By Randy Limbird
At the end of Luke chapter 10 is a brief story involving Martha and Mary, the two sisters of Lazarus. They lived in Bethany, a town just outside of Jerusalem, and their home was a favorite place for Jesus to stay.
Luke 10:38-42 sounds like it might have been Jesus’ first visit to their home. Martha, who was probably the older sister, busies herself with getting ready for all the disciples and other people who will crowd into the house, and presumably she was fixing a meal for everyone to eat as well. At some point her sister takes leave of the domestic duties to join the disciples listening to Jesus’ teaching. Mary evens positions herself at his feet to make sure she hears every word.
Martha complains and asks Jesus to tell Mary to help her with the chores. But Jesus gently rebukes Martha for being too preoccupied with the household work and commends Mary for making a better choice.
Martha thought she was doing the right thing by taking care of all the busywork involved in hosting Jesus and his entourage. Her culture taught her that her place was in the kitchen and a rabbi’s teaching was for men to hear.
She probably had a history of being annoyed by her younger sister, who never cared what other people thought. Mary was the woman in John 12:1-7 who poured expensive perfume over Jesus’ feet, and wiped it with her hair.
The story of Martha and Mary is a real-life counterpart of the Parable of the Prodigal Son. You might call it the story of the Profligate Sister. While Mary isn’t really a prodigal (she’s not the same woman who pours oil over Jesus in Luke 7 that the Pharisees describe as a sinner), she doesn’t skimp when it comes to worshipping Jesus. The John 12 passage tells how Mary’s devotion irked Judas, who griped that Mary’s use of the perfume was a waste of money.
Martha certainly has traits of the older brother in the Prodigal Son story. She prides herself on doing the right things, obeying the customs and meeting the expectations of that time. But just like the self-righteous son who doesn’t get that the return of his wayward sibling is cause for rejoicing, Martha misses that point that having Jesus in her house is reason to put down the dishes and hear what he has to say. You don’t stay in the kitchen when Jesus is in the living room.
Unlike the older brother in the Prodigal parable, Martha eventually becomes much more sympathetic. She confesses Jesus as the Messiah when he comes to their home after Lazarus has died, although she is full of doubt when Jesus orders that the stone be rolled away from her brother’s tomb.
I identify with Martha much more than Mary. I wish I had the unbridled, extravagant devotion of Mary, but my focus on responsibility and duty gets in the way. But like Martha, I’m still a work in progress. If Jesus can raise the dead, he can get me to get out of that kitchen of self-righteousness and into the living room of his presence.
Randy Limbird is editor of
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