As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”
“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
The Power of Story
There’s so much going on in these five verses. So many sermons have been preached on these two women and their apparent differences. I thought I might be able to say more with a story. A story invites instead of demands. It convicts without manipulation. It enchants without argument. You can walk around in a story. The best stories read you as much as you read them. I don’t know if I have achieved that with this story imagining what went through Martha’s mind after she had this encounter with Jesus, but I hope it opens up all the white space in between the letters on the Bible page for you.
Martha Makes New—a short story by Ben White
How would Martha ever live down that moment? She had been called out. And who of all people had done the calling out? Jesus himself. How do you get beyond that? Now, she was a worrier. Now she was upset forever. And all this from the man who clearly told us not to worry. That was the hardest part for Martha. She was devoted to Jesus’ teaching more than her sometimes flighty younger sister. It was Martha who learned about Jesus first: the things he was saying, the sick people he was healing, the authority the people said he had. It was Martha who had been in the marketplace gathering news of the Nazarene prophet before Mary knew anything about him. Martha had memorized every half sentence she could collect before Mary ever met Jesus.
To be fair it was Mary who received him to the house this time, but Martha had made the original introduction. The heat from political fires was too hot in Jerusalem and Jesus needed a place to dodge the authorities. The first time he came to the house it was at Martha’s invitation. She heard of his need for a place to stay near the city and through the contacts she had made in the movement she eagerly offered her home in Bethany as a retreat and safehouse. The first time Jesus stood in her house, smiling gratefully but visibly weary, Martha confirmed every exciting rumor she had heard about him without having to ask a single question. She knew by the look of him that the things people said about him were true and she immediately put her house and all her wealth at his disposal. She did not hesitate. There was not a shred of worry in her then, and what more could she offer? What more could she risk but everything she owned?
She had restored the house to much of its original glory through her shrewd management of the family finances. Her baby brother, Lazarus, might as well have been an actual baby when their father died and left the business to him. “Fourteen going on four,” they used to tease him. Lazarus was honest and diligent, though. After a season of several years in which the business floundered and their mother tragically followed their father into death, Lazarus and Martha had completely recovered and in fact surpassed their father’s previous position, increasing the stock and controlling prices on nard in all of Judea. Eventually it became clear who the brains of the operation was and local traders started coming directly to her to cut the biggest deals, knowing that speaking to Lazarus was at best indirect and, at worst, a waste of time. She held the purse strings.
But she was frugal and refused to hire any servants for simple housework. She enjoyed the humble work and spent much of her chore-filled hours in prayer. Perhaps the relative secrecy of their fortune and her ostensibly indirect control over it guarded her heart from being consumed by it. A man in her position would most likely turn his soul toward the fortune and away from God, but this did not happen to Martha. She offered her house and money to Jesus and his movement without hesitation and no regret.
“What else was the money for?” She thought. And how could she lose what she was so good at building? If they lost some money, she was sure there would be other opportunities to make it back. How could anything be so bad as after her mother died and she had no idea what she was doing? No, that was long ago and she was confident, even if the Romans seized the house, they would figure something out. But as for that, she doubted they would ever find Jesus there, or know anything of his presence. They had taken great precautions. Peter was amazing at devising a way in and out of anywhere.
It was mostly a joke—that thing she said. Mary was so consumed with what Jesus was saying that she sat right down among the disciples instead of arranging for their comfort, as Martha was doing. It was supposed to be a gentle reminder to Mary that there was work to do and Martha needed her help. Martha could be angry at times, and most often with Mary for exactly this sort of behavior, her absent mindedness, but she wasn’t even mad this time. She was just excited to have Jesus in the house again.
Carrying a basin of warm water in to set beside him, she said over Jesus’ shoulder as she caught Mary’s eye, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”
The conversation seemed to pause in perfect time around her half jest and everyone heard what was meant mostly for him and Mary, who sat close to him, right at his feet.
Jesus turned to her and everyone else turned to her, and he said those words that left her feeling so pegged—the ones she never lived down, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
She was furious with him then “Mary has chosen better?! What?! How has she chosen any different than me?!” Martha thought.
Her fists clenched, and her teeth were set as she turned around without response. Embarrassed, she retreated to the other room where she sat down bewildered. But she couldn’t bear to direct her anger at that marvelous man, so all her fury slid off her shoulders and landed on her sister. Leaning back in her seat she could peer through the door and see Mary there gazing up at Jesus who had so easily moved on to another subject.
“How dare she. Does she think she can be a disciple too? Does she not see that the room is full of men? All men! Except for her. There she is in the place of honor, at the master’s feet. What kind of Rabbi is he anyway—letting her do that?”
Abruptly, she stood up, brushed off her apron and got back to work. Her hospitality would go on without her sister’s help; it must. She busied herself with what needed doing.
But later that night as she stared into the dying fire, embers chasing each other in a boundless race, she returned to nursing her wound. “Mary would never have even known about Jesus if it weren’t for me. We would have nothing to offer him if it weren’t for me. There would be no comfort, no food, no house!” She thought to herself.
But the attack on Mary didn’t work. Her thoughts returned to where they had been all evening as she washed Jesus and the disciples’ feet clean form the dusty road and fed them fresh baked bread. Jesus was right.
The reason it hurt so bad to hear him say those words was that they were true. She knew what needed to be done and that was the problem. How could she learn his new way if she was so good at her old way? Her mind was so full it was almost as if she could feel it bulge as she tried to fit the image of Mary sitting at his feet into it. Jesus thought Mary could do it. The answer to her indignant question from earlier that evening was yes. Mary did think she could be a disciple and Jesus agreed. Would Mary also be sent out like the 72 men who had gone out in Jesus’ name healing the sick and proclaiming the good news? It almost hurt to realize that it wasn’t impossible.
And creeping behind the possibility of Mary was the even more impossible thought that she too might be sent likewise. She dreaded the growing realization that, after making so much of herself despite the obvious disadvantages, she might have to master something else.
But with the master sleeping in the next room the dread seemed not so dreadful. If she could corner the southern market on nard, why couldn’t she too cast out a demon?
“Give me some time,” she said allowed to the fire, “Give me some time.”