I’ve always struggled with the story of Mary and Martha in the Bible. And by “struggle” I mean disliked. Instead of focusing on the meaning of the story, I was relating to a character’s specific shortcomings that I recognized in my own life but also didn’t want to change. That is until one day when the meaning behind the story hit me and how I should apply it to my own life. It’s then that I had to ask myself, “Was I living like Mary or Martha?”
We meet Mary and Martha when Jesus and His disciples passed through the village of Bethany. Jesus already knew them and their brother Lazarus well and even considered them close friends. Hearing that Jesus was in their village Martha – being a generous and kind woman – ran out to meet Him and invite the group into her home.
While Mary’s heart was in the right place, it’s no surprise that she soon became overwhelmed. Here she was trying to feed and care for a group of 13 in addition to her own family. Just as she’s looking for a hand from Mary she notices her laughing and enjoying her time sitting at Jesus’ feet. Martha did what most sisters would do in that situation – she got annoyed.
Perhaps she tried to wave Mary into the kitchen to get some help, or even less subtly asked her to do so. Whatever the case Martha’s annoyance escalated until she snapped – and complained to Jesus about her sister.
“It’s not fair”
“Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”
I sympathize with Martha. I’m more introverted so if I have company over it’s more likely that I will be working on the meal or making sure they have something to drink rather than sitting down and socializing. Small talk has never come easily to me and I find it easier to serve people than chat with them. Perhaps Martha was the same way.
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However, I sympathize with Martha too because I also get annoyed when it feels like others won’t help, or when people are too busy chatting to notice MY needs. (Yikes, you can see how selfish that sounds already.) Every time I read the story prior to my revelation, I was blinded by what I thought was an injustice that I missed the point of the story entirely.
That service is good, but worship is better.
Instead of agreeing with her that Mary needs to help, Jesus responds, “Martha Martha. You are worried and upset about many things but you really only need to worry about one thing! Mary has chosen what is better and it will not be taken from her.”
First, I love how Jesus responds. Instead of berating Martha, He gently and lovingly points out her error. He knew Martha loved Him and despite her wrong attitude, gave her a lot of grace.
I too am grateful for the grace Christ pours on me when I make a mistake. Instead of getting angry or stomping off, He calmly shows me my error, letting me learn from my mistakes instead of feeling like a failure. And I don’t know about you, but I’ve sure made quite a few in my lifetime. So, I’m sure we can all thank God for the grace He shows us when we mess up!
But now, what is it that Mary chose that was better? You would think serving other people would be high on the list. But no, while service is good, Mary instead chose to sit at Jesus’ feet and soak in His presence.
Learning to Check our Priorities
Through the story, Jesus is reminding us how we need to check our priorities too. I can be a Martha when I have people over, but we can all be Martha’s in many other ways as well.
We can get so caught up in the busyness of life that we neglect to spend time at Jesus’ feet. God created work and it is good. But sometimes it consumes us too. We all need a job to pay our bills but we also must not forget whom we are ultimately serving.
Volunteering and taking care of the needy are also honorable pursuits. But we must not let the act of service overshadow things that are better for our faith – or worse – become a god to us.
Martha serving Jesus and the disciples was good, but she was missing out on sometimes better. Service is often our faith put into action and Christ’s love pouring out from us. Here in DC (or any city) there are no shortages or places to serve or volunteer. Even there Jesus is reminding us that service to our community is good, but spending time in His Word, praying, fasting and listening to His voice is better.
Good vs. Better
Or perhaps you’re even a stay-at-home mom who constantly strives to create the perfect home and family. There too Jesus says, “forget the dishes right now and come to sit at my feet.” For more encouragement, here is a 31-day challenge for having a Martha home the Mary way.
Notice also that Christ admonishes Martha for worrying, not serving. He is not saying that we should stop going to work, or giving our boss our best, or serving at the homeless shelter or stop cleaning the kitchen. Instead He says we must not worry about our to-do lists (or call out other people for not stepping up!), and instead choose what is more important.
Martha had a heart for serving, but she lost sight of the reason for serving amid the task at hand. When things didn’t go her way she became angry, critical, judgmental and unkind. Martha wasn’t wrong in her serving, just wrong in her response. Jesus wanted her to see that her priorities were in the wrong order. Her service was a distraction from hearing from Christ and we often do the same thing.
Are you Living Like Mary or Martha?
If you’re constantly anxious or worried I might suggest that’s because you’re focusing too much on what appears to be good, instead of what is best in your life. (I know because I often worry about so many things!)
When we feel that way let’s remind ourselves of Mary in the story. She didn’t have a care in the world except not missing a word that Jesus spoke. She knew that nothing could be more important at that moment.
Let’s learn to be more like Martha in our expression of love by serving others. But let’s also strive to be more like Mary in making sure our heart is in the right place and by spending time at Jesus’ feet.