Luke 10:38-42 contains the account of Mary and Martha. We see Martha serving and Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus. Read or listen to this chapter from Work and Rest God’s Way to learn when it helps us to sit at Jesus’s feet.
Table of contents
- When We Must Sit at Jesus’ Feet
- Scripture Sanctifies but Service Might Not
- The Problems with Being Overwhelmed
- 1. Sitting at the Feet of Jesus Helps When We Are Filled with Self-Pity
- 2. Sitting at the Feet of Jesus Helps When We Are Easily Annoyed
- 3. Sitting at the Feet of Jesus Helps When We Are Frustrated with the Lord
- 4. Sitting at the Feet of Jesus Helps When We Are Anxious
- 5. Sitting at the Feet of Jesus Helps When We Are Worried About Others
- A Supernatural Solution
When We Must Sit at Jesus’ Feet
Mary’s posture at Jesus’ feet stands in stark contrast to churches that neglect the one thing needed. Willow Creek has been one of America’s most influential churches. They had elaborate programs and activities, and the measure of success was the number of people serving. So they thought. But then they conducted a thorough, multiple-year study of their ministry and found their programs and activities didn’t produce spiritual growth. Bill Hybels was the senior pastor at the time, and to his credit, he was open about their findings:
Some of the stuff that we have put millions of dollars into thinking it would really help our people grow and develop spiritually, when the data actually came back, it wasn’t helping people that much. Other things that we didn’t put that much money into and didn’t put much staff against is stuff our people are crying out for. We made a mistake. What we should have done when people crossed the line of faith and become Christians, we should have started telling people and teaching people that they have to take responsibility to become self-feeders. We should have gotten people, taught people, how to read their Bible between service, how to do the spiritual practices much more aggressively on their own.
They found that keeping people busy had not produced sanctification. The church of Sardis demonstrates the same. In Jesus’ letter to the church, He said, “These things says He who has the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars: ‘I know your works, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead” (Revelation 3:1). They had “a name” or reputation that they were “alive,” which means they were known as the happening church.
The people were busy, but Jesus said they were dead. How can a church be alive and dead? They were alive (and busy) physically, but dead spiritually. It’s an unbelievably sad irony that the church everyone thought was thriving was filled with unregenerate people.
Scripture Sanctifies but Service Might Not
Jesus told the Twelve to make disciples by “teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20). Disciples need to receive Jesus’ teaching, and Mary received His teaching directly from Him, at His feet!
Willow Creek incorrectly thought programs produce spiritual growth. The word of Christ alone produces spiritual growth:
- “Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth” (John 17:17).
- “[Christ] might sanctify and cleanse [the church] with the washing of water by the word” (Ephesians 5:26).
- “As newborn babes, desire the pure milk of the word, that you may grow thereby” (1 Peter 2:2).
The Word equips us to live out the Christian life:
All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16–17).
Ephesians 4:12 says church leaders are supposed to “[equip] the saints for the work of the ministry,” and if saints are equipped by God’s Word, then church leaders need to feed their flocks the word. God’s Word gives us faith: “So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Romans 10:17). Faith comes from the Word because we can’t have faith in a God we don’t know, and we know God through His Word; through sitting at the feet of Jesus.
Considering where the account of this episode with Mary and Martha appears is instructive. Luke 10:1–24 records the sending of the Seventy, which is about the preaching of the gospel. Luke 10:25–37 records the Good Samaritan, which is about serving one’s neighbor. Mary and Martha follow in Luke 10:38–41, revealing that before we can do either of the aforementioned—preach the gospel or serve—we must first spend time with Jesus. Why? He alone fuels our ministry. Physical effort can never accomplish what must be done in the Spirit. We can’t rise above our relationships with the Lord. Jesus Himself said, “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).
When we try to serve the Lord, but we haven’t sat at His feet, it can be damaging. Few things are as harmful as people trying to serve Jesus when they haven’t spent time with Him. Consider Martha’s example. Time at Jesus’ feet is what she needed more than anything else. We tend to think service benefits us, but Martha, Willow Creek, and Sardis show us that’s not always the case! In Martha’s case, her Christless service revealed her resentful, proud, and crabby heart.
The Problems with Being Overwhelmed
The Greek word for “distracted” is perispao, and it means “over-occupied” or “too busy.” Martha was overwhelmed. You can picture her turning from one task to the next, fussing over all the details: ensuring the table is set, the food is served at the right time, and everyone is comfortable. Ironically, her fussing probably made people uncomfortable. She was driven by circumstances and pulled in too many directions. Not only did she take on more than she could handle, but she also took on tasks the Lord didn’t even want. She was making elaborate preparations, ostensibly for the Lord, but they were not the one thing needed.
This is fitting for us because we live in a fast-paced culture. There’s no end to the number of things we can do or distractions that can pull us in. If we’re not careful, we find ourselves overwhelmed. We become like Martha taking on things Jesus might not want us doing, or that might pale in comparison to what He would rather we do. My wife, Katie, has a wise perspective here, and I appreciate her humility in sharing this:
I have a tendency to put too much on my plate. I remember doing this in college when I worked three jobs and went to school full-time. When I married Scott, he witnessed this firsthand. I was often overwhelmed, so he encouraged me to focus on the tasks the Lord put in front of me—homeschooling our children and keeping the home. Even though I hate boundaries I know they are instruments of peace for me. I want to encourage any Marthas reading this to seek your husband’s counsel before signing up for something. We certainly don’t want our families suffering because we are too busy.
The account with Mary and Martha follows the Good Samaritan, which is one of the most convicting accounts in Scripture regarding serving. Then we reach Martha and learn an important lesson—service must be done the right way. Galatians 5:22 lists peace as a fruit of the Spirit. Since Martha didn’t have peace, we may rightly conclude that she was serving in the flesh, not in the Spirit.
One problem with being overwhelmed is it often introduces sins into our lives. When we’re stressed, or when we’ve taken on more than we can handle, we’re faced with many temptations. This happened to Martha, and she gave in. The feet of Jesus was the one place in all the world she should’ve been. By looking at her example we can see when we must sit at Jesus’ feet.
1. Sitting at the Feet of Jesus Helps When We Are Filled with Self-Pity
Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to serve alone?” She thought she was being neglected and overlooked, so she felt sorry for herself. She thought nobody cared about her and all that she had to do.
The same thing can happen with us. We feel like we’re the only ones working, we must do everything ourselves, and nobody cares about us. When we find ourselves filled with self-pity, we must examine our hearts and see whether we’re serving with the right attitude.
A good test is whether we have joy. If we don’t, what is the solution? The solution is not to quit working. Having a pity party isn’t an excuse to avoid serving. We don’t put off a bad attitude by putting on laziness. The solution is to take steps to have a better attitude, and that means spending time at Jesus’ feet until we can serve Him and others joyfully.
2. Sitting at the Feet of Jesus Helps When We Are Easily Annoyed
Martha said, “My sister has left me to serve alone.” You can imagine her giving Mary dirty looks, stomping around, sighing, huffing and puffing, maybe even slamming dishes, hoping someone notices. She became more and more upset until she finally did something we wouldn’t believe if it wasn’t recorded—she interrupted Jesus while He was teaching!
We should believe she did this, though, because we do the same thing when we are not fixing our eyes on Jesus and sitting at His feet. We interrupt Him with our complaining spirit, arguments, and disobedience when He’s teaching us hard lessons.
Martha wasn’t upset about serving. For people like her, rarely will service itself be the point of annoyance. Instead, service is their element; it’s what they enjoy. The annoyance will come from others who don’t pitch in. This can happen to us too. We feel like we’re the only ones serving, which leads us to be annoyed with those around us. When we’re impatient, agitated, resentful, rude, bossy, controlling, or insensitive in our service, these are signs we need to sit at Jesus’ feet.
Sometimes a husband comes home from working hard all day, and he’s easily annoyed with his wife or children. Sometimes a wife is having a bad day, so she’s going to make sure the rest of her family has a bad day too. Psalm 127:3 says, “Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb is a reward.” Sometimes children seem like they’re doing everything they can to disprove this verse. If we’re men, women, or children, and we find ourselves acting like this, we need to spend time at Jesus’ feet.
3. Sitting at the Feet of Jesus Helps When We Are Frustrated with the Lord
Martha said, “Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to serve alone?” Martha wasn’t only annoyed with others. She was frustrated with Jesus! This was a strong criticism: “You don’t care about me, or all I’m going through, or that my sister is being lazy. You’re just letting her sit there!” She thought Jesus was unjust, so she told Him what He could do to be just: “Tell her to help me!” This was an order! Keep in mind Jesus was in the middle of teaching! She interrupted, accused, and ordered.
Sometimes we can feel like the Lord doesn’t care about us, our circumstances, or the load we’re under. When we start feeling this way, it’s a clear sign we need to spend time at His feet. Why? Martha became upset with Jesus because she didn’t understand why He didn’t care about her, why He would let her do all the work, why He wouldn’t tell Mary to help her. Often when we’re upset with the Lord, it’s because we don’t understand why He is:
- Allowing certain circumstances in our lives
- Letting things be so difficult for us
- Making us do things other people don’t have to do
When we experience this type of confusion, we must sit at Jesus’ feet. This isn’t to say all our questions will be answered, but we’ll be given the peace needed to accept our circumstances.
If we’ve sinned against the Lord through our attitude, we must also repent! Job was confused by his suffering. He complained, accused, and demanded:
I will not restrain my mouth; I will speak in the anguish of my spirit; I will complain in the bitterness of my soul…Then call, and I will answer; or let me speak, then You respond to me…As for me, is my complaint against man? And if it were, why should I not be impatient? Oh, that the Almighty would answer me, that my Prosecutor had written a book! (Job 7:11, 13:22, 21:4, 31:35; see also Job 3:26, 4:2–16, 6:24, 21:5–17.).
Job was frustrated with the Lord! God finally responded. Instead of answering any of Job’s questions, God chose to ask Job seventy-seven questions that demonstrate His greatness (Job 38:1–40:2). Job responded, “Behold, I am vile; what shall I answer You? I lay my hand over my mouth. Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. Therefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 40:4, 42:3, 6).
To Job’s credit, he said he was “vile,” and he repented of his criticisms. Martha also needed to repent of accusing Jesus of being uncaring. If we have sinned through our words or in our hearts, we must repent too.
4. Sitting at the Feet of Jesus Helps When We Are Anxious
Jesus graciously responded: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things.” One of the difficulties with Scripture is the same difficulty we have with emails and letters—the tone is hard to convey! We must guess how people are trying to “sound.” Sometimes they put words in uppercase or add multiple exclamation points to make it “sound” like they’re yelling. The same is true in this account. We must guess how Martha spoke to Jesus and how Jesus responded to Martha. Martha was demanding. Perhaps she yelled at Jesus, but I suspect Jesus responded tenderly. She was upset with Him, but He was gentle with her.
He didn’t rebuke her for working and serving, but He did rebuke her worry. Philippians 4:6 says, “Be anxious for nothing,” and this includes anxiety over even seemingly good things such as making preparations for others. If you’ve ever been in a leadership position, you know how much you want to see things go well. It’s tempting to be filled with anxiety: “What if I don’t get everything finished? What if I forget something?”
Martha was troubled by preparations she thought needed to be made, and in the moment, they seemed like a big deal. A spiritual, eternal perspective reveals all these physical, temporal details are small. It’s one thing to be concerned about unsaved people going to hell, the spiritual health of the church, God’s name being blasphemed, or unity among brothers and sisters in Christ. Martha was worried about ordinary matters with little-to-no eternal consequence.
When we’re filled with anxiety, is it typically over issues with eternal consequences? Perhaps. I’d guess, however, more times than not, we’re filled with anxiety over considerably less important issues. Sitting at Jesus’ feet gives us the spiritual perspective we need.
5. Sitting at the Feet of Jesus Helps When We Are Worried About Others
In Matthew 6:25, Jesus said, “Do not worry,” and then He used the word “worry” five more times in verses 27–34. Some worry seems reasonable, such as when waiting for a diagnosis from the doctor. In Martha’s case, she was worried about what her sister was and wasn’t doing, which is unreasonable.
After Jesus’ resurrection, He met with the disciples and told Peter how he would die. John 21:18, 20–22 records:
[Jesus said], “Most assuredly, I say to you, when you were younger, you girded yourself and walked where you wished; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish.”
Then Peter, turning around, saw [John and] said to Jesus, “But Lord, what about this man?”
Jesus said to him, “If I will that he remain till I come, what is that to you? You follow Me.”
After Peter learned he would experience a painful death, he wanted to know what would happen with the other disciples, in particular, John. Jesus basically told him, “Don’t worry about him. Just worry about yourself.”
We can spend time and energy worrying about others, but not always in a good way. Social media has made this problem worse. We get windows into people’s lives that allow us to follow their marriages, children, trips, activities, meals, and it’s not always a good thing. We judge people’s actions, decisions, relationships, the ways they spend their time and money. When this happens, we need to sit at Jesus’ feet, because He helps us “worry” more about ourselves.
Let me back up a little to get some momentum into the rest of this point. The world wants to blur the lines between the genders. They’ve moved past denying that men and women have different roles and responsibilities to teach that there aren’t even men and women anymore: a man can be a woman, and a woman can be a man. Christians need to hold to the plain teaching of Genesis 1:27 that “He created them male and female” and there are differences (see also Genesis 5:2, Mark 10:6, and Matthew 19:4).
Part of the differences is that some temptations are more common to one gender than the other. For example:
- “Husbands, love your wives, and do not be harsh with them” (Colossians 3:19 ESV). Since husbands are mentioned and there’s no corresponding verse telling wives not to be harsh with their husbands, this seems to be a temptation that’s stronger for men than women.
- “Fathers, do not provoke your children to wrath” (Ephesians 6:4). This isn’t to say mothers can’t provoke their children, but since this is said to fathers without a corresponding verse for mothers, this seems to be a greater temptation for men than for women.
For wives, 1 Peter 3:1 commands them to “win over their husbands without a word,” and six verses in Proverbs discuss them nagging their husbands (Proverbs 19:13, 21:9, 19, 25:24, 27:15–16). While men can struggle with nagging, without corresponding verses telling them not to nag their wives, this seems to indicate that nagging is a greater tendency for women than for men.
First Timothy 5:13 says some women “learn to be idle, wandering about from house to house, and not only idle but also gossips and busybodies, saying things which they ought not.” Men can be gossips and busybodies, but since Paul directs this teaching to women, it suggests that gossip is generally a stronger tendency for women than for men. Martha seemed to succumb to the temptation to see the speck in her sister’s eye more than the beam in her own.
Ladies reading this should examine themselves and consider whether they spend too much time and energy worrying about the perceived sins of others. If that’s the case, look at Jesus’ words to Martha, but substitute your own name: “Sarah, Sarah, you are worried and troubled about many things.” Would Jesus say this to you?
Most of the women I know have a lot on their plates. They’re busy with their husbands, children, homes, and churches. Worrying less about the behavior of others should be viewed as a blessing!
A Supernatural Solution
Calling out to the Lord for help is a theme in Scripture, but there’s a right and wrong way to do it. The psalmist called out the right way:
- “In my distress I called upon the Lord, and cried out to my God; He heard my voice from His temple, and my cry came before Him, even to His ears” (Psalm 18:6).
- “I sought the Lord, and He heard me, and delivered me from all my fears” (Psalm 34:4).
- “I called on the Lord in distress; the Lord answered me and set me in a broad place” (Psalm 118:5).
When the Israelites were in the wilderness, they repeatedly called out for help the wrong way: “The people complained against Moses, saying, ‘What shall we drink?’” (Exodus 15:24) and “[They] yielded to intense craving; so the children of Israel wept again and said: ‘Who will give us meat to eat?’” (Numbers 11:4; see also Exodus 14:11, 16:2, 17:2–3, Numbers 11:1, 14:2, Psalm 106:25, and 1 Corinthians 10:10.) Martha also called out to the Lord the wrong way.
Rather than being like Martha or Israel in the wilderness, we shouldn’t grumble and complain. Instead, we should pray humbly with child-like faith trusting that our heavenly Father will help us.
Self-pity, annoyance, frustration, anxiety, and worry are spiritual issues; therefore, the solution for them must be spiritual and supernatural, versus earthly and natural. Sitting at Jesus’ feet is the remedy for the above temptations. When we have a bad attitude and recognize it needs to change, if we don’t spend time with Jesus, we’ll end up like Martha: busy, but not blessed. She is a great example of the many consequences of working too much and with the wrong attitude.