NLT Translation says it like this:

As Jesus and the disciples continued on their way to Jerusalem, they came to a certain village where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. Her sister, Mary, sat at the Lord’s feet, listening to what he taught. But Martha was distracted by the big dinner she was preparing. She came to Jesus and said, “Lord, doesn’t it seem unfair to you that my sister just sits here while I do all the work? Tell her to come and help me.”
But the Lord said to her, “My dear Martha, you are worried and upset over all these details! There is only one thing worth being concerned about. Mary has discovered it, and it will not be taken away from her.”

Is this actually about food? Although this happened around a meal, it is not actually about food, it is about the difference between Mary and Martha as they encounter Jesus. Specifically, it is about how they make different choices. On the face of it, Martha makes a choice to serve, Mary makes a choice to learn.

What I want to do today is to consider some other differences between Mary and Martha and some choices Jesus presents us with as we live out our lives as disciples.


I will start by looking at Martha’s attitude towards Mary, which is revealed in her request to Jesus. Mary sat at the Lord’s feet and totally focused on Him. While Martha, on the face of it, was working on the practical things, and, quite possibly, neglecting or even ignoring their guest.

Except she wasn’t focusing on serving. She was looking at Mary and making a judgement about her. It got to the point where her view of Mary resulted in her outburst. Martha fell into the trap of comparing herself with her sister. She couldn’t hold it in:

“Tell my sister to help me, I’m doing this all on my own!”

One of the gifts I believe Wendy and I possess is the gift of hospitality. Over the years, when we hosted guests, one of us would sit with them being hospitable while the other busied themselves in the kitchen. Depending on whether then guests were easy and friendly or not determined which one of us drew the short straw in this arrangement! Very occasionally, it was a source of conflict that ‘you just sat and chatted while I did all the work!’ So, we can understand the outburst that Martha had. The root of Martha’s outburst and of the tension in many families where one person resents doing all the work in the kitchen while the rest of the family are relaxing with friends lies in comparison.

It has struck me from watching the conflict and hate (particularly in the West), and listening to the rhetoric about ‘equality’, that nearly ALL of it is rooted in our tendency to compare ourselves with others.

Throughout the 1980s I worked for a local authority, the department had over 100 staff. We were extremely diverse. We had different ages, different ethnicities and both genders in all sorts of roles. No two people were paid the same, even when they were at the same level. Their pay depended on multiple factors, including initial salary negotiations, length of time employed in the department, and so on.

‘We deserve what they’re getting’ is a common argument in wage negotiations. Not we deserve the raise on our merits, but “they get more than us!” This takes me right back to when my children were very young and the ‘she’s got more cake than I have!’ cry (or something similar) was a constant complaint. Children especially can’t bear to think that someone has more or better than they have, and this affects their sense of well-being. On multiple occasions, one child was perfectly content with what they were doing or what they had — UNTIL — they saw a sibling or another child with something more, or newer, or better.

If I looked about and focused on what the people around me were being paid, what material difference would it make to my life if I knew what their salary was? The only thing it could possibly do was make me dissatisfied with my own salary. But if I had agreed to work for the salary I was being paid, wasn’t that enough?

There are several passages in the Bible which speak to this, here are just a few:

The women in Jerusalem sang about David’s conquests and about Saul’s conquests. We read in 1 Samuel 18:6-9 that:

“When the men were returning home after David had killed the Philistine, the women came out from all the towns of Israel to meet King Saul with singing and dancing, with joyful songs and with timbrels and lyres. As they danced, they sang:
“Saul has slain his thousands,
and David his tens of thousands.”
Saul was very angry; this refrain displeased him greatly. “They have credited David with tens of thousands,” he thought, “but me with only thousands. What more can he get but the kingdom?” And from that time on, Saul kept a close eye on David”

The comparison triggered something in Saul. Jealousy.

We also have some New Testament examples, so in John 21:15-25, Jesus is eating breakfast with the disciples on the shore of Galilee. He is talking to Peter. In fact, it is the occasion where He is reinstating Peter to ministry. Peter looks at John (John doesn’t name himself, but calls himself ‘the disciple Jesus loved’) and asks, ‘what about him?’ (v21). Jesus’ response to Peter is this: ‘what is it to you how I treat him, you must follow me’ (my version, not an accurate translation!). Here is the text: “Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them. (This was the one who had leaned back against Jesus at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is going to betray you?”) When Peter saw him, he asked, “Lord, what about him?” Jesus answered, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.””

Jesus tells a parable about workers in a vineyard. The master employs workers in the morning who agree to work for a day’s wage. Throughout the day, he goes back out and hires more people. When the time comes to pay the workers at the end of the day, he gives the same amount to those who had only been employed for the last hour as he did to those who had worked all day. Those who had worked all day did exactly what my children used to do, they compared and moaned. But, said the master, “didn’t you agree to work for what I paid you?” “Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money?” (You can read the parable in Matthew 20:1-16).

Often, when I listen to people bemoaning their lot as they make comparisons with people around them, I feel like screaming “stop being so childish!”. One of the best life lessons we can teach our children as they grow is that life will never be “fair” or “equal”.

There are myriad differences between people, every single one of which will impact life for the better, or worse. A constant struggle for “equality” fuels dissatisfaction and conflict and does nothing to help wellbeing in people. On the contrary, it damages wellbeing and impacts our relationships with others, which damages the cohesion that makes for a peaceful society. If we spend all our time and effort looking over our shoulder or sideways at other people, we are destined to live a life full of dissatisfaction and envy. One secret to being content is to stop looking around at what others are paid or given and be content with your own life.

This is shown in Paul’s writings, where he says to the Philippians: “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well-fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want” (Philippians 4:12).

The first question to ask ourselves is this one: “Am I going to live my life comparing my lot with other people?”

Serving or Tarrying?

1 Peter 4:10 says this: “Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.”

Jesus said: “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.” (Matthew 20:26, Mark 9:35 // Mark 10:42-43)?

Serving is a GOOD thing. In fact, it is one of the key marks of an authentic Christian.

Yet, Mary was sat at Jesus’ feet and Martha was told she chose the better thing. The Psalmist writes in Psalm 27:4:

“One thing I ask from the LORD,
this only do I seek:
that I may dwell in the house of the LORD
all the days of my life,
to gaze on the beauty of the LORD
and to seek him in his temple.”

So, on the one hand, sitting at Jesus’ feet is ‘the better thing’, desiring simply to be in God’s presence is all we need to do. But we must also be ‘the servant of all’.

Is this a choice between busying oneself with service and ‘resting’ in God?

We frequently find ourselves in a place where we have a choice to make. Do we stand by and allow others to do all the practical stuff and serve, while we simply sit at Jesus’ feet? Or do we roll up our sleeves and get stuck in? Both can be right, and both can be wrong. We need to get to the place where we can discern when to do which.


So often we think that we have the solution to our problem, AND that somehow we are entitled to tell God what to do. This happened to Martha, she was struggling with the arrangements, and she saw the solution to her struggles—Mary. She also goes to Jesus and says to Him, “tell my sister to help me”. She judged her sister, she judged Jesus, and she went so far as to believe she could tell him how to resolve her issues.

“Move in my life, Lord, but do it in the way I think you should”

Isn’t this the height of arrogance?

The book of Job asks some questions about God :

“Behold, God is exalted in his power;
who is a teacher like him?
Who has prescribed for him his way,
or who can say, ‘You have done wrong’?”
(Job 36:22-23)


“Who appointed him over the earth?
Who put him in charge of the whole world?”
(Job 34:13)

Isaiah asks:

“Who has measured the Spirit of the LORD,
or what man shows him his counsel?
Whom did he consult,
and who made him understand?
Who taught him the path of justice,
and taught him knowledge,
and showed him the way of understanding?”
(Isaiah 40:13-14 ESV)

Few people nowadays would be so arrogant as to think that they could somehow tell God what to do and how to do it.


We frequently pray for God to move in a situation, and in our prayers we typically suggest how He might do it. We sometimes even get cross with God if He doesn’t ‘move’ in a situation like we’ve asked. True faith will pray for God to act, and then allow him the honour of being more able to know what to do than we do!

My challenge here to us is that as we pray for God to move in the life of the church and in our lives, let’s do just that. Let’s give Him the honour of allowing Him to move in HIS way and not in ours!

AND in His time and not ours!


Martha, we were told, was distracted by all the preparations. This distraction meant she missed the better thing.

The Bible has several passages which tell the people of God to be faithful to God and keep their focus on Him. So for example, Deuteronomy 5:32-33 says, “You shall be careful therefore to do as the LORD your God has commanded you. You shall not turn aside to the right hand or to the left. You shall walk in all the way that the LORD your God has commanded you, that you may live, and that it may go well with you, and that you may live long in the land that you shall possess”.

Isaiah says, “this is the way, walk in it” (Isaiah 30:21).

Both of these references are about following God, walking in the faith and not being distracted by the world. But the principle about not being distracted from our focus holds true.

As an example, in Acts 6, we read about the fellowship of believers grew. There was a daily distribution of food to people. In fact, there was a disagreement between the Hebrew and Greek widows over that distribution. One group felt they were being overlooked (speaks to the point I was making about comparison leading to dissatisfaction). The point I am making here though is that the Apostles made a choice to focus. They gathered the people together and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. 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. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” (Acts 6:2-4). Note that the choice was not to practically serve, it was to focus on the task they had been given—preaching the Gospel.

What stands out about this is: We MUST understand what the significant things are: we must assess and stick to the priorities. In common vernacular, ‘Make the main thing the main thing’. The most indispensable ‘meal’ we can eat is Jesus himself. Just as He stands and says, “I am the bread of life”, He says devour my teaching, there is no better meal.

This is not a choice between good and bad. It is one between good and better. This is important because different people will make different choices and focus on different things. If we see our choice as ‘good’ and some else’s as ‘bad’, it will lead us to judge them. Just as Martha judged Mary for her choice.

We should focus on what God has asked us to do, and we should let others focus on what He has asked them to do.


Either\Or v Both/And.

Mary and Martha are often contrasted. Most, if not all the messages I have heard, suggest that each believer must make a choice: be a worker like Martha or a worshipper like Mary. Certainly, our personalities and gifts are different, but that does not mean that the Christian life is an either/or situation.

Charles Wesley said it in one of his hymns:

Faithful to my Lord’s commands,
I still would choose the better part;
Serve with careful Martha’s hands,
And loving Mary’s heart.

We have a faith which, at all levels, challenges us to hold two things in tension. Some of them are theological and others more practical. So, as well as the work/worship contrast we see here, there is does the Spirit live IN us? Or are we in the Spirit? Did I choose God, or did He choose me? And these are just two examples.

In the world around us, it seems as if everything is a binary choice. From beliefs about climate change, to issues around ethnicity, politics, and more besides, it seems there is little to no tolerance of nuance.

The one binary choice which is a binary choice is the choice to follow Jesus.

In Matthew 12:30, Jesus says, “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters”. He talks of wide roads and narrow roads, wide gates and narrow gates. The one binary choice we all have is this one:

Will you follow Jesus or will you reject Him?