Martha, Mary, and That Good Part: Putting First Things First

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  • two sisters with two different methods of serving
  • a woman distracted by less important things
  • a lesson in keeping our focus on God

KEY VERSES

But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.—Matthew 6:33

For whom the LORD loves He corrects, just as a father the son in whom he delights. —Proverbs 3:12

PROLOGUE

Have you ever had a special relative or friend over to your home for dinner—someone you were so excited to see and were eager to talk with and listen to?

This is a story about two sisters who lived just outside of Jerusalem in a town called Bethany. They were having a very important guest over for dinner—someone they respected greatly, who was wiser than anyone else who had ever been born. Can you guess who that could have been?

STORY AND STUDY

(This story is an author’s portrayal based on the account found in Luke 10.)

A very special guest

“Jesus!” Martha exclaimed with delight as she greeted her dear friend at the entrance to her home.

“How good it is to see you!” she said with a smile. She had been expecting Him all day since she had first received word that He would be passing through their village of Bethany.

Factoid: The biblical village of Bethany is located in the mountainous region of Israel only about two miles from Jerusalem. The modern-day name for the town of Bethany is Eizariya, or el-Azariyeh. You can locate it on a map using Google Earth.

“Nonsense!” And with that, she directed Him into their living quarters and hurried away to the kitchen to get back to work.

“Come in! Come in!” Martha said as she beckoned the Lord into the home she shared with her sister, Mary, and brother, Lazarus. “You and Your disciples are eating with us this evening, and I’ve been cleaning all day and have already started preparing a splendid meal!”

Jesus smiled and gave Martha a warm hug. “Martha, please do not trouble yourself tonight with a big meal and much serving. What I would really love more than anything is to just sit and talk with all of you.”

“Nonsense!” Martha said as Jesus barely finished speaking, and she dismissed the thought of a simple meal with a wave of her hand. “Only the best for you, Teacher, our friend of so many years.” And with that, she directed Him into their living quarters and hurried away to the kitchen to get back to work.

Pause for thought: Sometimes we listen to others, but we don’t really hear what they are telling us. Sometimes we want to show kindness to someone, but we don’t think of how they would feel in receiving it. We should first think of the person we are wanting to help, put away our own plans, and focus on the other person’s needs and desires. Martha had a good intent in serving, but spending time listening to Jesus’ words was so much more important!

Different points of view

As Martha peeked through the kitchen where she had begun preparing a spicy stew, she could see her sister Mary sitting on the ground with the disciples, listening as Jesus began to talk. Twinges of jealousy, frustration and anger struck Martha. Sure, Martha had planned the menu and was in charge of dinner, but shouldn’t Mary also be in the kitchen helping her? Martha would also have enjoyed sitting next to Jesus, learning about the Holy Scriptures and hearing what He had been up to the past few months. Why couldn’t Mary just be a little more practical?

Twinges of jealousy, frustration and anger struck Martha.

This was not the first time Martha had felt this way when guests were over. Located just outside of Jerusalem, their home was a convenient place for friends to visit on travels, and they always delighted in opening their home and entertaining guests. Martha prided herself on being an excellent hostess, but Mary did not share her ambition to prepare in the same way. That meant it was up to Martha to do the bulk of the cleaning and preparations for guests.

Factoid: Hospitality toward travelers is still an integral part of the culture in the Middle East. During this time in history, travelers were offered water to wash their feet as they entered a home since much of the terrain was dry and dusty. Read John 12:1-3 for a very touching account of how Mary later honored Jesus with this custom.

Meanwhile, Mary sat at Jesus’ feet, listening to the comfortable sound of His voice and His answers to the occasional questions of the disciples gathered in the room. She was so deeply thankful for this blessed friend! She was blessed with her siblings, Martha and Lazarus, of course, but she regarded Jesus as a close brother as well. It was a deep connection of familial love. He was the kind of friend who would empathize and be supportive whenever she and her family were going through a trial—perhaps even lovingly and patiently pointing out when they themselves were actually at fault.

Mary sat, completely focused, drinking in every word, gleaning every nugget of scriptural wisdom.

And He was also the kind of friend who would be the first to rejoice with them when they were experiencing a special blessing. She had never seen Him act out of selfish ambition or vanity. He was a true friend and so refreshing just to be around!

Mary was always amazed at how much she learned about the Scriptures and herself whenever He spoke and she listened intently. The authority and wisdom with which He explained the Law, the Writings, and the Prophets was not something to miss! She sat, completely focused, drinking in every word, gleaning every nugget of scriptural wisdom. She was completely oblivious to the noises and smells coming from the kitchen.

Pause for thought: Have you ever been so interested in a conversation that you lost track of time or forgot to do something, like a chore? Maybe you were taking a walk with your family and you realized you forgot to put the dog’s food bowl out. Did you feel bad, or did you feel like the conversation was so valuable that it was okay to let other things be on hold temporarily? Under what circumstances might it be fine to allow a chore to become a lower priority?

So much to do!

Martha looked up briefly from her work and saw one of the disciples in the front room wipe sweat from his brow. Oh, he’s probably so thirsty! Martha thought. She quickly filled a pitcher of water and carried it into the front room where everyone was gathered. If she could just catch Mary’s eye, maybe she could get her to offer water to their guests while Martha went back to the kitchen to finish preparing the meal.

Not wanting to interrupt Jesus while He was speaking, Martha tried to make eye contact with Mary. No luck. Mary’s eyes were fixed on Jesus, hanging on His every word. Brow furrowing, Martha waved her arms slightly.

“Yoo-hoooo! Mary? Mary!” she hissed quietly, trying to get her sister’s attention. Still no reaction. Mary was concentrating on only one thing: the words Jesus was speaking—words that Martha would never get to hear because Mary wouldn’t help her!

As Martha turned to offer water to another disciple, she met Jesus’ eyes. Was that pity she saw? Yes, if anyone would understand Martha’s plight, it was Jesus! He could see that Mary had left her to do all the serving herself. If only He would give Mary a subtle prod to get to work and join her in the kitchen, she thought.

If only He would give Mary a subtle prod to get to work and join her in the kitchen!

Martha offered water to the thirstiest of the disciples and then hurried back toward the kitchen. The bread wasn’t going to knead itself!

Mary sat fixedly—a living statue—at complete peace and calm as she continued to listen to the Teacher’s words. If she noticed Martha flitting about, she paid no heed to the distraction and remained completely focused on Jesus’ teachings.

The evening wore on: Martha bustling away in the kitchen, and Mary soaking in every word spoken by the Son of God.

Enough is enough!

Back in the kitchen Martha put the final touches on her honey cakes, a special dessert she had planned for the evening. The spicy stew and bread had been a big hit with the disciples, although Martha noticed Jesus had hardly touched His plate. Martha herself had not been able to eat very much, simply because she didn’t have enough time to sit down! She had scooped a few spoonfuls into her mouth quickly as she multitasked in the kitchen. That’s just the sacrifice a good hostess makes, she thought as her stomach growled in protest.

Most of all, she was mad at Mary for not even noticing how she had struggled by herself the whole evening!

Each time she had walked past Mary during dinner, Martha tried to get her attention, but to no avail. It was like Mary didn’t care about serving at all! Maybe that’s the problem, Martha thought. Even the times Mary had actually tried to help, it didn’t seem to be with the same rigor and passion or with the same attention to detail as Martha. Mary was happy serving basic meals with no entertainment or pretty decoration. She was never concerned about having a little clutter lying around. Mary just doesn’t understand what it means to be a good hostess, thought Martha.

“Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her to help me!”

Finally, as the sun began to set and nightfall came, Martha had had enough. She was hot, she was tired, and all she wanted was to sit down and enjoy her dessert and listen to Jesus talk. Most of all, she was mad at Mary for not even noticing how she had struggled by herself the whole evening! The least she could do was gather the dirty dishes and help clean up the kitchen!

Martha marched out to the front room for what felt like the 100th time that day and said to Jesus, hot tears in her eyes, “Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her to help me!”

Pause for thought: Do you ever get so upset and react so quickly that you don’t even know you’re doing it? You might raise your voice or say mean words that you hadn’t even planned to say. God tells us to guard our tongues and to not be given to wrath. He tells us this not only to avoid another person from getting hurt, but also to help us avoid the pain we will bring upon ourselves from regret.

A painful lesson learned

Out of the corner of her eye, Martha could see Mary’s face begin to flush with embarrassment. Good! Martha thought. Finally Mary would feel a little remorse for leaving Martha to all the work this evening. She should be embarrassed!

Martha’s heart sank. Her own face began to flush, and instantly she wished she could take back her words, wished she could start the whole evening over again.

Jesus turned His eyes toward Martha. When she looked into them she noticed it was that same look of pity that she had seen earlier. But this time she understood what it meant. Martha’s heart sank. Her own face began to flush, and instantly she wished she could take back her words, wished she could start the whole evening over again.

When He spoke, His words cut Martha to the heart: “Martha, Martha,” He said in His calm, assured voice. “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.”

Pause for thought: How do you think Martha felt in that moment? Sad? Frustrated? Shocked? Here she had been focusing so much on serving that she was actually missing out on something more valuable—the precious words of Jesus Christ.

In the hard choice times, we need to look at where we are placing our priorities as we consider the right decision to make.

Conclusion

Priorities and choices work together hand in hand. Each day we will have a number of choices to make: what to eat, where to go, who to talk to, and so on. Sometimes choices are easy, but sometimes we have hard choices to make. In the hard choice times, we need to look at where we are placing our priorities as we consider the right decision to make. In our story, Martha chose to be a good hostess, but if she had considered that her priority was to seize an opportunity to listen to Jesus Christ’s teachings, she may have made a better decision with her time.

Jesus’ words of correction meant a great deal to Martha, and she took them to heart.

The biblical account of Luke 10 ends with Jesus’ answer to Martha, but that’s not all we hear of Martha, Mary, and Lazarus in the Bible. (Read John 11 and think about how Martha and Mary both reacted to that situation.)

Martha continued to have a heart of service and seems to have learned “that good part”—making sure God was the priority in her life. She came to have a deep understanding of and appreciation for God and Jesus Christ: “Even now I know that whatever You ask of God, God will give You…. I believe that You are the Christ, the Son of God” (John 11:22, 27). Jesus’ words of correction meant a great deal to Martha, and she took them to heart. It is doubtful she ever again bypassed another opportunity to learn directly from the Son of God.

If we consistently spend our time wisely, with the right order of priorities, “that good part” will not be taken away from us either.

The siblings Martha, Mary, and Lazarus must have frequently discussed and come to understand the pivotal role their good friend Jesus Christ fulfilled as Messiah and Savior in God’s plan of salvation. They would have learned the necessity of making Him the priority in their lives.

We may agree that God should be our priority in life, but as we go to sleep each night and reflect on how we spent our time that day, our priorities may look different to an outsider. Did we put God first? Did we spend valuable time with our family? Did we strengthen our friendships? Each day we have to make choices with our time. If we consistently spend our time wisely, with the right order of priorities, “that good part” will not be taken away from us either.

QUESTIONS

1. Knowledge

What did Jesus say Martha was worried and troubled about?

What did Jesus say Mary had chosen that wouldn’t be taken away?

2. Comprehension

Why was Martha so frustrated with Mary?

Why did Mary not go and help Martha serve?

Why did Christ say “that good part” wouldn’t be taken away? What was He referring to?

3. Connections

In the story of Martha and Mary, too much serving got in the way of Martha’s time with Christ. But serving in and of itself is not a bad thing. In fact there are many scriptures in the Bible that discuss being hospitable: Hebrews 13:2, 1 Peter 4:9, and Romans 12:13 are just a few. It’s natural to want to create a welcoming environment for our guests, but it’s also important to have a welcoming heart. What are some ways to prepare our hearts for others as we show them our hospitality?

Martha did not have the self-control to hold her tongue, and she ended up hurting herself the most through regret and embarrassment.

Do you think Jesus would have corrected Martha if she hadn’t complained to Him? In the book of Proverbs we read, “Whoever guards his mouth and tongue keeps his soul from troubles” (21:23). Martha did not have the self-control to hold her tongue, and she ended up hurting herself the most through regret and embarrassment.

DISCUSSIONS

Define the word priority: “a thing that is regarded as more important than something else.” Discuss how our priorities guide our decisions each day and, ultimately, our path in life.

Define the word prioritize: “to determine the order for dealing with a series of items or tasks according to their relative importance.” Discuss how we need to prioritize our time each day.

As we start to establish our priorities, it’s important to also make sure we prioritize each day. And it’s not easy! It takes lots of self-control, discipline and continual reflection.

ACTIVITY:

Priorities Jar

Supplies:

  • a jar, glass or similar container
  • a sequence of four bigger-to-smaller objects such as golf balls, rocks, pebbles, and sand

Directions:

(Test out this activity before you show your child to ensure you have the properly-sized items for your container. The concept you will be illustrating is this: if the big things—representing our top priorities—are put in first, all of the smaller things will fit too; but if the smaller things are put in first, there is no room for everything else.)

Start by explaining to your child that the jar represents our time each day. The golf balls represent our biggest priority: our commitment to God through Bible study, prayer, meditation and, when applicable, fasting. The rocks represent our next highest-level priorities: our family and friends. The pebbles represent our work and schooling. And the sand represents our hobbies and entertainment time, as well as our worries and cares that are low priority.

Now start filling the jar by putting the sand in first, the pebbles, the rocks and then the golf balls. By the time you finish, the golf balls shouldn’t fit.

Explain to your child that by filling our days with hobbies, entertainment time, worries and cares first, we leave too little time for God—our most important priority—and our family and friends in the jar.

Now remove all the items from the jar. Explain to your child that you will now fill the jar by putting the top priorities first. Place in the items and emphasize what each one represents. Once you’ve finished pouring the sand in and seeing how it fills in the bigger gaps at the bottom of the jar, explain to your child that this is how we should plan our time.

Some days will be busier than others, but when we prioritize our time through our priorities in life, we will be happier, healthier and more content.

When we put our time and energy into God first, He makes room for the other things. Some days will be busier than others, but when we prioritize our time through our priorities in life, we will be happier, healthier and more content.

Share some examples from your own life of times when you’ve seen this happen. Maybe you were running late for work but still took the time to pray to God, and somehow there was no traffic that day or your meeting was conveniently rescheduled. Or maybe you had a very full schedule one day but after praying experienced an extra boost of energy and were able to get even more accomplished.

Work with your children to prioritize their time and show them how God will be faithful to them too!

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