September 1, 1992
Is the Bible hard to interpret? Or does it simply say what it means? Or does it mean whatever the interpreter wants it to mean? Valid questions.
A few weeks ago, I was with nine others who had been given the name of a person in the Bible and some verses to read. We were told to interpret that person’s main character traits and decide what could be learned from him or her. Our group soon discovered we had very different views on the main characteristics of a woman from the New Testament named Martha.
Most of our information came from two passages, Luke 10:38-42 and John 11. Martha was the sister of Mary and Lazarus. One day Jesus came to visit them. Apparently both sisters “sat at Jesus’ feet and heard His word” but this day “Martha was distracted with much serving” so she approached Him and said, “Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Therefore tell her to help me.”
At that, Jesus answered, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things, but one thing is needed, and Mary has chosen that good part, which will not be taken away from her.”
The other passage tells how these sisters reacted to the death of their brother and to Jesus’ apparently deliberate delay in coming to their aid. Martha came out to meet Him with, “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died.” Jesus talked to her about the resurrection but she thought He meant something in the distant future, not the miracle He was about to perform. Neither passages reveal Jesus’ or Martha’s tone of voice.
A few in the group thought Martha was a whiner who complained even to the Son of God about her lot in life and that she had little confidence in Him. Others thought she was a conscientious person who seemed to believe in Jesus because she brought her problems to Him. The rest of the group wavered, because up to this point, they had never considered the questions.
What I noticed is that those people in the group who are compassionate, even lenient, towards the misdeeds of other Christians, their children, and sometimes even their own sins, were sympathetic to Martha. They saw her as a hard-working woman who took her responsibilities seriously.
In contrast, those in the group who tend to be quick to judge and hold high standards of performance for their families and themselves came down much harder on Martha. To them, she was self-centered and demanding, a person so caught up in temporary matters that she had her priorities wrong.
The real issue in interpretation is not what we think but what did the author intend to reveal? In this case, Luke gave the Lord’s evaluation of Martha. Personally, I would like it better if He had said, “Martha, you are to be congratulated for selflessly giving up Bible study to make lunch...” but that is not what He said. Jesus gently rebuked her — yet note it was not for making lunch, but for being troubled and anxious about all the work that had to be done. Her sister, Mary, had apparently discovered the secret of remaining calm — choosing to sit at the feet of Jesus, at least for a time. Lunch was important but not worth getting an ulcer over.
Interpreting Scripture is seldom simple. The meaning of some passages will always be debatable because there is not enough information to offer certainty regarding the author intentions. However we can and should be aware of our own prejudices and presuppositions. Considering that, my understanding of Martha has been affected by whether or not I personally value “service” over “sitting at Jesus feet.” Sometimes Jesus’ rebuke has applied to me.
Therefore, a vital consideration when interpreting Scripture is that it may not always agree with and confirm our own particular perspective... instead, it will likely challenge us to change.