As Jesus and the disciples continued on their way to Jerusalem, they came to a certain village where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. Her sister, Mary, sat at the Lord’s feet, listening to what he taught. But Martha was distracted by the big dinner she was preparing. She came to Jesus and said, “Lord, doesn’t it seem unfair to you that my sister just sits here while I do all the work? Tell her to come and help me.”
But the Lord said to her, “My dear Martha, you are worried and upset over all these details! There is only one thing worth being concerned about. Mary has discovered it, and it will not be taken away from her.”
This may be a really familiar Bible passage to you or you may be reading it for the first time. I wonder, as you take a moment to think about this reading, what things distract you or prevent you from taking time to sit with Jesus or just even take time out?
Martha is very busy and distracted whilst Mary appears to be sitting idle. Martha is doing all the work, while Mary has, in the culture of the day, invaded the space culturally and traditionally left for men. Rather than assuming the role expected of women in her culture, Mary takes a place at the feet of Jesus and listens to his words. She assumes the posture of a student learning at the feet of a rabbi, a role traditionally reserved for men.
The account takes a sharp turn when Martha, distracted by her many tasks, comes to Jesus and asks, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me”. Many who read or hear this story may cheer for Mary in her inversion of traditional roles. Many may also empathise with Martha’s resentment of her sister for leaving her to do all the work. Jesus’ response to Martha seems less than empathetic, chiding her for her distraction and worry, and praising Mary: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
The problem with Martha is not that she is busy serving and providing hospitality, but rather that she is worried and distracted and her heart is not in the right place. Martha’s distraction and worry leave no room for the most important aspect of hospitality – gracious attention to the guest. In fact, she breaks all the rules of hospitality by trying to embarrass her sister in front of her guest, by asking her guest to intervene in a family dispute and then accusing the guest of not caring about her!
Martha’s worry and distraction prevent her from being truly present with Jesus, and it causes her to drive a wedge between her sister and herself, and between Jesus and herself. Jesus’ words to Martha may be seen as an invitation rather than a rebuke. “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.” The one thing needed is for Martha to receive the gracious presence of Jesus, to listen to his words, to know that she is valued not for what she does or how well she does it, but for who she is as a child of God.
In a culture of hectic schedules and the relentless pursuit of productivity, we are tempted to measure our worth by how busy we are, by how much we accomplish, or by how well we meet the expectations of others. It’s true that much of our busyness and distraction stems from the noblest of intentions. Indeed, where would the church be without its ‘Martha’s’ – faithful folk who perform the tasks of hospitality and service so vital to making the church a welcoming and well-functioning community?
And yet if all our activities leave us with no time to be still and hear God’s word, we are likely to end up anxious and troubled. Jesus doesn’t condemn Martha for trying to be a good hostess, rather he tells her that the problem is she has become anxious and troubled. She had lost her perspective of why she was serving in the first place. Jesus said that even though what Martha was doing was important, there was only one thing that was needful. What was that one thing? It was sitting at Jesus feet learning from his teaching.
Both listening and doing, receiving God’s Word and serving others, are vital to the Christian life, just as inhaling and exhaling are to breathing. Taking time out from busy schedules is such a blessing and much needed. So my prayer for you all this month is that the lighter summer days give you space away from worries and distractions, and that you have time to step away from busy schedules so that you can just sit and breathe and come to know that you are valued just as you are – a child of God.