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Martha: Distracted or Disciple?

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What length will you go to hear the Gospel? Jesus Christ had a message, and God has called both men and women to understand and heed it, from Christ's time to the present day.

I don’t know about you, but being distracted is one of my biggest weaknesses, and if you are like most women, it is a problem for you too. Distraction is not just a modern-day problem; it was a problem for women in biblical times too. In the Gospel of Luke, we read about one such woman—Martha. We are going to look into the social issues and customs of the first century to better understand a lesson from this brief account and how it can apply to us.

Luke first introduces us to Martha as Jesus and His disciples enter a village, and she invites them into the house she shares with her sister, Mary (Luke 10:38–42). Although we meet Martha and Mary in the latter part of Jesus’ ministry, the dialog in this account indicates that a close relationship has already been established. Mary is already acquainted with Jesus’ teaching and desires to be His student. Martha has developed a comfortable relationship with Jesus, which is evident by the directness of her speech to Him.

Hospitality in ancient times wasn’t just a matter of politeness; it was a serious social custom. The host/hostess was responsible for his or her guests’ needs and comfort. So when Jesus and His disciples arrived from walking over dusty roads, they would have removed their sandals and were either provided water to wash their feet or had them washed by a servant, and given water to drink. Custom dictated that the women prepared the food and drink for their guests while the men sat as students at the rabbi’s feet. But here is where our story breaks with Jewish tradition.

For Mary to sit with the men, and for Jesus to welcome her, were radical changes. This is one of the instances where Jesus challenged the centuries-old restrictions society placed on women. In the ancient world, Martha was right in expecting her sister to help her. Martha was the one acting according to established custom. She wanted Mary in her rightful place preparing food for their guests, but Jesus was showing Martha that Mary was in her rightful place by sitting at His feet as a disciple. Jesus was rejecting centuries of Jewish traditions. Jesus was showing Martha and Mary, along with His disciples, that the gospel of the Kingdom was open to both men and women. He was also validating the worth of women in a society where their only purposes were to marry and bear children. Jesus demonstrated that women’s responsibilities were not limited to family, but they also had an opportunity and a responsibility to develop a relationship with God.

How does a first century Jewish woman now fulfill both responsibilities? Jesus teaches Martha how. Luke 10:40 states that Martha was “distracted with much serving.” What is the result of her distraction? Jesus explains in verse 41, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things.” Granted, making food for at least 15 people is a chore, but her thoughts and critical comments to Jesus were not appropriate for a guest, nor for the One who was her Messiah. Jesus’ tender rebuke to Martha provides necessary guidance: “But one thing is needed, and Mary has chosen that good part….” Jesus’ reply was instructive for Martha. This is a lesson in priorities. According to Jewish custom Martha made a good choice, but Jesus is now saying that Mary, sitting as His disciple, has made a better choice.

We may not have Jesus physically in our midst to teach us like Martha and Mary, but we have His teaching in our Bibles. What in our society can keep us distracted? In addition to our normal physical duties, we have the social pulls from TV, movies, Internet, Facebook and E-mails, to name a few. Setting priorities will reduce our distractions and keep us focused on God, our first priority. God wants us, as women, to be both His servants and His students. We have also been invited to sit at His feet as we study His Word. Make the right choice and do not be a distracted disciple.