Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet and listened to his teaching. 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.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.” Luke 10: 38-42
The story of Mary and Martha isn’t liked much by most Christian workers I know. That’s because a lot of Christians think it’s unfair.
Imagine the scene. Two single women suddenly have at least thirteen important guests show up at their door—Jesus and His disciples. Imagine what needs to be done! They have to clean house, prepare for dinner, make sleeping arrangements, decorate the house, cook meals—and tend to their every need! All of this without any advanced warning that they were coming. It was a huge undertaking, and had to be entered into without warning.
The two women are of very different temperament. Martha is the take-charge woman. Almost every man or woman in the church in a leadership capacity is a Martha. Some of them do it by necessity, others do it because they enjoy being in charge. Without Marthas the church would not survive. They are the ones who run everything.
But then Jesus arrives and while Martha is preoccupied with the arrangements for dinner, her sister Mary does nothing. Instead, she sits beside Jesus at his feet, and listens to Him.
Martha sees Mary there, and loses her temper with Jesus, because Jesus won’t tell Mary that she should be helping with the arrangements. This is typical Martha behavior. When guests drop in the most important thing is how much food goes on the table, how clean the house is, and how comfortable the place looks. It’s how much effort you put into entertaining. Martha is convinced that serving Jesus is all about action. It’s about getting up and getting busy. Jesus ought to know that the most important thing in the world is how much we serve in the church.
One way to spot a Martha is to look at their attitude for worship. Marthas believe that worship is just a pep rally for the big game. Prayer is just talk--they want to get on with the real work. The Christian life is like a rescue mission, and prayer is just the radio where we get instructions. What’s really important is the mission, not the talk. That’s the way Marthas think.
They aren’t wrong. The work of the church is important. Spreading the Gospel, teaching the children, feeding the poor, fellowship, church maintenance, worship practice, sound systems, etc. are important and valuable things.
But as Ecclesiastes says, “To everything there is a season, and a time to ever purpose under heaven.” Jesus really isn’t saying that Mary is better than Martha, for sitting at Jesus’ feet. Jesus is just saying at that moment, what Mary is doing is more important. He doesn’t love Mary more than Martha, as Martha seems to think, nor is He saying that Martha is bad. He is simply saying that Martha has got her priorities wrong at that moment. There is a time for cooking and cleaning, and there is a time for sitting and loving. Martha has been serving so long, she doesn’t know when to quit and just appreciate Jesus.
Worship is work. Worship takes time—focused, concentrated time that cannot be given to anything else. Worship—both public and private—is not something that we should do in order that we can go do something else, even something good. It has value in itself, just as time spent with a sick friend or in the company of someone we love has value, simply because it does. It is a basic value which must not be consumed with concentration on “larger” tasks. It is a time for being in God’s presence, not a means for doing Godly things. There is a season for activity, and there is a season for listening and waiting. Wisdom lies in keeping the two separate, and in knowing when to be silent and when to get busy. When we are in the season of work, we work. When we are in the season for worship, we worship with the same concentration we give to work.
How many times does Jesus actually come into your house? What if Jesus came to your house only one time in your life, and you were busy in the kitchen the whole time He was there? What if, instead of asking the important questions of life, you could only ask Him how he liked his steak cooked? What if Jesus was talking and all you could see was that the floor underneath His feet needed vacuuming? What a waste of an opportunity—to look at worldly things, when Jesus is right before you!
I am convinced that when it comes to prayer, the biggest challenge we have is slowing down. That’s because we are mostly Marthas at heart. Our attention is naturally drawn to worldly things. We see what we are used to seeing in our busy lives. It requires great effort to learn to stop thinking about the world and to refocus our attention.
This process of refocusing is called meditation. The word meditate really means to pay attention or concentrate. Marthas finds meditation hard, because their minds are always busy. They can’t just be, because they are too busy doing. But meditation requires us to be still in the presence of Christ. They are too busy with the peripheral business of the church to have any real relationship with Christ. They are God’s servants, not His companions. Meditation calls us to drop what we are doing and just be with Jesus.
The reason we become Marthas instead of Marys is that we are convinced that our tasks are more important than our relationship to Jesus. We think we are “special” so the words of Jesus to spend time at His feet don’t apply to us. We are convinced that the things we are doing are so important that we don’t have to obey the rules. We see ourselves like caterers at a party. Everyone else might be enjoying themselves, but that’s only because we are taking care of everything for them. We are the exceptions to the universal call to sit down and have a good time. We think that our serving up munchies at the party is more important than the party itself, and that if we don’t do it no one will have a good time. When he says, “Come and dine,” he doesn’t mean us.
But that’s not what Jesus means. We are as important as everyone else. Jesus holds a dinner, and asks the servants and butlers to sit at the head table with Him. If the dinner plates don’t arrive in the correct order, who cares? Jesus would gladly serve us, before he would allow us to be just servants.
Underneath this story is some great wisdom about prayer that we need to know. Here are some things to keep in mind if you want to be a “Mary” sometimes, instead of always being a “Martha.”
1. Prayer isn’t talking to God. Prayer is being with God.
Our biggest mistake in prayer is that we talk too much. It’s hard for God to get a word in edgewise. A good friend is a person who listens. An even better friend is one who does not expect us to say anything at all. Around such a friend we are free to be silent.
Think of prayer as being on a date with God. Does it matter where you go, just Who you are with. In prayer, we spend time in God’s presence so you can have a deeper relationship with Him.
2. Prayers is knowing Who we are with.
We would not address a king casually. We should treat Him with great respect. If He says, “Sit with Me” then we sit. God is not our “good buddy in the sky” nor is He a stern and unforgiving judge. He is an all-powerful being who loves us and wants us to spend time with Him.
3. Prayer requires “full stop” concentration.
I was in a hurry one day to get home. I turned right on a road at a “T” shaped intersection. To the left, a construction crew had shut down the street, so right was the only way to turn. As I hurried down the street, I saw the blue lights of a policeman in my rear view window. I had no idea what was wrong.
“You didn’t stop at the stop sign.” He said.
I argued with him. There was no traffic coming from the other side. The stop sign wasn’t needed, since no one could be coming from the left. Besides, I slowed down to a “rolling stop”. Surely that was all I needed to do!
“No,” the policemen said as he wrote out the ticket. “Full stop at a stop sign, even if it there is nothing coming. There is no such thing in the law as a ‘rolling stop.’”
We think that prayer will calm us. Often it doesn’t, because we aren’t really praying. Our minds haven’t come to a full stop. They are still worrying, planning and fuming about our problems. We can’t look at God and look at the world around us at the same time, not without some preparation.
The Psalmist says, “I have composed and quieted my soul.” Another way of saying that is, “I’m at full stop.” Being attentive and open to God requires that we stop listening to the voices around us. We stop so we can listen to the voice of the Spirit.
When we worship in private or in public, put out of our minds the problems of the day and practice mindful concentration on Christ, His presence, and His love. Don’t rush to speak or to act, but set everything aside for God’s sake. We can do nothing about our worries when we are praying, and when we are worrying, we cannot think about God. Meditation on God is the act of recognizing Who He is, and that His presence is among us.