“But Martha was distracted with much serving, and she approached Him and said, ‘Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Therefore tell her to help me.’ And Jesus answered and said to her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things. But one thing is needed, and Mary has chosen that good part, which will not be taken away from her'” (Luke 10:40-42 NKJV).
In South Asia there is a popular saying that every evangelist soon learns: “No eating, no meeting!” In other words, if you plan for people to gather for hours listening to sermons or Bible lessons, there needs to be some thought given to providing refreshment. That may seem to us like greed or self-interest, but in those cultures if people give up several hours of their day for spiritual purposes they are also forfeiting the time that would ordinarily be spent in preparing meals for themselves and their families. There are few microwaves or frozen dinners in those nations.
The price paid for this practice however is that someone must cook the meal. That often means that some of the more mature Christians will be busily engaged in physical duties while the others are studying God’s word. As a teacher / preacher it pains me for anyone to miss lessons just to do house-hold chores. Yet I recognize that those chores also have a purpose and a place in the overall success of the meeting.
That was exactly the setting in the house of Martha of Bethany. She had undoubtedly already worked for hours to feed the group brought by Jesus. Her sister, Mary, was being lazy – visiting with or listening to Jesus while Martha was left to do all of the work. No doubt Martha (I have always thought of her as the older sister, though we don’t really know) longed to be in that room as well, but her sense of responsibility would not allow her to shirk her duty as hostess. This led to her exasperation with Mary and her insistence that the sister be made to do her part.
At this point we may make an interpretive error. It is normal for us to read Jesus’ answer to Martha as a rebuke for her own choice of service. We seem to think he said, “Mary chose wisely, but you did not – you should be more like her.” I am no longer sure that is really what the Lord meant.
As we seek to live as a Christian we will often have to choose between right and wrong, the good and the bad. But we will also sometimes make choices between the good and the better, or between two actions both of which are accepted by God.
Martha is not being rebuked for spending her time cooking. If there is a rebuke in Jesus’ words it is for judging her sister wrongly – for not recognizing that Mary’s actions were not only valid, but were actually better than Martha’s.
Paul illustrates this principle in his teaching about spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 12-14). “But earnestly desire the best gifts” (12:31). “Pursue love, and desire spiritual gifts, but especially that you may prophesy” (14:1).
All gifts were from the same spirit (12:4) and were beneficial. Yet some were of greater over-all value than others, prophecy being a prime example (14:2-5). Paul is very emphatic, however, in declaring that no one should be considered greater or less than others because of the gift which he or they possessed (12:12-27).
Some Christians struggle with the concept of choosing between two right things. If I do not fulfill the other opportunity will I not have sinned? The answer is no. So long as we are seeking to serve God sincerely and humbly, in truth, he will bless our efforts. Both Martha and Mary were doing good – it is just that Mary’s service was even better than that of her sister.