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?