The account of Jesus’ visit to Mary and Martha’s house (Luke 10:38-41) is a multi-layered, gentle but boldly unapologetic invitation to stop, sit down, shut up and listen. It’s a story that doesn’t shy away from the fact that life is full of interruptions and responsibilities—there will always be something that needs to be done. But it also highlights that there are unexpected surprises, invitations and better choices to be made.
It’s a story about being given permission to stop. And many of us need permission to stop before we can fully embrace the invitation to rest. Stopping is one thing, resting is another, but the transformation that rest can bring is something else entirely.
We know that Mary had opened her home to a bedraggled rag-tag crew of tired, grubby, hungry disciples and their scruffy prophet leader. They hadn’t texted ahead, and they certainly weren’t just popping in for a quick cuppa and a brief chat. That was not Jesus’ preferred modus operandi during his earthly ministry. When Jesus and his disciples came to your place, they made themselves at home—possibly for a few days. This was whakawhanaungatanga, Bible-style!
Some have suggested that Martha was an uptight older sister, peeved off with her lazy younger sister. But perhaps she was simply a domestic goddess taking her role as hostess seriously. Luke uses the word distracted to describe Martha, not jealous or resentful. This is no linguistic accident. Martha was distracted, and most likely because she was focused on her role as hostess. And this in and of itself was not a bad thing. She wanted her guests to feel welcome and relaxed—this was manaakitanga at its finest!
To be distracted means that our attention is not where it should be. And in Martha’s case, it wasn’t that her attention was on the wrong thing—what she was doing was good and valuable—it’s just that there was something better Martha could have been doing. And Jesus knew this.
Jesus knew what Martha needed—she needed to stop, come and sit down and be with Jesus, just like Mary was. And that’s why Jesus didn’t take her side when Martha said, ‘Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her to help me!’ Shockingly, Jesus says nothing to Mary. Instead he focuses on Martha—Martha, who is distracted by many things, things that were preventing her from sitting at his feet. And Jesus won’t let Mary be distracted from his presence to go and help Martha. So instead of telling either sister off, he invites Martha to take a closer look at the situation.
Jesus helps Martha see that she is missing out on what she needs most, which is being with him. And so he says, gently and lovingly, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is best and it will not be taken from her.’
It’s as though Jesus is saying, ‘Martha, Mary’s not coming to help you. She’s with me—where she needs to be. Where she belongs. How about you come and join us? Come Martha and sit at my feet, too. I know you, and what you need right now is me. You need the rest and refreshing that only sitting in my presence can bring. Dinner can wait. Only one thing is needed right now. Join us Martha.’ And I think Martha accepted Jesus’ invitation and came and sat at his feet with Mary.
But wait a minute! Who cooked the dinner? There was no such thing as 0800 Pizza Hut. And who cleaned up? The fairies? Someone still had to take responsibility and feed everyone! It’s all very well and good and lovely sitting at the feet of Jesus—a nice life for some—but there’s work to be done!
So, who did it?
That’s what makes this story so shocking and so important. We resist the invitation on Martha’s behalf! We demand to know who did the work because our natural human tendency is not biased toward simply being with God. Instead it’s strongly weighted toward doing for God—as though he somehow needs our help! We need to remember that he doesn’t need our help with anything at all. He chooses to involve us in his mission, but what he wants most is for us to know and accept his unconditional love for us. The yoke of our doing for God is always easy and our burdens light when we spend time with God, learning from him the unforced rhythms of grace. Henri Nouwen so wisely said: ‘The farther the outward journey takes you, the deeper the inward journey must be. Only when your roots are deep can your fruits be abundant.’
We’re Salvationists. Christian activists. Many of us choose to serve God through and in the Army because we love the mission and want to stand against injustice and see the world changed! But that’s the point, there will always be more work to be done—good work, kingdom work. Jesus knew and knows this. There will always be need and things placing demands on us, and even when we’re thriving in ministry, what is it that we still need most? The same thing we’ve needed since the beginning of time when Adam and Eve walked and talked with God of an evening in the garden of Eden—rest.
I love that the story ends with Jesus’ invitation to Martha and leaves out what happened next. Did Jesus feed the household as he did the 5000? Who knows—that’s not the point of the story, nor is it the end of Martha’s story. We encounter her again when her brother Lazarus has been in the tomb for three days (John 11:17). This time when Jesus arrives, Martha is the one who runs out to him and announces that he could have saved her brother had he been there, and that even now God would give Jesus whatever he asks. It’s Martha—not Mary—who declares this. Martha’s faith in Jesus is strong and certain. Martha knows who Jesus is and what he can do, because somewhere along the way ‘distracted Martha’ became ‘attentive Martha’. A shift took place within. Martha knows more than just who Jesus is, Martha knows Jesus because she has sat at his feet and rested in him.
The invitation that Jesus extended to Martha is also extended to each one of us. Christmas is upon us, don’t miss the Christ at the centre of it. The temptation to get busy and become distracted by all the preparations that need to be made is real. But God is calling to us, ‘Beloved Child, only one thing is needed. Choose what is best. Stop. Come and adore him’.