If Jesus Commended Mary, Why Can’t We?

A Sunday-school teacher asks the class of young children, “What is little and gray, eats nuts, and has a big bushy tail?”

After a moment one child replies, “I know the answer’s probably supposed to be Jesus, but it sure sounds like a squirrel to me.”

There are many books and articles and sermons these days that seek to remind us that all of Scripture ultimately points to Jesus. I have benefited from these very much. It’s important to remember that the stories of David and Jonah and Samson aren’t simply children’s tales or morality plays. The point is not to “Dare to be a Daniel!” but rather to see God’s work of salvation through all of Scripture.

However, when we consider examples of faithful believers in Scripture, we shouldn’t lose sight of the lessons we are meant to learn from them. Granted the examples are as much “don’t do this” as “do this.” But there is a way to consider these lessons without forgetting that Jesus is the focus of the Bible. If we aren’t careful, our attempts to highlight Jesus in every passage end up like the old Sunday School joke.

Tim Challies has a post this week about who the true hero is in the Mary and Martha story:

The story of Mary and Martha in Luke 10 is one of those accounts from the life of Jesus that is in danger of becoming cliché. And it will become that if we fail to see the true hero of the story. …

And so we learn that we are to be like Mary in a Martha world, people who prioritize spending time with Jesus instead of allowing the cares of life to overwhelm us. Mary is the hero.

Or is she? …

When we see Jesus sitting in Martha’s home, we see the true hero of the story.

Now, first things first, Jesus is absolutely the true hero of the Bible. That is one of the greatest truths of the gospel. All of the Biblical “heroes” point to the ultimate hero: Emmanuel, God with us.

However, I have some concerns about Challies’ attempt to refocus our attention in the story away from Mary and Martha. First, even though Jesus is the hero of all Bible stories, there are still important lessons to learn from the account. Why does Luke (and ultimately God) include this account? I don’t think it’s an accident that the story of Mary and Martha comes just after the “Good Samaritan” and before the Lord’s prayer. All three are instructional.

The “Good Samaritan” story ends with the command, “Go and do likewise.” The purpose of the story is to teach us about who our neighbor is and what our duties are towards our neighbors. Ultimately Jesus is the hero who rescues us from our sins and heals us by his own sacrifice. But there is an application for us too.

In the story of Mary and Martha, Mary is commended for choosing the “good portion.” What did she choose? She chose to sit at the Lord’s feet and listen to His teaching instead of being anxious and troubled over “much serving.” Her priorities were right, and it’s not wrong to point that out.

Choosing the “good portion” is a real challenge for most of us. We are often busy and anxious and troubled over many things. We are often distracted from listening to His teaching. We often need to remember what our priorities should be.

This is not to add more work or weight or guilt to our lives. It’s to free us from our running around and trusting in our own activity to save us. Because that is the problem with Martha’s actions. Martha’s heart wasn’t in the right place. She was more concerned about the serving than she was about listening to the guest of honor. Her “faith” or “trust” was in the wrong thing. Mary, on the other hand, is commended for putting her faith in the right thing. She was trusting and resting in Him.

Now, why does it matter whether we commend Mary or diminish her importance in the story? Well, my concern is that there is a strong movement within conservative churches that teaches that the home and domesticity are the ultimate callings and places of service for women. In True Woman 101, Mary Kassian and Nancy Leigh DeMoss write:

The woman, on the other hand, wasn’t created out in the field. She was created within the boundaries of the garden — the “home” where God had placed her husband. This detail is intriguing, since Scripture indicates that managing the household is a woman’s distinct sphere of responsibility. … The Bible teaches that God created woman with a distinctively feminine “bent” for the home. “Working at home” is on its Top Ten list of important things that older women need to teach the younger ones (Titus 2:4-5). Scripture encourages young women to “manage their households” (1 Tim. 5:14). It praises the woman who “looks well to the ways [affairs] of her household” (Prov. 31:27). And it casts in a negative light women whose hearts are inclined away from the home — those whose “feet” are not centered there (Prov. 7:11). (72)

They go on to say:

[C]reating a place to beget and nurture life is at the core of what it means to be a woman. … It’s about creating a warm, nurturing, orderly, stable place that promotes well-being and fosters physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual growth. It’s about welcoming others in. It’s about ministering to the soul. It’s about community. It’s about cultivating relationships. And that’s something God has particularly equipped women to do. (73)

If Kassian and DeMoss (and many others) are right that domesticity and caring for the needs of others are inherently what women are made to do, then shouldn’t Martha have been commended for her efforts at hospitality? Martha was just going around making sure her home was nurturing and ministering to others. Mary’s the one avoiding her God-given purpose, right? Why is Mary commended and Martha corrected?

Obviously I’m exaggerating a bit here. But there are many voices today encouraging women to accept that domesticity and motherhood are the highest calling. And much like Challies is concerned about in his article, when we tell women that, we are taking the focus off of Jesus. Domesticity, hospitality, and motherhood are all wonderful things, but the highest calling and purpose for all mankind (male and female) is found in glorifying God and enjoying Him forever.

Our first and greatest priority must always be Jesus. Many women will serve God through their families and homes. Other women will serve God in their callings outside the home. In all that we do, we seek to glorify Him.

In Luke’s account, Mary chose the “good portion” and demonstrated that her priorities were correct. Jesus commended her for it and told Martha that Mary would not have this taken away from her. If Jesus commended Mary, and did so for our instruction, shouldn’t we also commend her and teach the lesson Martha learned?

6 thoughts on “If Jesus Commended Mary, Why Can’t We?

  1. Warren Lamb says:

    What you point out is true, yet I think it distracts from Tim’s point The tendency to allegorize narrative (a hermeneutical fallacy) and pull the focus away from the point of ALL ancient biography (of which genre the Gospels are) has so overtaken modern teaching/preaching in American Christianity, we need to refocus our attention on the POINT of the Gospels…which is, of course, Jesus Christ.

    This tendency is what makes men like Rick Warren teach as he did at the recent Hillsong debacle: take whatever you like from Biblical narrative, say “this is what we are supposed to do”, and create a new teaching on “How to Hear From God.”

  2. Still Reforming says:

    Very good post and thought-provoking. Having just come out of such a church that pushed the domesticity of women (and it wasn’t just the men doing this), I don’t think you’re exaggerating one bit. And the point of the post is not lost on me; Thank you for this needed reminder. I oft times get caught up in the doing, even at home. Of course we need to “do,” but it’s not the most important thing; We mustn’t “do” to the neglect of the “be.” Even as I get older, I find it hard to just “be still” and know…

  3. Ellie says:

    Thank you Rachel. This is good work. I feel like Challies pulled a Jesus Juke – on JESUS! How can you scold people for commending Mary like Jesus did? And we ARE supposed to learn from her example. As you wrote, “Mary is commended for choosing the ‘good portion.’ What did she choose? She chose to sit at the Lord’s feet and listen to His teaching instead of being anxious and troubled over ‘much serving.’ Her priorities were right, and it’s not wrong to point that out.”

    Is this an attempt to gloss over a woman seeking to know Christ for herself instead of being in the kitchen? Is Challies subtly suggesting that we NOT learn from Mary?

  4. Ron says:

    Indeed, a woman’s highest calling is as the first question of the catechism teaches. Also, I love the squirrel analogy. What you’ve put your finger on is redemptive historical preaching run-amuck.

    1. It’s hard to determine whether Martha should have done like Mary. Martha’s proper place might have been serving in the kitchen and her only fault might have been that she judged wrongly regarding Mary’s proper place at the time. May we infer that Mary’s better choice was in comparison to Martha’s alleged bad choice to cook and serve, or are we limited by the text and only allow to infer that Mary chose better for herself? IOW, what if Martha delighted with Mary’s choice as she served joyfully?

    2. Though women due to providence might have to glorify God outside the home, that case cannot be made from the text. Also, surely it’s not your intention to suggest that serving the Lord outside the home precludes domestic responsibility within the home. I wouldn’t want your second to last paragraph to be misconstrued as an either-or, especially an either-or that can be found in the text.

    (Interestingly enough, the evening service I attended last night was from this text. Although it began by saying Jesus was the central focus, happily the exegesis addressed all the actors.)

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