“As Jesus and the disciples continued on their way to Jerusalem, they came to a certain village where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. Her sister, Mary, sat at the Lord’s feet, listening to what he taught. But Martha was distracted by the big dinner she was preparing. She came to Jesus and said, “Lord, doesn’t it seem unfair to you that my sister just sits here while I do all the work? Tell her to come and help me.” But the Lord said to her, “My dear Martha, you are worried and upset over all these details! There is only one thing worth being concerned about. Mary has discovered it, and it will not be taken away from her.”” (Luke 10:38–42, NLT)
“When Martha got word that Jesus was coming, she went to meet him. But Mary stayed in the house. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if only you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask.” Jesus told her, “Your brother will rise again.” “Yes,” Martha said, “he will rise when everyone else rises, at the last day.” Jesus told her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even after dying. Everyone who lives in me and believes in me will never ever die. Do you believe this, Martha?” “Yes, Lord,” she told him. “I have always believed you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who has come into the world from God.”” (John 11:20–27, NLT)
“Six days before the Passover celebration began, Jesus arrived in Bethany, the home of Lazarus—the man he had raised from the dead. A dinner was prepared in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, and Lazarus was among those who ate with him. Then Mary took a twelve-ounce jar of expensive perfume made from essence of nard, and she anointed Jesus’ feet with it, wiping his feet with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance. But Judas Iscariot, the disciple who would soon betray him, said, “That perfume was worth a year’s wages. It should have been sold and the money given to the poor.” Not that he cared for the poor—he was a thief, and since he was in charge of the disciples’ money, he often stole some for himself. Jesus replied, “Leave her alone. She did this in preparation for my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.”” (John 12:1–8, NLT)
Assuming you read these Scripture passages, let’s start with a very basic observation: Whom did Jesus admonish and whom did Jesus affirm? According to Jesus, Mary made a better choice than Martha. “All these details” that “worried and upset” Martha weren’t bad things. Jesus didn’t say that. But He did say, “There is only one thing worth being concerned about. Mary has discovered it…” Some translate that “one thing” as “the good part” or even “the best part”. Mary chose to sit at Jesus’ feet. She chose Jesus. She chose wisely.
Think about the differences between how Martha and Mary approached their relationship with Jesus.
Performance for Christ Approach*
Martha’s approach was focused on performance for Christ. Martha seems to have decided that her relationship with Jesus should be about performing a service for Him. She expected Mary (and perhaps others) to help her do something for Christ. She wanted to make something happen for Christ. She tried to coordinate Christ’s schedule. She got busy for the Lord to the point of distraction. She visited with Christ in passing as she did her work. She complained to Christ about the service of others. She was determined to fulfill her duty even if relationships suffered.
Person of Christ Approach
Mary’s approach was focused on the Person of Christ. Mary sat at Christ’s feet. Mary looked into Christ’s face. Mary listened to Christ’s voice. She felt Christ’s gentle touch. She knew Christ’s unconditional acceptance. She rested in Christ’s love. She was a child in Christ’s arms. Mary experienced Christ’s freedom. She released all fear to Christ. Mary washed Jesus’ feet. She did Christ’s will from an overflow of His presence. Mary’s focus first of all was on “the good part”—Christ Himself.
How can we have this “person of Christ approach” to life? Christ Himself must take priority over all else—we know this. But come on! That’s easier said than done. We live in a fast-paced world. We’ve got places to go, people to see, numbers to crunch, bills to pay, laundry to fold and dinner to cook. How can we be “Marys” in that kind of world?
Answering this question will require us to do some serious self-evaluation. Perhaps our list of “all these details” should not be as long as it is. Maybe we need to cut back. Perhaps our list of “all these details” is not the problem—we just need to choose not to be “worried and upset” by them. Perhaps the “good part” can be found in the midst of “all these details”—despite “all these details”. Perhaps “all these details” are done to impress people, but our hearts are not as absorbed with Christ as they should be. Perhaps we’ve chosen to devote ourselves to what is good, but we’ve lost sight of what is best.
But we’re not talking about a choice here between sitting at the feet of Jesus or doing no work. Our choice is not whether to do good work or sit around and be lazy. Martha was “distracted”. This word means “to be pulled away” by something. It includes the idea of anxiety. If we do not choose the good part, our work—regardless of what it is, but especially ministry—will be hindered. We must choose both—to serve Christ and to sit at His feet. If we choose the good part, our work will flow from our love and gratitude for Jesus and will bear much more fruit (see John 15:5).
Read Matthew 6:9-15—a familiar passage.
“Pray like this: Our Father in heaven, may your name be kept holy. May your Kingdom come soon. May your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven. Give us today the food we need, and forgive us our sins, as we have forgiven those who sin against us. And don’t let us yield to temptation, but rescue us from the evil one.” (Matthew 6:9-13, NLT)
This prayer is rich with instruction about how to pray, but notice the basic structure: The prayer begins with a God-focus—His name (glory), His kingdom and His will. Then Jesus encouraged prayer for provision and protection. Start with God, then go to the details of life. Focus on His name, His kingdom and His will, then see our lives in light of His greatness. Or think of it this way: Sit at Jesus’ feet, then get up and serve Him.
We have a choice to make. Not good vs. evil—that’s a no-brainer. The choice for many Christians is good vs. best. Cooking a meal for guests is a good thing. We’re big on hospitality and relearning the importance of true hospitality. But, having a “person of Christ” approach to life is offering service to Him that flows from time spent with Him.
“Activity, of course, is good: surely in the cause of the Lord we should run and not be weary. But not when it is substituted for inner religious strength. We cannot get along without our Marthas. But what shall we do when, through all the length and breadth of the land, we shall search in vain for a Mary? Of course the Marys will be as little admired by the Marthas today as of yore. ‘Lord,’ cried Martha, ‘dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone!’ And from that time to this the cry has continually gone up against the Marys that they waste the precious ointment which might have been given to the poor, when they pour it out to God, and are idle when they sit at the Master’s feet.”**
* For a great discussion of this, see William A. Beckham’s The Second Reformation, pgs. 137-141.
** Benjamin Warfield, The Religious Life of the Theological Student.