husband began to prepare for seminary, a wise professor gave him advice. He exhorted my husband, “Don’t leave your wife behind. Talk with her and teach her the truths you are learning.” My dear husband enthusiastically obliged. Learning together the truths of God’s word has been a great source of joy in our marriage.
I Timothy 2:11 says, “Let a woman learn in silence with all subjection.” We often quote this verse to refute the apostatizing churches who ordain women to the office of minister, elder, or deacon. We stress the part of the verse that says, “in silence with all subjection.” We know this means that a woman cannot teach in the worship service or have authority over the man in the official work of the church. We rightly emphasize this over against the false teaching that this was merely a cultural requirement that was limited to the people who lived in Paul’s day. Yet, while rightly refuting the error, we must not miss the gem in the first half of the verse: “Let the woman learn….”
Not long ago, I went online to see what kind of Christian women discussion groups were available. With Yahoo alone, there are discussion groups for virtually every cause and interest. One women’s discussion board caught my eye. In the description and rules of the group it said, “Leave the theology and debating at home for the men, it will not be tolerated, one warning and then you will be unsubscribed.” What positive spiritual benefit could one possibly receive from a discussion group that has as its motto: Let only the men learn?
We women must learn. When we listen to the preaching from Lord’s day to Lord’s day, we must do it at the feet of Jesus. May we be like Mary who “heard his word” (Luke 10:39) not only in her ears, but also in her heart. In our personal devotion times and in our Bible discussions with our brothers and sisters in Christ, we must always strive to learn. If we are married, we ought not forget that the Holy Spirit teaches us through the means of our husbands. It is good to ask them questions and encourage them to help us grow in understanding.
A strong motivator for learning comes also from our desire to teach our children. The main people we mothers witness to are our children. In order to teach them, we need to take the word we hear in the preaching and in our studying and discussions with others, and eat that word ourselves. Only then will we be prepared to give it to our children. We ourselves must embrace the principles behind the do’s and don’ts, so that we can rightly teach them.
In our hearts we desire to be like Lois and Eunice, who faithfully taught the Scriptures to their son and grandson, Timothy. These women were faithful students of the word. How motivating it is when we think of how God used this instruction to prepare a man who went boldly to preach the gospel to many others.
Not only do we teach our sons, but our daughters, too. We desire our daughters to grow to be like Lois and Eunice. We want to see them become mature women of God like Priscilla. She, along with her husband, understood the Scriptures so well that their faithful instruction of Apollos is noted in Acts 18:26. Though Priscilla did not hold a special office and did not speak in the official work of the church institute, she rightly used her gifts to witness to a man who needed to understand “the way of God more perfectly.” Lois, Eunice, and Priscilla are examples for us women, and we should point them out to our daughters as patterns for them to emulate.
Yet, not everyone thinks this way. My family receives mail at times from parachurch organizations promoting their books and seminars. One such example I came across is a catalog promoting family values. One of its product descriptions said, “This CD set teaches the blessings of having family time at mealtime…fathers set aside the burdens of the day and open God’s word, where wives demonstrate their giftings, and where sons are catechized, and where daughters show their service.” I thought this sounded odd that only the men were said to open God’s word, and only the sons were mentioned as being catechized. It is true that wives are to use their gifts, and serving dinner is undoubtedly something our daughters need to learn to do. But the wording of this advertisement left the impression that the wives do not need to open God’s word, and that our daughters are merely to look on as their brothers learn theology.
The importance of letting a woman learn cannot be stressed enough. A wife and mother who stops learning at Christ’s feet is counterproductive to a strong Christian family. We must continue to grow in the word in order to control our sinful flesh. We all tend to underestimate this. If we become complacent, we will be less content, more critical, less loving, more angry, less patient, and more of a gossip.
A wife needs to learn that she may grow more to live not unto herself, but unto her Lord, who has redeemed her. She needs to learn with her husband. In this way, she will experience the beautiful intimacy of marriage. By God’s grace she will grow closer to her husband spiritually, loving him, honoring him, and submitting to him from the heart. Then the two of them, as one, will make more progress in lovingly and patiently rearing their children in the fear of God’s name.
John Calvin said so aptly,
Doctrine is not an affair of the tongue, but of the life; is not apprehended by the intellect and memory merely, like other branches of learning; but is received only when it possesses the whole soul, and finds its seat and habitation
in the inmost recesses of the heart…. To doctrine in which our religion is contained, we have given the first place, since by it our salvation commences; but it must be transfused into the breast, and pass into the conduct, and so transform us into itself, as not to prove unfruitful (Calvin’s Institutes III.6.4).
“So, are you a Mary or a Martha?” I’ve heard this asked at times. I always feel a little sorry for our sister in Christ, Martha. How easy it is to judge a person on the basis of a single event. Some might think of Martha as an efficient worker, but one who lacks interest in spiritual matters. We wonder how on earth she could get so caught up with cooking and housework, that she did not bother to listen to God Himself when He sat in her own home. Yet we are often just like Martha. And we need to see this, lest we wrongly exalt ourselves above her.
We also get distracted and stop listening to the Spirit of Christ, who is in our heart. We can be sitting in the worship service at church and find ourselves thinking about conversations we have had with people or how many potatoes we might need for Sunday dinner. Sometimes when we pray, our mind wanders to events that are coming up in the week.
We have difficulty finding that rare balance between the kitchen and fellowship with our family and our friends. We have guests coming over, and we want to make a magnificent dinner. We want the house to be spotless. While the guests are over, we have trouble relaxing and enjoying the fellowship. When we see this in ourselves, then our mind-set needs to change. A simple meal will do. A house that looks lived in is acceptable. The point of the get-together is to learn from Christ together and enjoy the precious fellowship.
Martha missed out on the fellowship that day. The same thing can happen to us, too.
Yet we know more about Martha than the fact that she needed correction. Even though she was a sinner like all of us, she was also of like faith. It would be unfair to think that she was just all about outward serving and nothing about inward spiritual meditation. In fact, she showed a deep understanding and remarkable faith when few others did at that time.
One of the most beautiful confessions in Scripture is hers. It was uttered soon after her brother Lazarus died (John 11:27). Jesus had just explained to her that He is the resurrection and the life, and that those that believe on Him, though they be dead, shall live. Then Jesus asked Martha, “Believest thou this?” “Yea, Lord,” Martha responded, “I believe that thou art the Christ, the Son of God, which should come into the world.” By God’s grace, Martha had learned to choose the one thing needful. She had learned to sit at Jesus’ feet.
“One thing is needful.” May we remember these precious words. For in the way of applying these words to ourselves, we will enjoy more intimate communion with our Lord. And the more we enjoy this heavenly communion, the more we will find that we truly commune with our husbands, our children, our friends, and all those who together with us are learning from our Lord.