These posts are summaries of the messages on Sunday and are put here mainly for the benefit of our regulars who either missed the service, or would appreciate the chance to review the big ideas.
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.”
At one level this can be seen as a squabble between siblings with different personalities (I would put money on Martha being the older sister). At another level, these sisters seem to stand for two ways we can approach life and more particularly, our relationship with Jesus.
Consider the three words used to describe Martha, and see if you don’t identify with them:
1. She was ‘distracted’ (v.40). Despite the great myth of ‘multitasking’, the truth is that you only have a certain amount of attention to give. Distraction speaks of your attention being drawn away from where it ought to be, and pulled in different directions. We experience the distraction of a thousand diversions every day from what’s important. But by using this word, ‘distracted’, Luke is saying that Martha’s mind was not attentive to what matters most. It also speaks to the quality of her thoughts; her mind was flitting about and unfocussed. Ironically, the distraction was not with useless or pointless things (such as we experience!) but with her serving, her work. This speaks into the issue we need to address: what happens when work is the problem?
2. She was ‘anxious’ (v.41). Her concern was to please Jesus by serving him good food — a good desire! But the fact that she is anxious reveals a few very interesting things about her way of thinking: (i) She thinks Jesus is hard to please. She would not have been anxious if she did not feel that way. (ii) Her identity is built upon what she’s doing; her sense of worth & self-justification is established on how well she hosts. (iii) Expectations also weigh on her; she’s freighted with unspoken and unwritten cultural assumptions about what’s important — in this case, hospitality and a good welcome. There’s a law in her mind dictating that if she has a guest, especially one as important as Jesus, she must be a great host. We too have all kinds of unwritten laws that we imbibe from our culture that weigh upon us as expectations and dictate much of our behaviour and emotions.
3. She was ‘troubled’ (v.41). She is not happy. Many things are conspiring to steal her joy: her distracted and anxious mind; her desire to please Jesus and her concern she will fail. But added to these things she is also experiencing resentment against her sister who is not helping (and instead enjoying listening to Jesus so that Martha feels left out, and stressed out). And now that is compounded by her sense of self-pity in wanting to be noticed for her ‘selfless’ service.
What about us?
Martha is powerfully representative of all of us who feel too busy to sit at Jesus’ feet. To be sure, we are called to sit at his feet in prayer and study of the word (among other things). We are called to be disciples. But so often we find our lives are too hectic and our behaviour too erratic and anxious to sit and be with Jesus.
Are you too busy? Writing in the 1600s (yes, they had the same problems then as we do now), Thomas Brooks would give you eight reasons to reconsider whether you're too busy:
1. Are you busier than the men of God in the Bible who carried big responsibility? Consider Moses (leading a nation of millions), David (a king), Daniel (effectively leading an empire), and Jesus (carrying the burdens of thousands who flocked to hear him and speak with him). These men had dynamic and powerful prayer lives. Brooks writes:
These brave hearts made all their public employments stoop to private prayer; they would never suffer their public employments to tread private prayer under foot.
2. Prayer to Jesus allows your work to prosper. Of course, many have prospered who have not prayed. But we want our work to be blessed by God, to last, to have eternal worth.
3. Are you sure you’re not wasting time that could be given to Jesus? Consider the things that are pulling you away; what are they? Brooks mentions how people can spend their time in ‘gazing about, or in dallying, or toying, or courting, or in telling of stories, or in busying themselves in other men’s matters, or in idle visits, or in smoking a pipe…’ I suppose that in the 1600s, when TV and Facebook were not a problem, people spent their time ‘gazing about’. But we tend to fill ours with all kinds of entertainment and diversions. How do you fill the cracks in your day?
4. Is your excuse going to hold up when you face Jesus? ‘O sirs! as you love your souls, and as you would be happy forever, never put off your own consciences nor others’ with any pleas, arguments, or objections now, that you dare not own and stand by when you shall lie upon a dying bed, and when you shall appear before the whole court of heaven.’ In other words, think about the excuses you’re using now (This project is really important. I need to finish this box-set. I need some down time) — would you be happy to use these excuses to Jesus’ face?
5. We are called to redeem time from our work to give to Jesus. The phrase ‘redeem the time’ (Eph 5.16) uses a word that related to merchants purchasing what they need quickly in the markets — just think about sniping on eBay. We may have wasted much time, but we can use well now what God has given us, what remains, and redeem it quickly, buy it back, turn it to good use. David devoted time when others slept: Psalm 63.6, 119.62, 130.6.
6. Decide: either your call to pray (and be with Jesus) is a duty or it isn’t. Of the various excuses given in Luke 14.16-24, Brooks writes: ‘The true reason why they would not come to the supper that the King of kings had invited them to was, not because they had bought farms and oxen, but because their farms and oxen had bought them.’ In other words, we give our time to what we value, but being a disciple of Jesus is a matter of obedience. He has summoned you! Make a decision! And of course, we should add, it is not just a duty, but an awesome privilege (or as Jesus puts it, the ‘good portion’).
7. God hasn’t designed your calling to pull you away from Jesus. It is wrong to neglect your calling, your work (Exod 20.9, 1 Cor 7.20, 2 Thess 3.10-12, 1 Thess 4.11-12, Eph 4.28, 1 Tim 5.8). You can’t use ‘spiritual’ reasons not to work. Jesus doesn’t want you to be lazy. But equally, you can’t neglect your walk with God because of your job. Why? Because God would never design the latter to drive out the former. It follows that if that is happening, something is going wrong. Brooks: ‘God, who is the Lord of time, has reserved some part of our time to himself every day’.
8. The busier you are, the more you need to pray. Being busy makes you vulnerable to certain sins, snares, and temptations; and therefore being busy increases the need for prayer. Luther apparently said this: ‘I have so much to do that I shall spend the first three hours in prayer.’
What are we to do?
In returning to our story, I think there are three really important applications:
1. Your life needs the right focus. Jesus says, ‘Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary’ (v.41-42). Jesus is addressing the matter of her focus.
There’s much talk of ‘mindfulness’ these days, which is essentially Buddhism repackaged and secularised for the West. People are feeling totally stressed and they’re looking for ways to control their troubled minds and regain focus, so mindfulness meditation is seen as a solution. But cynics rightly point out that when your employer pays for seminars on mindfulness, this can be a tool to just get more out of the workers. It’s a way of keeping the lackeys happy so they churn out more product.
There is much benefit in having a focussed mind. It is likely to increase your happiness, and to make you more effective and fruitful.
But there is a huge difference between mindfulness meditation and what Jesus is calling us to here. Mindfulness is a way of focussing on nothing (essentially) to train your brain to be more effective at what you want to do (your work). But Jesus is making a clear call: he’s saying, in effect, Focus on me and let all of your life become reordered by this great priority. This is a powerful theme in the Bible (Psalm 27.4, Phil 3.13-14). Jesus doesn’t want to be one more technique to help you be a more effective person and ‘live your best life now’. He wants to be your absolute, your priority, your obsession.
2. Your life needs to be about pursuing joy in the right way. Jesus says, ‘Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion…’ (v.41-42). Jesus is not here talking about self-denial. He’s telling Martha that she needs to pursue joy, but pursue it in the right way.
Martha was pursuing joy, but in the wrong way. She reasoned that she’d get the approval, affirmation, and acceptance that she craved by impressing Jesus. But she hadn’t chosen the ‘good portion’.
Jesus says: It’s the right pursuit, but the wrong goal or method. The ‘good portion’ is Christ, and he gives himself to you as a gift, not something you earn. Come to him directly.
3. Your life needs to be built on and rest in the promises of God. ‘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’ (v.41-42).
To my mind, the great contrast in this story is between works and faith, between law and grace.
Martha represents religious effort: working for approval, never doing enough, resenting others because you’re always comparing.
Mary represents faith and grace: receiving Christ as a gift, experiencing total satisfaction and rest, and most importantly not losing what you gain, because it is lasting, it’s permanent.
When Jesus says that the good portion ‘will not be taken away from her’, he is saying that since she received Christ as a gift (and not as something she’d earned), then she could not lose Christ. The great tragedy of religious effort is that if we earn our way into acceptance with Jesus (as though that were possible) then we can just as easily lose it. You can never be sure that you’re accepted, that you’re approved, that you’re justified. But when you receive Christ as a gift that you didn’t deserve, that gift will never be revoked.
Jesus is inviting you to be Mary, to sit and rest at his feet, to cease from your self-justifying work and all its accompanying distraction, anxiety and trouble, and have the good portion.