Remember Martha of Bethany and her sister Mary? Jesus and his disciples were guests in their home. Mary sat quietly at Jesus’ feet; but Martha bustled about, probably getting a meal ready, resenting that she had to do all the work herself. Here’s Luke’s story:
Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “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.” (Luke 10:38-42, NRSV)
Luke describes Martha as “distracted,” literally, she is “drawn away” by her responsibilities. Jesus adds “worried,” a word that also suggests being pulled in different directions, but adds an element of anxiety. By contrast, there sits her sister Mary, listening to Jesus while Martha does all the work.
Anyone who has ever found him- or herself carrying a load of responsibility alone will probably identify with Martha’s reaction of frustration and resentment. Look, somebody’s got to keep this household (family, organization, ministry) running. Sure, I’d like to spend more time soaking up the spiritual stuff. But there’s work to be done! And it’s for Jesus!
Jesus’ gentle reprimand is less about Martha’s actions than her attitude. True, she is serving Jesus (literally), and he isn’t telling her to stop. But her service has a troublesome element of self-focused anxiety. Her words, probably blurted out in exasperation, reveal her heart. She actually has the brass to suggest that Jesus is partially at fault for not noticing her sacrificial busyness and doing something about it. She makes both a thinly veiled accusation and an outright demand: “Don’t you care? Tell her to help me.”
Mary’s quiet focus, by contrast, is on the Lord and his teaching. Martha interprets this as ducking responsibility, but Jesus affirms Mary’s behavior as demonstrating the right priorities. It’s not that Martha doesn’t know how to focus on Jesus. But the task at hand has become an anxious distraction, and her flustered outburst is the giveaway.
Yes: the food still needs to get on the table; the ministry has a to-do list; responsibilities can’t be left undone. People should be held accountable to do their fair share. But it’s ironic how busyness for Jesus can edge out a relationship with Jesus.
The story of Martha and Mary, I think, can help us understand something Paul tells the Corinthians. More on that in the next post.