At Work & Public Square & Theology 101

Did Jesus Tell Martha Not to Work?

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According to a study by the American Psychological Association in 2009, sixty-nine percent of employees report that work is a significant source of stress. Fifty-one percent said that stress makes them less productive at work. God calls us to steward the earth, not live in anxiety over every single incident that occurs in the workplace. Christians are called to work, but if that is making us exhausted and anxious, then we could actually be making work into an idol.

When Jesus was walking through Israel with his disciples, generous and hospitable people who had day jobs hosted Jesus in the towns he visited. Luke 10 records that on one of these journeys, a woman named Martha welcomed Jesus into her home.

While Martha’s sister Mary sat at the feet of Jesus to listen to the Lord, Martha was “distracted” by the hospitality preparations, according to the NIV translation. Martha complained to Jesus about what she perceived to be as Mary’s selfishness. In frustration, she tried to manipulate Jesus into telling Mary to leave him and do her job.

Jesus surprised Martha and surely the other men when he replied,

Martha, Martha, you are worried about many things, but few things are needed – or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better.

In Luke 9:1-5, Jesus instructed the disciples to bless the people who show them hospitality, and he even told them,

If people do not welcome you, leave their town and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.

He rebuked those who do not welcome others because they are indifferent or lazy. Jesus must have appreciated Martha’s goal of providing for people – that is one of the rewards of work and one of the biblical reasons for working. If Jesus thought Martha’s work was good, why did he call Mary’s choice better?

One possibility is that that Martha was doing tasks that were not important and that she was spending her time poorly when she could have been next to Jesus.

However, Jesus is addressing Martha’s attitude and heart not her actions. Martha is anxious. Worry focuses on a specific object, but anxiety is a general state of internal nervousness and fear.

Anxiety can lead to frantic, distracted activity and obsessive workaholism. Jesus teaches about the futility of anxiety and Paul tells the Philippians not to be anxious. Anxiety steals energy away from our good work, and even our good health.

In his commentary on this passage, Matthew Henry notes that Martha is doing a good thing on the surface, but she is wrong to take on more tasks than she could complete peacefully.

Whatever cares the providence of God casts upon us we must not be cumbered with them, nor be disquieted and perplexed by them. Care is good and duty; but cumber is sin and folly.

Henry also writes that Martha is creating her own anxiety partly by trying to do too many things at once.

Christ reproves her, both for the intenseness of her care (“Thou art careful and troubled, divided and disturbed by thy care”), and for the extensiveness of it, “about many things; thou dost grasp at many enjoyments, and so art troubled at many disappointments”

As modern Christians, following Mary’s example would not mean quitting our jobs or never doing laundry again. Our ideal is to work without striving, plan without worrying, and be generous without expecting a reward.

Meanwhile, regardless of whether we are at the office, at home, or at church, we can be in fellowship with Jesus.

How can you achieve the balance between working hard without making it into a source of anxiety? Leave your comments here.

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  • For me the key is humility. When I think too highly of my own abilities, I try to do too much without delegating. I over commit. I over plan. I dream too big for my britches. When I set aside my pride, then I’m content to do the work before me.

    Good words here, Joy.

    • Joy Buchanan

      Marcus – You make an excellent point that humility is crucial to rest. If we think the world will fall apart without us, we delude ourselves into thinking that we have to be working all the time.

  • Bob Roller

    I believe that Jesus rebuked Martha because (1) she was worried about many things, some of which were not important, and (2) she expected others to care about the same things she did. Martha had the gift of serving, and appears to have expected others to have that same gift.
    Mary had indeed chosen that which was better for her, in that it was in keeping with her God-given personality and giftedness. In the same way, it is important that we do work that is consistent with who God has created each one of us to be, while realizing that others have been created differently.

    • Joy Buchanan

      Bob, Thanks! Some people even say that when they are working at the job God has gifted them for, it doesn’t even feel like work! – Joy.

  • Doug Houser

    Joy, thank you for the stirring discussion. The KJV translation renders it: “one thing is needful and Mary has chosen that better part”. I see a tender rebuke in that for Martha, that in fact, Martha could also have chosen that better part. Apparently her concerns, which were many, weren’t that “better part”. Mary it says, was “sitting at His feet and listening to His words”. Jesus was emphasizing that his words carried the greatest purpose and life, that in fact, His words relieve us from the curse of toil without productivity that came on the earth because of Adam and Eve’s sin. His words are the solution for our every problem. The rest that comes from abiding in Him and His words abiding in us, will take us through our labors in peace, and productively.

    • Joy Buchanan

      Doug – thanks for the insight on the Curse and how it is broken by the person of Jesus. – Joy.

  • Liz Kim

    I don’t think this is a working versus non-working as much as is it a reminder about not getting too much into the weeds of things that one would miss the presence of God. If we allow ourselves to we can really become immersed in certain tasks (form over function). And if we allow that to be more important to us than life itself it yields diminishing returns for all involved.

    We need to remember that God speaks to us in and through all things. From the littlest of lady bugs to people you’ve come across everyday. If we don’t make room to be spoken to, the question of the motivation, why one is doing something comes to mind.

    There is an art to hearing God (as there is in everything else we do) so we need to be intentional about pointing our antennas towards the frequency of our creator.

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