The entire tone of the story clearly indicates that Jesus was no stranger to this home in which he visited. Perhaps it was a haven for him where among his friends he could escape the pressures of his ministry. All of us in life need some kind of haven, and Jesus certainly was no exception.
Martha receives Jesus warmly into her house. Martha is probably the older of the two, since her name is always mentioned before Mary-- a common practice in the world of that time and place. It is in the house of Martha practicing her obligatory hospitality and Mary listening to Jesus teaching, that a problem is encountered.
We are told that Mary is sitting at Jesus' feet listening to his teaching. Luke's very important point here is that Mary has assumed the position of a pupil or disciple of Jesus. To allow Mary to sit at his feet, as a student, was quite a revolutionary act for that day; for only men were allowed to sit at the feet of a rabbi and learn. Jesus is allowing Mary to do what was, in that culture, reserved only for men.
However, at the same time Martha was running around in ten different directions preparing food and serving. Martha was too busy to visit with Jesus. Jesus may have been a good friend, but he was also an important guest. Martha must have felt that this called for quite an elaborate meal. All the while Mary sat at Jesus' feet listening to his words.
Finally, Martha’s distraction reached the boiling point. She burst in on Jesus in the middle of the discussion. "Lord, doesn’t it bother you that my sister is letting me do all the work. Tell her to carry her end on the load!"
Now this seems like a reasonable complaint. After all, hospitality is important. Mary ought to be doing her share. Yet Jesus’ response to her seems almost surprising. Instead of siding with Martha, Jesus suggests that maybe her loyalties, though admirable, are somewhat misplaced. Jesus gently chides her, "Martha, Martha, you are distracted and troubled about many things, but only one thing is needful." In other words, "Martha, Martha, you are distracted and troubled because you are fixing so many dishes. Only a simple dish is necessary." Martha thinks that she needs to be doing it up big. She's in the kitchen making Chicken Kiev, fresh asparagus in a fancy cream sauce, garlicky potatoes, and chocolate silk pie. What Jesus is saying to her is "Martha, quit running around in ten different directions. We don't need all of this. How about a bowl of leftover chili?"
Jesus emphasizes to her that a simple meal is all that is necessary. Instead of spending all her time in the kitchen, Martha should be doing what Mary is doing-- sitting at the feet of the Master, being a disciple. Jesus is mildly rebuking Martha for spending so much time cooking leaving no time to spend with him.
Here Jesus gives to us a play on words. Mary, according to Jesus, has chosen the good dish of learning, over Martha’s many dishes. Jesus tells Martha that Mary will not lose that dish, and if Martha wasn’t so distracted with the busy unnecessaries, she could partake of that dish too.
Here is the point. Martha's desire to be hospitable is commendable but misplaced. Mary understood where the important place was in the house at that moment, and if Martha would have discerned the situation correctly she would have been with Mary too. It was not wrong for Martha to serve food (after all, human beings may not live by bread alone, but they still need to eat), it's just that the obligations of hospitality could have been fulfilled with a simple meal, giving time for everyone in the house, including Martha, the chance to hear the divine truth being taught in that living room. It's not that rolling up one's sleeves and getting to work is wrong, but there is a time to roll down one’s sleeves and listen. This is one of those times and Martha fails to see it.
In order for the church to serve as it should, we need to pay attention to the word of Christ. We dare not neglect it. Also, in order for us to pay attention to the word of Christ, we must serve. Not to do so is disobedience. Service without instruction makes no sense; instruction without service is irrelevant. There is a time for us to sit at the feet of Jesus, and a time for us to roll up our sleeves and get to work. There is a time to be Mary and a time to be Martha. There is a time to serve Chicken Kiev and a time to serve chili. We need to know what it is Christ wants us to do and why we should do it. Service is not an end in and of itself and neither is instruction in the word. We need both together; for they only make sense together.
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I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)