You know the story; Jesus and the disciples drop in on Martha, Mary and Lazarus, and Martha gets steamed at Mary for leaving her to do all the serving by herself while Mary reclines at Jesus feet. She’s upset enough that she even throws a little lip Jesus’ way (Luke 10:38-42). Sermons about the encounter typically conclude with “be a Mary, not a Martha”. Of course, such sermons are NEVER delivered on the same day that the church holds a potluck after the service. No one gets served if everyone is a Mary.
The Greek word used to describe Martha’s serving is the same word used in Acts 6:1, when the apostles decided that serving food was a hassle and foisted the job off onto 7 deacons so they could focus on prayer and the word of God instead (Acts 6:1-6). Except for the Greek, one would never see the connection because the KJV renders the word “serving” in the passage concerning Martha, and “ministration” in the passage concerning the apostles. I guess that means when women serve food, it’s service, but when men do it, it’s ministry.
From G1249; attendance (as a servant, etc.); figuratively (eleemosynary) aid, (official) service (especially of the Christian teacher, or technically of the diaconate): – (ad-) minister (-ing, -tration, -try), office, relief, service (-ing).
There is a sense in which the passage in Acts 6:1-6 revisits the Martha situation upon the Apostles, and ultimately all of us who would serve the body of Christ. Like Martha, the apostles learned the hard way that it can be difficult and frustrating, trying to balance spiritual needs together with the physical needs of the Body.
Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. (2) And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. (3) Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. (4) But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” (5) And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. (6) These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them. (Acts 6:1-6 ESV)
There are a few peculiarities in the passage above. First, there is no mention of prayer before the apostles came up with the plan and proposed it to the disciples. Second, is the phrase in Acts 6:5 “what they said pleased the whole gathering”. Thayer’s definition of the Greek word ἀρέσκω (areskō / G700), which in english is rendered “pleased”, is:
1) to please,
2) to strive to please
2a) to accommodate one’s self to the opinions desires and interests of others.
That the 2nd definition is “striving” (flesh) in order to accommodate the “interests of others” (man’s will), suggests to me the possibility that appointing deacons to serve food may have been in response to the will of men, more so than the will of God. I’m further puzzled that while the apostles are leaders and teachers, by presenting the plan to the people, they seemed to be asking for their approval in the matter. Why else report that the people were “pleased”? Could the apostles not themselves pray and the Holy Spirit identify 7 men to serve food, when previously, they prayed and chose an apostle to replace Judas? I can’t say for certain, of course. The passage just raises questions for me, especially since twice before, when faced with the demands of men, Peter replied:
But Peter and John answered and said to them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the judge” (Acts 4:19 NASB).
But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29 NASB).
It’s notable that Jesus’ gentle rebuke of Martha, whose behavior toward Mary and Jesus was unquestionably odorous, addressed only her attitude toward Mary and to say that Mary had chosen the better portion, to sit at the feet of Jesus. He did not say Martha had chosen poorly, after all, Jesus had accepted Martha’s gracious invitation into her home and all were blessed by the meal she served.
So here we are again in Acts 6, where the apostles were faced with the dilemma of serving food or being ‘in the word’ and they respond by creating a class of ministry after the example of Martha: Deacons.
Yet despite creating this separate servant class, Paul writes in 2 Thessalonians 3:10:
If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat (ESV).
And Peter writes in 1 Peter 4:9:
Show hospitality to one another without grumbling (ESV).
Before deriding Martha yet again and mindlessly advocating that everyone should emulate Mary, let’s ask ourselves where Jesus and the disciples would have stayed if not for Martha inviting them into her home? What would they have eaten? Would there have been clean dishes to eat from or clean linens?
Consider also the story of Jesus and his disciples who while walking through a wheat field picked and rubbed the heads between their hands to thresh the grain and ate the seeds (Luke 6:1). Surely we appreciate it when someone grinds the grain into flour and bakes fresh bread! Otherwise, if not for servants like Martha and those wonderful “wives of noble character” (Proverbs 31), we would graze like the animals!
It seems when reading scripture, we can approach it from a variety of points of view. Readers do tend to insert themselves into the stories they’re reading. Specifically, when you read, do you see the scripture(s) as applicable to yourself, someone else, or to the church at large (i.e., institution)? For example, when reading the parable of the Good Samaritan, do you ever identify with the robbers, or always imagine yourself to be the hero? Self preservation does tend to make us see critical scripture as applicable to someone else and prevent us from taking the Lord’s counsel to heart. Like the story of Mary and Martha.
My dear mother Joy was a Martha. She shopped, prepared meals, helped me with homework, and made my family a comfortable home. I love and miss my mommy terribly. My dear mother-in-law is also a Martha and models many of the fine characteristics attributed to the Proverbs 31 wife of noble character. She also raised an amazing daughter, who is a devoted servant of God and of her husband and of countless others over the course of her life.
On this day, Mother’s day, my dear wife gets to be Mary for a day. Her adoring husband fixed her lunch with a heart-warming movie and tonight, will prepare a simple dinner for us. As many times as I ask her where something is, or the difference between a simmer and a rolling boil, she’ll respond graciously. Tomorrow, she’ll be a Martha again. But I make her this promise, she will not have to wait until next Mother’s day to enjoy the freedom of being Mary again. For I believe it to be the Lord’s command, that we all share in the work of marriage just as in the work of the Church. My wife is my helpmate and I am hers. Sometimes she is Martha so I can be Mary and sometimes I am Martha so she can be Mary. And occasionally, we’re both Martha, which can lead to some real excitement around here. 😉
That’s the way it should be with all of us until the day the Lord takes us home and we can all be like Mary.
Happy Mother’s Day.
NOTE: There are 3 articles in this series: