What The Story Of Mary And Martha Teaches Us About Disability

Sometimes we find teaching hidden in hard to reach places, sometimes important teaching is in plain sight but we overlook it…  That was the case for me with the story of Mary and Martha until I took a closer look and found some great teaching for us all there about life in general, as well as how we could apply it to our thinking about disability too.

We all know this story really well, Jesus has just told the story of ‘The Good Samaritan’ and, as he and the disciples continue their journey, they call in on some friends…  We pick up the account in Luke 10:38b-42…

Jesus came to a village where a woman named Martha lived.  She welcomed him into her home.  She had a sister named Mary.  Mary sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said.  But Martha was busy with all the things that had to be done.  She came to Jesus and said, “Lord, my sister has left me to do the work by myself.  Don’t you care?  Tell her to help me!”  “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered.  “You are worried and upset about many things.  But few things are needed.  Really, only one thing is needed.  Mary has chosen what is better.  And it will not be taken away from her.””

Many people interpret this passage simply, as I had done previously, by saying that Mary made the right choice to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen to him, while Martha made the wrong choice by busying herself preparing food etc.  But that would be to miss the richness of the teaching that Jesus gives us here and the depth of what he has to say.  Let’s explore this passage again and in uncovering these riches see what they have to say to us about disability too:

The first thing that happened is that Martha invited Jesus and the disciples into her home.  The passage doesn’t make it clear why she generously opened her home to what was probably a large group of people, although hospitality was, and still is, common in the middle east.  Having invited everyone in, there would have been some expectation of refreshments being provided to sustain the travellers on their journey, and Martha busied herself with this.  The phrase “Martha was busy with all the things that had to be done.” suggests that she was trying to prepare lots of food, maybe trying to make a good impression, or trying too hard to accommodate everyone’s tastes without actually asking what they would like…

There is nothing wrong with generous hospitality, welcoming people is a blessing to everyone, but sometimes we can overdo it or be so focussed on everything being perfect that we forget the very reason we are doing it at all; to serve people and to create a place where they feel comfortable and have a sense of belonging.

Lesson regarding disability:  Do we sometimes try to overdo the hospitality, the welcome, that we offer to disabled people?  That might be a surprising comment to read for many who have been turned away or rejected, but sometimes we can go too far the other way; making a great fuss and scene about all that needs to be arranged to include everyone, while forgetting to actually ask people what would be helpful and even being so focussed on the ‘task’ that we forget about the people themselves.  Doing fewer things well that actually meet the needs of the people we are serving and journeying with has to be better than trying to do everything, creating an awkward fuss, and ending up doing nothing well at all.

Jesus didn’t admonish Martha for inviting everyone in, or for her servant heartedness; he admonished her because she came to him comparing the work that she was doing to what she perceived as the lack of effort from her sister.  Jesus calmly and lovingly corrected Martha by pointing out that she was trying to do, and worrying about, many things, when few things, or even one thing (spending time with Jesus) really mattered.  It was a gentle way of closing down Martha’s comparison of herself as virtuous and busy, with Mary as an idle slacker!  Jesus pointed out that Mary had made the right choice for herself.

We live in a world where comparison is endemic.  Do we look like the model in the magazine, or like our friends, or even like our own online profile photo?  Do we earn as much as our neighbour, do they have a bigger house or a better car than us.  Do we get to serve in the worship group as many times as others do, or do we feel overlooked for leadership while others seem to get it all… it goes on and on and is deeply unhealthy.  God calls us to be who he has made us to be, to do what he has made us to do; not to wish to be someone else, and not to compare ourselves either negatively or positively to others.

Lesson regarding disability:  Comparison is rife within the disability world too isn’t it?  We can compare our disabilities or additional needs, or those of our children, with those of others; I’ve even sometimes seen people creating a kind of ‘pecking order’ of disability.   As parents we can compare our disabled child to the ‘typical’ children of our friends, sometimes letting bitterness gain a hold.  We can compare one disabled person with another and make assumptions about the needs of both without actually asking either of them for their views.

James and Mark

As Jesus said to Martha, “You are worried and upset about many things.  But few things are needed.  Really, only one thing is needed…”  Comparison is toxic, but heeding the correction of Jesus to Martha we can be refocussed on what really matters; making the most of the moment we are in, being at peace with our life, and/or the life of our child, bringing it all into Jesus’ presence and seeking his peace.

The Source Of Peace
What Jesus was saying to Martha is that while her willingness to be hospitable and to serve was good, her service must not be so all consuming to the extent that she had no time left to sit at his feet and learn from him.  There may have been the most amazing meal ever created for Jesus and the disciples, but if in spending all of her time doing that Martha missed all that Jesus was saying, she herself would not have been spiritually fed.

The irony of this passage, of course, is that Luke doesn’t actually tell us the rest of the teaching that Jesus shared with Mary and the others, so we are no better off than Martha, but as John writes at the end of his Gospel, Jesus also did many other things.  What if every one of them were written down?  I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.”  John 21:25

We live in a world where our lives are getting more and more hectic by the minute, the pressures on our limited time getting all the more intense, and with sources of peace seemingly increasingly scarce.  This pressure builds up until it causes mental and physical health issues, relationship difficulties, breakdowns and more…

Jesus said “Come to me, all you who are tired and are carrying heavy loads.  I will give you rest.  Become my servants and learn from me.  I am gentle and free of pride.  You will find rest for your souls.  Serving me is easy, and my load is light.”  Matthew 11:28-30

Maybe you read those words and your first reaction was “Ha! That’s not what my life is like!”…  well be reminded of what Jesus said to Martha, “You are worried and upset about many things.  But few things are needed.  Really, only one thing is needed…”  and make sure you get time at the feet of the teacher…

Lesson regarding disability:  Whether we have a disability ourselves, or are parents to a disabled child, in the struggles and trials of life peace can seem like a distant, unattainable, dream.  If you’re reading this having been up all night again with your child, you might think that peace cannot be a gift that you can receive.  Remember though, that Jesus brought peace to the storm on the sea, he brought peace to the boy who was convulsing, he brought peace to the thief on the cross.  He can bring peace to you.

Jesus said “I leave my peace with you.  I give my peace to you.  I do not give it to you as the world does.  Do not let your hearts be troubled.  And do not be afraid.”  John 14:27

There is much richness and depth in what, at first glance, seems like a simple story of two sisters who responded to Jesus in different ways.  There are lessons about hospitality and the importance of getting it right, making sure we understand and meet the needs of the people we are serving.  There are lessons about comparison, how toxic it can be and how Jesus’ words refocus us in the moment; that moment with him, that moment with our child, accepting that we are who God made us, or our child, to be.  And there is the most important lesson of all, to spend time with the source of peace, Jesus himself, giving all the storms of life to him, trusting in his peace…

Let’s keep learning these lessons together shall we?


21st August 2019

See also:
Raised From The Dead: Lazarus

Raised From The Dead: Lazarus

What The Man With The Withered Hand Teaches Us About Disability And Church

What The Woman Healed Of Bleeding Teaches Us About Jesus

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New International Reader’s Version (NIRV)
Copyright © 1995, 1996, 1998, 2014 by Biblica, Inc.®. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.


7 thoughts on “What The Story Of Mary And Martha Teaches Us About Disability

  1. A really interesting read and I like the lessons that you have highlighted. I do find that hospitality is either not given or as you say overdone in relation to my disabled kids. Unfortunetly we havent quite got the balance right there yet.

    Liked by 1 person

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