Some Thoughts on Martha (And Hospitality)
I’ve been making my way through a devotional from She Reads Truth (their iPad app is beautiful) on the subject of hospitality. It’s something I want to be better at – this opening of not only one’s home, but also one’s heart to those around them. To see them, to know them, to show them there is plenty of room for them at Christ’s table. Because, as author Annie F. Downs shared in the devotional from the day 3 reading, “When we feel known, it changes who we are.” That’s what we all want, to one degree or another, isn’t it? To be seen, to be known? To have safe places to be us, faults and strong points and everything in-between?
I think Martha felt that way with Jesus.
A bit of background in case you need it: Martha lived with her sister, Mary, and their brother Lazarus in the village of Bethany near Jerusalem during the time Jesus walked the earth. In fact, it seemed Jesus spent a fair bit of time (when He could) at the house of Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. We are told in the 10th chapter of Luke (v. 38) that Martha “… welcomed Him into her house.” So He was no stranger to them, or they to Him. And welcoming a person into one’s home during those times didn’t involve making a quick cup of coffee via the Keurig and opening a package of cookies you picked up at the grocery store earlier in the day. It involved preparing a meal. And it sounds like this is something Martha took seriously, even as she sat at Jesus’ feet to listen to His teaching (for Luke 10:39 (MEV) reads that Mary “… also sat at Jesus’ feet and listened to His teaching.” (emphasis mine)).
Yet … yet even as she listened to the teachings of Jesus – from Jesus – Martha was distracted. The meal wasn’t going to prepare itself, after all. Plates and cups were not going to make their own way to the table. Bread wasn’t sliced until you sliced it. So Martha did what many of us do when feeling like we’re left on our own to shoulder more than our fair share of the work: She complained to someone about it. In this case, she went to Jesus and asked Him if He didn’t care that Mary had left her to do all the work alone. And Jesus gave an answer that has, more or less, served as Martha’s condemnation ever since:
Jesus answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things. But one thing is needed. And Mary has chosen the good part, which shall not be taken from her.” –Luke 10:41-42 (MEV)
In other words, Mary made the better choice to listen solely to Jesus’ teaching instead of wasting her time on flim-flammy meal preparations. Or so we say with an unspoken “Tsk, tsk” and a pitying shake of our heads in Martha’s direction. And, well, Jesus is right – I mean, it’s Jesus—kind of a waste of time to argue with Him. Besides which, hearing what Jesus has to say is a needful, a necessary thing in the life of a Christ follower.
But Martha’s work wasn’t useless or pointless either, for the service she was providing is spelled out thusly in the original Greek:
Serving – diakonia (in the Greek): serviceable labor, service, assistance; involves compassionate love toward the needy within the Christian community; every business, every calling, so far as its labor benefits other is a diakonia.
Serve – diakoneo (in the Greek, used when Mary asked Jesus in v. 40 if He didn’t care that Mary had left her to serve alone): In its narrowest sense, diakoneo means to wait on a table, serve at dinner. Generally it means to do someone a service, care for someone’s needs. There is an inferred service rendered, bringing advantage to others, to help.
So Martha wasn’t all tied up in pointless busy work – she was working to, well, serve and wait on Jesus and the rest of their guests. She saw a need, and she was doing something practical to meet it. It makes me think of when Jesus said when someone did something like giving a cup of water to a thirsty person it’s like they were giving it to Him.
All that to say: We need to be Mary, but we also need to be Martha. And Jesus didn’t want Martha to be Mary. He wanted Martha – in the midst of her service to Him – not to miss out on what He was doing in the present moment. He wanted her to be present to what He was doing right there and then. It would be okay if supper was late. And like Martha, we need to learn when to stop, when to sit at the feet of Jesus and take in His words. But that doesn’t mean our work is therefore useless. It doesn’t mean Martha was bad. Because hospitality – defined by Merriam-Webster as “generous and friendly treatment of visitors and guests” – is something us church folk need to do. And I, for one, am thankful to each and every person who does it so well, who has made me feel welcomed and seen and known and cared about in the process.
Just my rather lengthy $0.02 on the matter at any rate. Or maybe I’m out to lunch (Ha – kind of a pun there!). And yet … we need to exercise both faith and works. But that’s something to consider for another post, I think.
(P.S. The geek in me could spend waaaay longer on digging into the Greek end of things. Just saying.)