The Rebuke of Martha

Without women, Christianity doesn’t exist. She consented to the Messiah’s birth, refused to abandon Jesus after his arrest, stood below him in the shadow of the cross, brought spices on Easter morning to anoint the body, shared the Good News of the tomb being empty, started the first welfare program, and embodied a faithfulness unseen in her male counterparts.

Authoring this truth, Luke includes women in his Gospel more than any other writer in the New Testament. In chapter ten, two sisters, Mary and Martha, open their home to Jesus. One sits adoringly on the living room rug at his feet, spellbound by his teachings, clinging to every word. The other, honoring the rule of hospitality, excuses herself to tie on the kitchen apron and begin preparing the evening meal. After scaling the fish, washing the grapes, kneading the bread, and setting the table for three, Martha mutters: “While sister lays back listening to Jesus stories all afternoon, I’m left alone with the chores. Why isn’t she doing her part? Why am I always on the thankless end of our family’s faith?”

Overwhelmed by her endless household duties, Martha leaves the pot of boiling water on the stove to interrupt Jesus mid-sentence with a plea. As this sibling squabble escalates, Jesus shockingly intervenes to affirm Mary.

In today’s text, why does Jesus rebuke Martha?

Luke 10:38-42 Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

Congregational Responses:

For disrupting Mary’s practice of presence.

To end the busyness.

Subvert the expectations of gender.

Parker Palmer, the Christian author, enduring activist, and innovative educator has written ten books, received thirteen honorary doctorate degrees, and been named one of the twenty-five people most changing the world. To be around the man is to be in the presence of abiding humility. Yet, in his seminal work, “Let your Life Speak,” he recalls gathering a group of trusted friends for a clearness committee, a Quaker tradition of encircling a person needing clarity on a decision. Parker was offered the position of a college president and needed help on whether to accept. After a series of straightforward questions, one confidant asked, “What would you like most about being the president?” Surprised, he didn’t answer and discussed what he wouldn’t enjoy about the job. The questioner asked him again, and again Parker carried on without directly responding. After a third time, Parker relented, admitting, the only thing I would really like is seeing my picture in the paper with the word president underneath. He concluded, “By then, it was obvious, even to me, that my desire to be president had much more to do with my ego than with the ecology of my life.” 1

Although Martha’s biography is scant, she’s likely the sacrificial domestic, the helping pleaser eager to complete every task, the first to sign up for the mission trip, and the last to let go of the mop handle. The servant willing to serve and serve some more if her contribution is finally celebrated. Frustrated she won’t receive a discipleship award for lifetime achievement, Martha angrily objects- accusing her sister of lollygagging, her guest of not caring, and invoking “me” three times- like a spurned contestant denied a blue ribbon.

Amid the outrage, Jesus rebukes Martha for her preoccupation with praise, her unmet need for public recognition and private affirmation. Henri Nouwen says, “As long as we divide our time and energy between God and others, we forget that service outside of God becomes self-seeking… even when it falls under the name of ministry.” 2 For those of us who exercise our faith through action, beware. Few behaviors stroke the ego more than serving God. The more enduring your obedience, the more you’re tempted to displace Jesus by leading with yourself. The line between selflessness and selfishness often blurs the longer you practice.

Upon first reading, Jesus sounds harsh in this passage. Remember, however, he just turned towards Jerusalem and feels an urgency to train up those who will lead in his absence, even by way of pre-supper confrontations. After all, the men will fall asleep in his hour of need, betray him for a bag of coins, deny being his disciple to the authorities, resort to violence, and ultimately desert him.

But the women remain. To all the Marthas, who continue to grow in grace, the Church ceases to exist without you.

1 Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak; Listening for the Voice of Vocation (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001).

Henri Nouwen, The Selfless Way of Christ; Downward Mobility and the Spiritual Life (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2007).