Martha And Mary:
Joyful Service, Extravagant Worship
“I urge you … in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship.” Romans 12:1 NIV
Worship and service seem like opposites. The one consists of dwelling on the majesty and love of our holy and wonderful God. The other focuses on people – sinful and very un-wonderful. We recognize, of course, that service is done for God, as Colossians 3:17 points out, but since the first century, Christians have been trying to isolate themselves from the world so that they might devote themselves entirely to worship, as if that were the better choice.
But wait! Didn’t Jesus say that very thing to poor, harried Martha, while Mary sat at His feet and reaped His approval? Let’s read Luke 10:38-42, and see what Jesus said and what He didn’t say: “A certain woman named Martha welcomed Him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who also sat at Jesus’ feet and heard His word. 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 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.’”
Learning To Serve Joyfully
Martha was a remarkable woman for her day. She had a grown sister and brother, but the Bible says clearly that she welcomed Jesus into “her” home; in other words, the home belonged to her. Not only did she open her door to Jesus, but she included his disciples as well – at least thirteen guests, just like that! The use of the word “welcomed” sounds as if she was glad to have Him there, and other passages that we will look at later indicate that they were good friends.
Martha, being a good Middle Eastern hostess, had probably already given her guests something to drink and munch on. Then she went to the kitchen to figure out what to serve thirteen unexpected guests. While she had gladly welcomed Jesus and His disciples into her home, somewhere during her cooking the joy slipped away. From her hot kitchen, she looked out into the cool hall where Jesus sat teaching, surrounded by hungry souls who were gobbling up every word that fell from His lips. Suddenly, Martha saw how much work was still to be done; she looked at Mary (lazy girl!), sitting at the feet of Jesus. And snapped.
Tactlessly, she interrupted the teaching and accused her honored Guest of not caring about her. If He had cared, He would have sent Mary in to help, but obviously, He and everyone else wanted Martha to slave away all by herself. The Lord answered by pointing out that she was worried and bothered about too many things. He did not tell her to stop serving, but did tell her that only one thing was necessary, and Mary had made the better choice. Mary chose what was more important than physical sustenance. It would feed her soul and couldn’t be taken from her, as could those physical things which were bothering Martha.
A relationship with Jesus Christ is complete. Although we can add service as a response to our faith, there is really nothing we can do to improve our position with Jesus Christ. We need to nurture our faith, feeding our souls with God’s Word. If we are tired from serving, maybe we need to come aside to bask in Jesus’ teachings. If we wish others would pitch in and help, perhaps we are worried and bothered about too many things. We need to take a break and let Jesus worry about who will serve, while we sit at His feet for a while. Somehow, the guests will get fed, Sunday School will continue to run, the music program will not collapse completely, and someone will prepare the bread and the wine.
Martha made the mistake of thinking that her contribution was the most important one, and that it had to be done. Actually, it’s all about Jesus, and if that is not the reason, motivation, and joy for what we are doing, we need to stop doing. Often in Scripture we are commanded to have joy or be joyful (Phil. 4:4-7). If we are not joyful, we must admit that in this area we are not following Christ. Obedience and service are important, but how much more value there is in obeying and serving with willingness and joy.
Learning To Worship Extravagantly
A second passage that sheds a little more light on this subject is John 12:1-8. After He had raised Mary and Martha’s brother Lazarus from the dead, a dinner was given in Jesus’ honor. John 12:2 only mentions Martha in two words – “Martha served.” This would seem to indicate that she had not given up serving completely. One would hope that by now she had her priorities correct, simply to serve the Lord the way she knew how – with joy.
Mary’s love, on the other hand, was expressed extravagantly as she poured her expensive oil upon His feet. When other guests objected to her throwing away so much money on Jesus, He defended her. In His statement, He indicated that the purpose of her anointing Him went far beyond mere gratefulness for the return of Lazarus. The time for worshiping Jesus in the flesh was growing short, and He used her act as prophecy. The scent of her perfumed oil, expensive and pungent, would probably still cling to Jesus’ feet as He hung on the cross six days later. When Jesus’ dead body had to be bundled quickly into the tomb before the Sabbath, He had already been anointed with Mary’s burial oils. Although others objected, Jesus was pleased with her form of worship.
Many years ago my husband Floyd went with a friend to a church where the song leader kept chiding the congregation to raise their hands in praise. He said that if they weren’t raising their hands, they weren’t worshiping God properly. Annoyed, my husband and his friend jammed their hands into their pockets. The song leader was wrong to insist that only raised hands would please God, but it would be just as wrong to suggest that raising hands in worship is excessive.
Our Bible and song books are full of physical expressions of worship. Yet while we read and sing of raising holy hands or bowing before Him, we continue to sit primly, clutching our songbooks, moving nothing except our lips and our eyeballs. There have been times that I have sung a song about kneeling before my Savior, and wanted to kneel right then and there, overcome by my own unworthiness and His greatness. I didn’t do it, however, for there were others in the congregation who would see me and think I was overreacting. We are uncomfortable with extravagant expressions of worship.
Most of us understand Martha. We love to serve, for service is necessary and easy to understand. Everyone has physical needs, so people appreciate those who organize refreshments, plan conferences, clean buildings, plan weddings, and teach Sunday School year after year after year. We can also, however, empathize with Martha’s irritation concerning Mary’s uselessness. Often we serve to the point of exhaustion, and no one pitches in to help or encourage us!
The Martha in us, however, needs to learn from Mary. Mary made time for Jesus. She was not worried about what other people thought. She did not need anyone’s appreciation, except the Lord’s. Her attention was focused so completely upon Him that it was the Lord who answered her accusers for her. Mary’s act of pouring out expensive oil to honor Jesus had no logical purpose. Her act would not feed the starving nor clothe the naked. The people who observed her disapproved of her way of honoring Jesus and demonstrating her love. Yet He praised her for worshiping Him in a manner that was excessive.
How often do we confine our worship to that which pleases others? How often do we condemn those who do not worship as we do? To whom is our worship directed – other people or the Lord? Whom are we trying to please – other people or the Lord? Isn’t it time to turn our eyes away from what other (disapproving) people think of us and start asking if our worship is acceptable to the Lord? Let’s begin to worship extravagantly!
The Sweet Smell Of Both
I like to think that Martha was worshiping that day as well – alone in the kitchen. As she kneaded the loaves, she may have laughed with joy, knowing how much Jesus would enjoy the meal. She seasoned the meat and vegetables with as much extravagance and love as Mary was expressing in the dining room. And the sweat that dripped from her brow was, in God’s eyes, as sweet as Mary’s perfumed oil. For worship, although often practiced publicly, is always a private expression of how much we are thinking about the Lord and loving Him.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Christine Schneider and her husband, Floyd, have been church planters in Europe and the USA. She writes historical fiction and Bible study guides, and teaches at Emmaus Bible College. The Schneiders have two married sons and three grandchildren.
With permission to publish by: Sam Hadley, Grace & Truth, 210 Chestnut St., Danville, IL., USA. Website: www.gtpress.org