Martha or Mary? The Importance of Setting Priorities in Life

For centuries together, the Bible Story of Martha and Mary has long perplexed Christians of all denominations. Perhaps one of the most misinterpreted stories in the Bible, a much deeper analysis of the tale leads us to the importance of setting priorities in life, and why Mary wins hands down in choosing her focus right, i.e. “Devotion to the Messiah and His Wisdom.”

Mary’s approach to Jesus’ visit has been an intriguing topic of discussion among theologians. Her attitude has many times been distorted as one that borders on callousness and non-co-operation.

It is nevertheless thought-provoking to see that Jesus does not reproach Mary for her disinterest in helping her sister Martha. This further intensifies our misunderstanding to its pinnacle.

The story of Martha and Mary

The Gospel of Luke, chapter 10 unfolds before us the captivating scene of Martha, inviting Jesus and His disciples to her house. Being the gracious host that she is, Martha takes matters into her own hands and hurries into the kitchen to attend to the preparations for a banquet to be spread out for the guests. The lady means business and shows determination and devotion to put her culinary skills to the best use when the Rabbi is home.

We watch Martha from a safe distance;bustling around like a tornado, making a whirlwind of preparations in a jiffy, attending to the cooking, baking, clearing, cleansing, and spreading of the entire table, “all alone”, but with so much finesse and conviction!

Quite curiously, her fervour gradually turns to disdain, irritation, and one of total reproach towards her sister. She falters, fumbles and flares intermittently, quite given to muttering under her breath, as and when she takes a quick, stealthy glance at the engrossing discourse happening in the hall.She directs her diabolic glare straight at Mary, her sister, who quite unaware of the volcano bubbling within Martha, is peacefully listening with deep intent to what Jesus has to say.

Martha, we get it!

Many of us have been in such unfair situations. Frustrated, disappointed, and distracted, we complain and totally lose it at some point!

While we admire Martha’s hospitality and service- ‘spiritual gifts’ in itself, how many of us would remain peaceful and unperturbed if we are in Martha’s goody two shoes?

Naturally, Martha would have expected her sister Mary to follow suit, to help her in her mundane activities. But, to her utter exasperation, she sees Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus, listening to the Rabbi in all her earnestness; soaking Him in all His glory! Martha is at her wit’s end, worrying about all the cooking and arrangements that she has to make all alone!

Martha’s defiance can be summed up by the way she marches up to Jesus and declares with such audacity:-

“Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.”

Wasn’t Martha fair enough in asking the Lord for some help?

We see Jesus calmly listening to her. Being the highest authority in the room, Jesus could have condemned Martha for showing the courage to complain to him, and could have reacted with supremacy and put her in the right place. Martha could very well have been expecting Jesus to support her in her bemoaning, and scold Mary for her negligence towards her sister.

However, to her disbelief, the Lord answered thus- “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.”

Doesn’t our Master’s response perplex us as well?

What does Mary and Martha teach us?

We see Martha and Mary as two strong individuals with totally different priorities in their lives.

Being a Jewish woman, and having no independent stance of her own, Martha was doing what was best expected from the women of her times-being a submissive and gracious hostess, and taking the guests who have come visiting, under her capable wings.

However, Martha also comes across as amazingly courageous, fearless,impulsive and straightforward for a woman of Jewish origin. She runs ahead and invites a man into her house without a second thought. That too, a man who was not in the good books of the town authorities; a man who had the proverbial “Sword of Damocles hanging over his head.” Her reputation could have been at stake. She did not care a dime!

Martha teaches us a few remarkable lessons, good as well as bad, that are worth applying in our lives till the end of times :-

  • Be courageous enough to run to the highest authority (JESUS) for guidance and protection, when you are faced with rejection, discontentment and distraction.
  • Jesus did not rebuke Mary for her attentive ear and lack of hospitality. However, through Martha, He also reminds us in no uncertain terms, that hospitality and service are spiritual gifts and must be shared and practiced, “without grumbling.’’

“Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.”  Romans 12:13

“Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling.” 1 Peter 4:9

  • Comparison breeds contempt and dissatisfaction. Whatever you do for the Lord, do it with happiness, total surrender, peace,and without complaining; with full dedication and no distraction.
  • Count on Jesus as your best friend to whom you can take all your worries and problems without fearing His reaction to your disputes. The Lord knows how best He can put you back on the right track, as gently as possible.

We see that Martha was daring and unflinching to take her dissatisfaction towards her sister straight to the Messiah-her friend. It takes a lot of courage to take your grievances and criticism to someone who is so pure, powerful and authoritative. She is bold and daring and does not even ask him if it is right for Mary to neglect her, but declares to Him, “Tell her then to help me.”

Martha shows us how to approach the Lord without any fear of rejection. This is the kind of closeness that we should have with Jesus. A closeness that warrants all kinds of discussions without fear or reproach about the outcome.

Jesus waits for us to run to Him with our worries.

Contrary to Martha’s temperament, Mary comes across as deeply dedicated, and devoted to Jesus. She does not have any qualms in showing her priority in her life, despite being rebuked by her sister for not helping her. She is courageous in her own terms, putting herself in the line of fire to be criticized by the entire community for taking the role of a man, i.e. engaging in discourse with the Rabbi, and shirking her responsibility as a woman.

Mary is unconcerned about what people think about her. She anoints Jesus with expensive perfumes without thinking about the aftermath of such an act in full public view.

While we do not get a profound insight into the character of Mary, she throws some very deep and delightful cues along our way so that we know what priorities to focus on in our lives.

  • Put Jesus above all priorities in life and everything else will be set straight in its due course.
  • ‘Love’ for the Lord is the only focus we need in life to tackle all anxieties and distress.
  • As long as we have the right person (JESUS) beside us, and do the right thing (listening to the word of God) in our life, we are in safe hands!
  • Mary reminds us to-“But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” Mathew 6:33
  • Mary also tells us that we must have pure, unconditional devotion to Jesus, no matter what circumstances and trials we have to face for publicly declaring our love and affection for Jesus.

Surprisingly, Mary is placed a notch higher in terms of devotion than Jesus’ disciples who betrayed Him to save themselves from getting into trouble. Mary sits at His feet for comfort when she is overcome with grief. Once she has chosen her focus, she is unconcerned about what others would think and comment.

This is the kind of focus that the Lord demands from us. Unconditional focus, devoid of any fear of criticism, outcomes, or rejection from society.“Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

My dear brothers and sisters, would you drop all your focuses in life and set Jesus as your priority like Mary? Mary demonstrates to us in simple terms that Jesus can solve all our heartaches.

Where does your attention linger on? As the well known adage points out – “We get what we focus on”, let us take an effort to put our mind’s focus back on Jesus. All we need in life is His grace, and the pieces of the puzzle fall back in perfect order.

How do we know where our focus is on?

There is a time and a place for everything (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8)

Sometimes, we are taken for a merry ride when we focus our attention on things materialistic and worldly. We fall into a deep chasm, and grope in the darkness, trying to stay afloat, and achieve fame and accolades that give us instantaneous, momentary pleasures at the most. We are distracted like Martha!

If you want to know where your heart is, look to where your mind wanders when it is idle. Does your mind wander towards things materialistic? Does it turn to people, places, and specific things? If yes, then we need to realign our mind, gather our ball bearings, and adjust our focus back to the Lord.

Comparison of Martha and Mary

While Martha is in no way wrong in tending to her duties as a hostess, we must understand the importance of choosing the right priority at the right time. At the time of Jesus’ visit, listening to the Rabbi should have been her greatest priority, and Mary chose the perfect focus.She demonstrated her love, devotion and worship towards the Lord by being in perfect attendance and reverence in His presence.Mary perfectly understood the scripture:-

“It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God.’” Luke 4:4

We must assume that Martha was also invited by Jesus to listen to Him. However, being in control of the house, Martha could have been worried about the hospitality part and would have scurried off to make the necessary arrangements. She might have even asked her sister to accompany her. Martha appears to be practical, nurturing and gracious. Like the Apostle Peter, she is impulsive and short-tempered too.

Mary on the other hand is deeply spiritual, and focused on her cause- Jesus. Like the Apostle John, Mary is loving and calm. Nothing changes her focus from the Messiah, not even her sister’s accusations, or her reputation, which was in danger of being tarnished.

We all have rudiments of Martha and Mary in our lives. Jesus loved both the sisters deeply, even with all their imperfections. It is just a matter of what priority that we set in our lives that balances out our imperfections.

Are we Martha or Mary? I will leave you with this resonating query to ponder on deeply…

May the good Lord bless and direct you to your ‘Solid Focus’ in life.


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