One of the familiar stories in the Bible is the account of Mary and Martha spending the day with Jesus. http://www.esvbible.org/Luke+10%3A38-42/ It is a favorite referrent of many Church women. I have heard so many times one or another of our dedicated ladies make the claim, "I am a Martha, not a Mary." There is a certain degree of pride involved in this statement. At its best it means "I like to serve others," but there is usually more. What it often communicates, between the lines, is something to the effect that "I am the type of church woman who is busy hustling behind the scenes, making sure everything is provided, so that you Mary-types can sit on your rear ends and enjoy all the benefits of another's work." On rare occassion there can even be a hint of resentment or bitterness. "Martha" means "you can count on me to get things done." There are two kind of women, the thinking goes, the ones who work and clean and fix and the other kind, that don't...
I have, on numerous occassions, taught on this little story. Each time I have tried to make clear that Martha is not the hero of the story. Martha, in fact, gets it wrong. There may be something to learn from this. The realization that most church women cheerily identify with the wrong character may show how widespread Pelagianism is. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11604a.htm It is also culturally driven, the martyr complex. We just love to see ourselves as the victim, in this case an overlooked hard-worker who gets no gratitude or respect. It is also hard for us to get out of our preconceived ideas and assumptions.
It is noteworthy that only Luke has this story (and interesting that it follows immediately on the Good Samaritan, another Luke-only vignette). As is often the case, John has a complementary story related to Luke. (The story of Lazarus, where Mary and Martha come across with very similar personalities as what we see in Luke) It is significant that the house is her house (Matha's). There is no mention of Lazarus here (although that name is used in a parable of a poor leper who dies at a rich man's front gate) and one would othewise assume the two women live alone, with Martha the matriarch. [Many important ancient Greek texts omit the word hers no doubt an intentional editorial decision because it would be so unusual to refer to a house in that way, or maybe unintentional, because it is unthinkable to talk that way.] The village is unnamed by Luke, a generic stop on the journey to Jerusalem (to die). Martha is the centerpiece, it is she who welcomes Jesus. [Once again an unexpected, even scandalous, behavior. It is the man's role to welcome a man into the house.] It is not unusual for Luke to emphasize the important role of women. We know in ancient times the sex roles were more defined and women had a lower and more guarded/protected social status. Here we see a woman who has seemingly somewhat transcended her state in life.
First of all we learn that Mary sat at Jesus' feet. While this is not clear to us, it would be for the original audience [which is always the case, we do not read with their assumptions so we miss the point!]. Paul said he was a student of the rabbi Gamaliel, in Acts 22:3 but notice how he states it "I am a Jew...brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel." To be at the feet is an expression of being a student. By sitting at Jesus' feet Mary was acting like a man, and Jesus was treating her like one. This is pretty radical.
Martha is not described as being busy, she is distracted. Unfortunately the Greek word only occurs once in the NT, here, so we cannot see how it is used elsewhere. What we do know is it means to be drawn away or distracted. In other words, she is not busy with the demands of hospitality, she is distracted. Simply put, she is focused on less important things. In general, hospitality tasks are those things which make a guest feel welcome and helps the guest enjoy a visit. It is guest focused. Distractions are those things which we do in the name of hospitality which actually are about our own egos (wanting to look good, wanting to make things perfect, focused on how things look and not the guest!).
Martha misses the point. She is distracted, oblivious to what is taking place. Whatever her motivation (personally or socially driven) Luke's wording has provided us with the revelatory key. When Jesus is in the room, sit down and listen. The proper response to a teacher is be a student. The proper response to the Lord is sit at His feet.
Often in the Christian life we seek virtues (like service or hospitality). This is not bad. Unless, of course, it is not obedient. Disicpleship is about following Jesus. Going where He sends us. Sitting at His feet. Listening to Him. Too often we do many things "in His name" or "for His sake" all the while ignoring Him (while we feed our own ego or sense of victimhood or whatever else it is we are actually doing).
Mary chose what was best and Jesus said that she would not be denied it. In Matthew 6 we are told not to perform piety for the eyes of others. If we seek human praise we will get it, but that is all we will get. The Father rewards those who truly seek His glory. It appears that we have the same principle at work here. You get what you seek, you get what you want. If you want everyone to marvel at the dinner or comment on the spotless and tastefully decorate house, so be it. If your goal is to be recognized as the premier hostess, it will happen. If you chase after every distraction and pour your energies into things which are important (but ignore things more important) then you may find yourself working alone and feeling a bit angry.
If you seek the most important thing (Mt, again, "Seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteous and everything else will be added") you will not be denied. Ask, seek, knock, Jesus said in Mt 7. That is exactly what Mary is doing. Ironically, Mary, the more passive of the sisters, is perfectly configured to take on the role of disciple. Martha is no doubt the stronger one, but in this case we see her strength is a barrier to Jesus. This is why Jesus says, "Blessed are the poor." This is why the poor and lowly find Him with greater ease. Their need drives them. Their hunger makes them break rules and sit at the feet (while society shakes a finger and tells them they do not belong there). Meanwhile, the strong and powerful get busy with many things. Many, many things. And we complain about all we have to do, and we bemoan the lack of help, and we resent others for not appreciating us and giving us a hand. We get angry that others are not with us, at our beck and call, taking care of all the things which we think are important.
Busy, and distracted, no time to sit at Jesus' feet. In a back room, by ourselves, while Wisdom Incarnate sits in our house, sharing His Truth, Healing and Saving those who sit at His feet. And later on we brag about it---I am a Martha!!
(please see comment)