But was Martha so unreasonable? She was an energetic, high-achieving woman who used her gifts to serve Jesus. Didn't that make her the perfect Christian? Any church would love to have several Marthas running their programs. And she would certainly fit well into our society, where busyness is a sign of importance.
But Martha failed to recognize the radical nature of the gospel. Most religions are about doing the right thing--or legalism. They set up a moral law for us to try to follow in order to please God. That's what Martha did. She tried to please Jesus by her behavior. But the gospel is revolutionary in that God first reconciled his wayward children to himself by paying the penalty for our sin. Then he said, in essence, that He wouldn't focus on behavior; instead, he would heal our hearts, the seat of all corruption.
It's easy to fall into the trap of saying, "Thanks for the forgiveness, God! I'm so glad that I'm under grace and not under law, so I can do whatever I want. But of course I'll try to be good because I'm so grateful to you." This is actually legalism disguised by a faulty understanding of grace. If our conversion is real, we are born again by the Holy Spirit, but that's just the beginning. God wants to continue to work in us by his Spirit, so that our good deeds are wrought by him. Good works that flow from an unregenerate heart are like "a filthy garment," (Isaiah 64:6) and cannot please God. His grace can heal our corrupt hearts, if we let him. But legalism shuts God out.
Legalism among the Galations got the Apostle Paul so bent out of shape that as soon as he finished greeting them with "Grace to you and peace from God, etc." he launched into a tirade that lasts throughout the letter. In Galations 3:1, he says, "You foolish Galations, who has bewitched you?" He wrote with large letters (6:11), accusing them of deserting him who called them for a gospel that is no gospel at all (1:6-7). He worried that they had suffered in vain (3:4). Clearly, Paul was very concerned.
And with good reason, because legalism is so insidious. If our behavior is good, we tend to think that we're pleasing God. But that's not necessarily true. "The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love." (Galations 5:6) God wants our good deeds to flow from a pure heart, and that comes from being truthful enough with ourselves to realize that we need the healing he offers.
He also wants us to know him so intimately that we have no trouble discerning his voice. And only by listening, like Mary did, can we really get to know him and experience his saving grace.