Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38-42)
The story of Mary and Martha is a children’s ministry staple. A few years ago, I was given this passage and lesson for my Scripture class, and it was a colour-by-numbers approach to teaching the passage: “Mary, good. Martha, bad. Listen to Jesus”.
Sometimes there’s more we tack onto that, depending on the circumstance: maybe Mary is the younger of the two and Martha is the older, responsible, fussy one. Maybe Martha was preparing lots of dishes, and so Jesus, when he talks about the “one thing” that is necessary, is just telling her that a one-pot dish is all that is needed. Hey, look at how important it is that Mary is sitting with the disciples—the men—while Martha stays in the kitchen.
The illustrations for children’s Bibles often reflect this personality split too: Mary, in something simple and flowy and maybe pink, her hair out, sits with the other disciples, while Martha’s in a headscarf and something more elaborate and purple to mirror her distraction or anxiousness. Never mind the cultural expectations of the day regarding head coverings or the clothing dyes that were available at the time; this is a simple way to illustrate the difference between the two.
It’s a very simple and easy lesson to teach kids, “Mary, good. Martha, bad. Listen to Jesus.” It has a simple, behaviour-based contrast, a desired outcome and a straightforward message. But I worry sometimes that when we teach children this key point, there’s never any need for us to elaborate beyond that. So the message of the passage stays the same for the hearers into their adulthood. But when that happens, we miss out on some gold about the body of Christ at work.
A second look at Martha
I’d like to invite us to consider the passage in its greater cultural context for a moment. Hospitality was really important in the time and context of Jesus: it was directly connected to how much you respected your visitors and cared about them. Australian culture is casual in this regard: we show that a person is welcome in our house with the phrase, “Make yourself at home”. When you invite over friends from church, Sunday lunch is a low-key event with a tradie’s handbag (i.e. a barbecue chicken from the supermarket), a couple of pre-packaged coleslaws or potato salads, and a bag of bread rolls. We show our affection and respect by treating our guests as our equals.
This was not the case in the historical and cultural context of Jesus’ day. The cuppa-in-the-kitchen culture of the bog-standard Aussie would fail to respect an honoured visitor. Back then, you honoured guests by how you fed and housed them. Martha is doing something quite important in this passage. Her distraction wasn’t in the pursuit of something bad; her actions were seeking to love and honour Jesus in practical and detail-oriented means. This tiny picture in the Gospels presents us with someone who is loved by Jesus and is serving the lesser and yet-not-lesser needs of his people. It’s a little removed from the heart of things, but honouring Jesus and his disciples by serving their physical needs in a way that the culture of the time dictated wasn’t unimportant.
It was right for Jesus to teach and reassure Martha that his words are better and of greater value. But there’s definitely a lot more going on than simply a contrast between the behaviour of the two sisters, and teaching the passage involves more than drawing a moral conclusion from that contrast and then calling it a day with your Sunday School class.
The Ministry Martha
Enter the “Ministry Martha”. If you look, you’ll find at least one in your local church. They’re the church member with the eye for detail—the one who’s doing the washing up after the meeting on Sunday—the one who runs the sound desk or projector—the one who organises lunch for the group training session. Sometimes they do front-of-house things. But the majority of the time, they work behind the scenes to help run Sundays, your mid-week Christianity Explored studies or something of this calibre. Sometimes you won’t even see them: there’ll just be a pile of clean tea towels in the kitchen and no dirty ones, because they’ve taken those home to wash.
Ministry Marthas come in all shapes and sizes. They’re the socially anxious, the exceedingly busy and the very tired. They often show love through practical means. They’re men and women who look after the bits and pieces, and in doing so, add to the value of the up-front teaching. They’re invaluable for the life of the church and the running of everyday things. They might not have high visibility in your church, but you notice when they’re not there. While the work of a Ministry Martha might not be directly involved with proclamation ministries within your church, if they’re concerned with the details because they love Jesus, then they’re adorning the gospel. We ought to help them see that.
I think this is one of the reasons why that very simple exegesis of Luke 10:38-42 sits uncomfortably with me: not only is the “Mary, good. Martha, bad. Listen to Jesus” conclusion a bit moralistic, it also devalues the kind of care that one of the sisters is showing for Jesus.
Thinking about the different people in your church and the ways they’re involved in ministry, I think it is right and biblical to focus and value the ministry of the Word—that is, teaching from the Bible. You see that tension and distinction in passages like Acts 6:1-7, where people are set apart in the early church to look after the details of seeing the needy fed so that the apostles can preach. These two sides—Word ministry and practical ministry—need each other in order for the gospel to be displayed. There’s definitely a precedence: prioritising the meal over sharing the gospel at an evangelism night makes the activity defunct. But practical ministries often make Word ministry easier. Word ministry without practical ministry can function, but it’s poorer for it, lacking the details that can really help people feel cared for. Never underestimate the value of the Ministry Martha who, during the winter, arrives early to turn on the heaters: it’s such a small thing and yet it’s such a widely-felt way of loving people.
How to encourage the Ministry Marthas in your church
With all of this in mind, how ought we care for our Ministry Marthas at church? I can think of three ways.
Firstly, appreciate their work. Don’t just take it for granted or expect it. The nature of behind-the-scenes ministry is that it typically goes unseen. Or we only remember there’s a person making things happen when something goes wrong—something that anyone who’s worked on the tech side of a Sunday gathering can attest to.
Deliberately consider how their work adorns the gospel message—especially if the details they are concerned with take into consideration cultural context for either honouring the Word ministry or taking care of the people in the space. Let them know that you see their work and value it. What they do might not be as visible as an up-front role on Sundays, but that doesn’t mean they’re not valuable; 1 Corinthians 12:21-26 tells us that even the smallest and unimportant roles in the body of Christ are worthy of honour. The desire to look after the details so that the gospel might be preached unimpeded is a worthy ministry, and it serves Jesus.
Secondly, consider how you talk about and value different ministries. I spent a few years in one church running the projector, and I trained a few people in how to do it too. But at that point in time, that role was often used as an “entry-level” ministry: people would do it for a while and then, once it was obvious that their hearts were in the right place, they’d be moved to a more visible ministry. While part of the logic behind this practice checks out (that is, it aims to figure out whether someone is willing to serve without the prestige of visibility), it also meant that running the slides was valued less. We want to consider Word-based, vision-concerned ministries in perspective with practical-based, detail-concerned ministries. There’s a precedence between the two, but both are necessary. Jesus doesn’t devalue Martha’s concerns, but he does tell her that Mary has chosen the better of the two things.
This leads me to the third way you can encourage the Ministry Marthas in your church: help them see their ministry in perspective. The details they care about serve the greater picture, but they aren’t the gospel by themselves. We’re poorer for it without someone who notices the small things and who makes those changes. But the details aren’t the best thing. Sometimes if you’re a details person, you either feel like nobody else will care about how your thing is important (like getting water and cups onto discussion tables when the event is about to start in thirty seconds), or you miss out on the good stuff because you’re frequently taking care of the small things (like the washing up, making sure the next slide is good to go, or filling in as a Sunday School leader for the sixth week running). Help your Ministry Marthas see their work in the greater context of the body of Christ.
Value their work, and value them. And most importantly, make sure you’re helping them to sit at Jesus’ feet too.
4. Point to Jesus
Jesus’ response to Martha in Luke 10 is gentle: it doesn’t ignore or invalidate the way that she was going about caring for her guests. What Jesus does in this moment of distraction is remind Martha of what matters most:
But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:41-42)
It’s an appropriate thing to encourage your Ministry Martha on days when they’re preoccupied. It’s much easier to engage with Jesus and his words when you know that the small tasks will still be taken care of, but sometimes a gentle nudge is necessary. It’s a good thing to want to look after the details, but it’s a better thing to sit at Jesus’ feet. Remind your Ministry Marthas that it’s okay to let some things go sometimes if it means they get to sit and listen to Jesus.
Luke 10:38-42 is a gift to us: it describes a small moment in Jesus’ life, the relationships between different people who followed him, and the ways he was treasured by them. It’s a far more complex and lovely picture than the simplistic “Mary, good. Martha, bad. Listen to Jesus” reading implies.
Martha’s work in Luke 10 was about honouring Jesus by keeping in mind the cultural needs of her context and caring about the details. You’ll meet Ministry Marthas in your churches today too—men and women who want to honour Jesus and who have a gift for considering detail and cultural context in their ministry. Consider loving them by appreciating and valuing their contributions, and helping them to see their gift in the context of their local and wider church. Don’t take them for granted; love them well by helping them to listen to Jesus in moments when they might otherwise be overtaken by obligation and detail.
Lastly, consider whether there are ways in which you might take on some aspects of being a Ministry Martha. The secret to successful Ministry Martha-ing is thoughtfulness, consideration, a self-starter attitude, and the desire to honour Jesus with the gifts he’s given us.
Brooke Hazelgrove has just completed her second year at Moore Theological College.
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Scripture quotations are from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.