It’s significant that every time we encounter Mary of Bethany in the gospels, she is at Jesus’ feet: here; when her brother, Lazarus dies (John 11:32); and, when she anointed Jesus before His death (John 12:3).
It’s also significant that Jesus visited these women and was willing to teach them about spiritual matters. In that culture, many rabbis thought that teaching women was a waste of time. But Jesus took the time to evangelize and teach women, thus showing the value that God puts on every person.
And through these women, especially Mary, the Lord teaches us a vital lesson about the main priority that we need to hold on to in the midst of our busy schedules, namely, that of sitting at His feet, which Jesus calls the one necessary thing, the good part.
Probably most of you agree with me, at least theoretically, that consistently spending time sitting at Jesus’ feet ought to be our main priority. But I would guess, based on my own struggles and on my years of pastoral experience, that most of you struggle with doing it consistently.
I hope to motivate you by showing you why sitting at Jesus’ feet is the one necessary thing. Then I want to analyze some of the common hindrances we have to overcome if we want to do it consistently. And, I want to show you how to get started.
Scripture References—Luke 10:38-41; John 11; 12:1-3
Name Meaning—As a Chaldee or Syriac word, Martha is the feminine of moro or more, meaning “lord,” “master.” We find this in the form maran in the well-known phrase Maran-atha, “The Lord cometh” (1 Corinthians 16:22). There are those who think that Kyria, translated “lady” in 2 John 1, is a proper name, the Greek equivalent of this word. Carpzov supposes that this Kyria was the same person as Martha of Bethany.
Family Connections—Of the history of Martha, the Bible tells us nothing save that she was the sister of Mary and Lazarus, and lived with them at Bethany.
Some early writers have made Martha, the daughter, wife, or widow of Simon the Leper, and that on his death the house became hers, hence the reference to the house when the resurrection of Lazarus was celebrated (Matthew 26:6; Mark 14:3).
Others think that Martha may have been a near relative of Simon for whom she acted as hostess. But the narrative seems to suggest the home belonged to Martha and being older than Mary and Lazarus, she carried the responsibility of all connected with household affairs in a home where “Jesus found the curse of the sojourner lifted from Him, and, in reversal of His own description of His loneliness and penury, found where to lay His head.”
What strikes us forcibly is that after Jesus left His natural home at the age of thirty to enter upon His public ministry we do not read of Him returning to it for rest and relaxation.
It was to the warm, hospitable home at Bethany to which He retired, for He loved the three who lived in it, Martha, Mary and Lazarus—in this order—which is something we do not read concerning His own brothers and sisters according to the flesh.
Martha and Mary seem to belong together in God’s portrait gallery, just as Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau do. Expositors also bracket the two sisters together, comparing and contrasting their respective traits.
Martha, busy with household chores—Mary, preferring to sit before Jesus for spiritual instruction. Martha, ever active and impulsive—Mary, meditative and reticent. Truly drawn are the characters of these two sisters, Martha usually busy supervising the hospitality of the home, Mary somewhat indifferent to house work, anxious only to seek that which was spiritual.
But we have no Scriptural warrant for affirming that the difference between the quiet, pious Mary and her industrious sister is that of the opposite of light to darkness. In the church there are vessels of gold and others of silver, but we are not justified in saying that the character of Mary is worked in gold and that of Martha in silver.
These two sisters in that Bethany family had their respective, appropriate talents, and each of them served the Master accordingly.
George Matheson deprecates the effort to always bracket Mary and Martha together. Each figure stands for itself alone. These sisters have “both suffered from being uniformly viewed in combination, and the bracketing has been more injurious to Mary than to Martha.
To say that Mary stands in contrast to Martha is true, but it is inadequate.” Too often “Martha has been held up to fine scorn as a worldly-minded and jealous creature, and Mary exalted for an indifference to the duties of hospitality, concerning which, for aught that we know, she may at various times have been quite as zealous as Martha.” Let us, therefore, take these female characters separately, and beginning with Martha note how she nobly fulfilled her mission in life.