Two of my favorite people in the New Testament are the sisters, Martha and Mary. I love that they appear to have been so different and approached life in their own unique ways. I get a feel for these differences in the story told in Luke 10: 38-42. They had an unexpected visitor and the manner in which they approached his visit tells us not only about Martha and Mary, but also about ourselves.
“As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”
“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
I grew up in the church and heard sermons preached about these two women several times. I seem to recall, that most of the preachers took a similar slant teaching about these two women.
Mary was the “good” sister… she laid aside everything to sit at the feet of Jesus and listen to his teaching. Nothing else was as important as hearing what God had to say.
Martha was the “bad” sister… she was preoccupied with serving pie and tea, and making sure the linen was freshly laid out on the table. Everything had to be just so to please the important visitor. In the trite view, Martha chose busyness rather than taking time to listen to God.
Although I know Jesus redirected Martha from all the duties she believed were important to prepare and care for her visitors, Jesus seemed to be even more concerned by the reasons for her busyness. Could it be that Jesus sensed in Martha a tendency to base her value on the duties she accomplished? She had become so consumed in making her guests’ experience in her house of the highest quality that she had isolated herself from the guest! Mary, however, was completely occupied with taking in the words and presence of Jesus. She was available to the person of Jesus. She listened, and I bet she asked a question or two. She probably had heard about Jesus, but wanted to know him personally. So she let everything else slide in order to be near him. She made space in her life, and then was attentive to what Jesus was saying.
Now the activities Martha was involve in were necessary. These men had walked for some time and were probably hungry. Martha knew that. Feeding them was a time consuming task. No refridgerator. No Pizza Hut. Not even Chinese delivery. She had to make the food. Their feet needed to be washed. Water needed to be drawn from the well to quench their thirst. Practical needs were pressing, or so she must have thought. So Martha didn’t wait… she got busy! Make a list. Plan the work and then work the plan. But time was pressing! There were too many “to do’s” and not enough “to doers”. And there was Mary… daydreaming, boy chasing Mary… lazily sitting on the floor… not even folding napkins!
“I can’t get it all done, soon enough!”
“It’s not fair!”
” Why doesn’t she see?”
” Why doesn’t Jesus see?”
Doesn’t that sound like life on some days…. or weeks…. or months…. or even every day? It’s all important stuff! Done to benefit others, or to meet our basic physical needs. Be honest, everyday life requires us to be Martha. Martha’s days are filled with practical activity. We need food and shelter and transportation. And with each one of those comes necessary activities.
There is nothing wrong with Martha’s activities…. and Jesus knows that. He grew up as a carpenter. A working man in the house of a working family. And yet he knew the temptations Martha faced…
Self-worth tied to a job…
Performance based personal value…
Ability to produce equals worth…
To do list is pre-eminent…
Needing to control, control, control…
Living with an underlying irritation from others’ choices…
Believing the lie: “I am a commodity!”
And living all the time in that fashion robbed her of deep relationships. She was “distracted” from “the important by the tyranny of the urgent,” to quote Charles Swindoll. We all face those same temptations.
Or, we can be like Mary. She was fully invested in the present and the conversation with Jesus. She was open to the beauty of God. She wasn’t letting normal activity distract her from what she believed was most important. She was passionate about knowing Jesus. She didn’t care what Martha thought or what anybody else did… she was going to sit, listen, and learn.
So we see two sisters on a collision course towards conflict. I’m sure the other people in the room saw and felt it coming. The tension growing into a greater and greater distraction to hearing Jesus, that Martha finally interupted the makeshif love fest to complain to her guest… whom she had invited in… because HE didn’t intervene!
” It’s YOUR fault, Jesus, because you won’t tell her to help me!” Although those aren’t Martha’s exact words, the message seems to be inferred.
Can’t you see Mary’s face getting red? She rises to her feet, looking squarely at her sister…. Uh, oh. Stand back… Cat fight coming… Martha and Mary are careening into confrontation and then…
Jesus meets them in the middle. He puts his arm around Martha and responds calmly. He doesn’t speak down to her. He speaks to her need. She feels alone, overwhelmed by what needs to be done, and disappointed she can’t be around Jesus. His visit is being taken away from her, because of her to do list.
Now, honestly, I don’t believe Martha’s intentions were bad. But her timing was. She had chosen the wrong time to do necessary things. Had she spent some time with Jesus, He most likely would have joined her in the activities she was trying to take on by herself, a little later. And I suspect, he would have… invited… Mary,and several of the others under her roof, to help.
I confess, my problem many times is to know when to be Martha, and when to be Mary. I need to learn how to walk away from busyness, and clear space to listen to God’s voice. There are many ways to do that, too. God speaks everywhere, but I only know it when I center myself to listen. God speaks:
in the natural world…
through other people…
in world events…
I’m writing this a little over a week after a major earthquake struck the country of Haiti. One of the images that was so powerful to me was that of an 8-year-old child being pulled from the wreckage of a building. As he was lifted in the arms of one of his rescuers, he lifted his arms high in celebration. How incredible it must have felt to be helplessly trapped within a prison of wreckage he was unable to lift, and then to hear the voices of people coming to his aid. Can you imagine how long those 8 days of entrapment must have felt and then how time must’ve slowed as the sounds of digging got closer and closer? Can you imagine the feeling of exhilaration of being freed? That image is a whisper from God… Be free! Lift up your arms! Celebrate life and liberation!
Mary was listening to that voice. We need to listen, as well. But we also must remember, there is a time to become Martha. There are others trapped in their own prisons, and it is very normal for the rescued to become rescuers.
Especially when Jesus meets them in the middle…