"Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things" (Luke 10:41)
Mary and Martha were two sisters who were as different as night and day. Martha was the picture of the perfect hostess. She loved to entertain company; of course, as long as they called in advance. If they had such magazines in her day, Martha certainly would have been a subscriber to Southern (Bethany) Living and Better Homes and Gardens. The Bible does not tell us, but perhaps her last name was even Stewart! Martha is a perfectionist and yet, she is her own worst enemy. She sets expectations that she can never meet. She is never able to completely rest and be content. Life for Martha is always an unfinished task.
On the other hand, Mary, Martha's sister, is not much into the hostess scene.
It's not that Mary does not also enjoy having company over, but Mary is more interested in conversation than the day's menu. When you drop in at Mary's house for a visit she may have you go fetch your own glass of iced tea. It's not that Mary doesn't care. Mary just takes life as it comes and material comforts and hostess graces are just not that important to her.
One time when Jesus was at the home of Mary and Martha, Mary broke a very expensive bottle of fragrant perfume and she anointed Jesus with oil (Mark 14:3-9; John 12:1-8). This was an expression of Mary's love and devotion to Jesus. Some of Jesus' disciples became infuriated at her for doing that. Martha was there (John 12:2) and I am certain that she too chimed in with the disciples in chastising Mary for her extravagance.
In Luke 10:38-42 we discover an occasion where the stark contrast between these two sisters, Martha and Mary, is obvious. Mary is sitting at the feet of Jesus. Martha is busy "with much serving." Mary is enthralled as she sits at the feet of the savior. Martha is enraged as she busily paces back and forth from the kitchen to the living room. The Bible tells us (Luke 10:38) that Martha welcomed Jesus into her house. This visit does not appear to have been planned. Because of the short notice there would be much work to do if dinner was going to be on the table. It did not take long for Martha to become stressed and angry at the fact that Mary was sitting while she was serving.
Martha directed her anger towards Jesus (Luke 10:40). She is essentially saying "Lord, if you really cared about me you would rebuke my sister Mary and tell her to get in the kitchen." Martha is ordering Jesus around and telling Him what to do! Anger, frustration, and resentment often comes out in this kind of controlling way. When people do not act the way we want them to we often want someone else to straighten the person out for us.
It's easy to focus on Martha's apparent frustration and anger, but I want you to consider her in a little different light. Martha is not really a bad person. In fact, she is a woman of dedication and she is a doer. I can just imagine that she is the kind of woman that probably seldom complains, seldom misses the smallest details, and she can always be counted on when you need her. Martha is certainly a commendable woman. Thank God for the Martha's of the world! This story is not in the Bible to teach us that serving is bad and that sitting is good. Under different circumstances serving may have been the best course of action.
Instead, this is a story about maintaining a much-needed balance in life. It's a story about the need to recognize that we are human, we stumble, and we fall short. It's a story about being human and how we desperately need to realize just how human we are. It's a story about setting priorities and making the best choices in life. In life we are not usually confronted with choices that are outright good vs. bad! Those are the easy ones to make. But, oh how difficult are the everyday choices between what is good and what is best!
In this instance (Luke 10:38-42) there were more important things to do than housework and preparing supper. What Jesus desired was not dinner, but devotion. Martha was "worried and troubled about many things." Martha's worried and anxious heart would not find rest in serving (trying harder and doing more) but by sitting at the feet of Jesus and finding rest in His presence.
How do you know the difference between choosing what is good and what is best at any given time? You have to examine your life below the superficial level of outward appearances. If only Martha could have stopped long enough to see herself as Jesus did, then she could have seen that her life was filled with busyness but inside she was running on empty. Her life was one of frustration and distractions. Her calendar was filled with activities and engagements (good things) but she was missing out on the best things in life.
Jesus was saying to Martha, "Martha, you're not superwoman! You need to slow down. You need to re-prioritize your life." Martha was caught up in what many of us are snared in today — the performance trap. In Martha's mind she had to do it all. She was always setting expectations she could never meet. If the truth be known Martha probably did not like herself very much. She could not accept herself and as a result she could not accept others. What Mary knew and what Martha needed to know was that in a devoted relationship with Jesus Christ God's unconditional love and grace are experienced and we are set free from the bondage of the performance trap. Martha needed to know that she was not superwoman and that was ok. Martha needed to know what we so desperately need to know today. That in Jesus Christ we are set free from a life that seeks to only please others, and we are set free form a life of trivial pursuit and emptiness.
How about you? Is your life filled with purpose and peace or does your life look more like Martha's life — stressed and frayed? When you accept Christ then you are able to accept yourself and you become empowered to accept others. There is good news for the "bedraggled, beat-up, and burnt out!" That good news is that you can experience God's rest and acceptance today. Where do you start? First, recognize that you are human. Like all humans we fall short (Romans 3:23). We cannot make it in life without Jesus Christ — His grace and power. Even Martha's need Jesus. Second, give Jesus Christ complete control of your life. Simply said, don't try to be superwoman (or superman for that matter) but let Christ give you His peace and rest. Jesus' words still ring true for us today: "Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden [distracted, anxious, tired, frustrated], and I will give you rest" (Matthew 11:28).
Joe Alain is Pastor of First Baptist Church of Port Allen, LA.