This is not the post I wanted to write. I was planning to expound on some new, deep, and profound idea in a way that engaged and encouraged readers everywhere. God had a different plan. What he told me to write has already been said a thousand times—but it needed to be said one more.
What I love about the Bible is the way that something very familiar and simple can hit you in a way that is fresh, timely, and transformative. The passage I’ve been chewing on this week is one that you likely know and have probably heard about many times. I know I have. The thing about biblical truth is that it is easy to have a “head knowledge” that lasts for years and years. What is not as easy to hang onto is our “heart knowledge.” Our hearts forget the reality that our minds have heard time and again. So today, let your heart be reminded of something your head already knows.
This passage is about a family of siblings who were especially dear to Jesus—Mary, Martha, and Lazarus of Bethany. The nutshell version of the story is that once Jesus arrives in their home, Mary sits at his feet while Martha bustles around doing chores. Martha complains to Jesus that Mary isn’t doing her share of the hostess duties. Instead of reprimanding Mary, Jesus defends her. He tells Martha to chill out and then explains that Mary is doing the more important thing by listening to him. Here’s the text from Luke 10:
38 Now as they went on their way, Jesus[d] entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. 39 And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. 40 But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” 41 But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, 42 but one thing is necessary.[e] Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.”
Growing up and hearing this story, the message I always got was Martha=bad, Mary=good. In the past, I have tended to identify more with Mary—especially as a teenager and college student. I have always been more of a creative, free-spirited, “thinker” type much more than a Type-A neat freak. Now that I’m a wife and a mother, I am starting to strongly identify with Martha. Every family requires its Martha. Without her, laundry would never be clean, food would never be cooked, and no one would ever be on time.
The thing I missed about Martha’s story when I read this in the past is that the “many things” Martha is worried about are GOOD THINGS. First of all, the whole story begins by saying that a woman named Martha welcomed Jesus into her home. Anyone who has ever hosted a party knows the kind of stress and preparation that goes into it. This is no small detail. Jesus and his followers needed a place to stay, and Martha stepped up to do the heavy lifting.
Here’s the other thing that hit me between the eyes: “Martha was distracted with much SERVING.” Did you catch that? She was totally consumed with SERVING, which is the main job Jesus himself came to do, and the thing He repeatedly commands his followers to imitate! It’s almost like saying Martha was busy with much feeding the poor, or much tutoring at-risk youth.
The important thing to get here is that what Martha was doing was not wrong. In fact, it was very right and necessary. Jesus was absolutely NOT telling her to stop serving. What he is trying to point out is that even though serving is important, what is even MORE crucial to us as believers is the listening. The waiting. The sitting at His feet part.
What Jesus is saying to Martha (and to each of us today) is that we are all worrying and toiling over many things, but when it comes right down to it, in the grand scheme of life, only ONE THING is needed. The desperation for His presence, the humble heart that realizes our serving is futile without him, the wisdom that seeks to fill up on His character, His beauty, His power so that we might overflow with hope and light in this dark world.
THAT is the one thing that is needed. And you know what? When we remember to take care of that ONE THING before we tackle the MANY THINGS, our serving is far more powerful. It is joyful. It rises above the temptation to martyrdom and resentment of others not shouldering the weight. It changes our vision and gives eternal meaning to the important work we are doing. Our menial cleaning, cooking, and planning gain kingdom purpose when our motives are bathed in His presence.
So as we approach another busy holiday season and your inner Martha is already champing at the bit to get started on that to do list, know that you don’t have to suppress that. Just make it a rule not to serve before you fill up in Him. Only focused time at his feet can change us from the inside out. Mary knew this crucial secret, and Jesus, in his patient and loving way, helped Martha (and all the Marthas reading now) to see it, too.
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