What would you do if Jesus stopped by your house this afternoon? Would you be embarrassed by the mess and quickly try to tidy things up by shoving things in the hall closet or the junk drawer in the kitchen? Would you scramble to the pantry wondering what in the world you should cook for the Son of God who has just dropped in for dinner? Or would you struggle for a moment to come up with a few casual conversation starters, because naturally you want to look cool in front of the Savior of the World. What would you do if Jesus stopped by your house this afternoon?
This, of course, is exactly what happens to Martha, and her sister Mary. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem and he stops to find respite at the home of his friends. Now Martha immediately begins to fulfill her role as the hostess, which presumably included the preparation of a meal and attending to the needs of Jesus, who was a guest in her home. Mary, on the other hand, contrary to the cultural norms of first century, takes a seat and begins to listen to the words of Jesus. Martha grows rather frustrated with her apparently lazy sister, but instead of speaking with her privately, Martha just calls Mary on the carpet right there in front Jesus. She says, “Jesus, don’t you care that my lazy sister has left me to do all the work?” To which Jesus responds, “Martha, dear…dear Martha, you are worried and distracted by so many things! You are getting all worked up over nothing!”
Now this short episode in Luke’s gospel has been interpreted in a variety of ways throughout the history of the church. Some have thought that Luke was bothered by a group of women seeking to exercise too much leadership in the church and so, he was trying to demonstrate that the proper role of women was to be quiet and remain seated. The good news is that most contemporary scholars no longer hold this view. In fact, over the last few decades, scholars have commended Mary for her leadership as well as the counter-cultural character of her witness as a disciple. Other interpreters have argued that this story presents a stark contrast between “good works” and “faith,” between “doing” and “listening,” between “action” and “contemplation.” In this interpretation, Martha is rebuked for her reliance on works, while Mary is praised as an example of faith and piety. But, throughout his ministry, Jesus is not anti-good works. He is not anti-action. Martha is actually doing exactly what she is expected to do. She is fulfilling her role as the host. She is extending radical hospitality. She is the one who is charged with caring for the needs of her guest. And so, it is no accident that the word Luke uses to describe Martha’s actions is the Greek word from which we derive the word “deacon.” Martha is simply seeking to fulfill her role as a faithful servant.
So, if this story is not about the role of women and it’s not about choosing the life of faith and piety over against the life of actions or “good works,” then what is central message of the story of these two sisters? The answer to this question, I believe, is found in the response of Jesus to Martha’s complaint.He says, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and distracted by many things!” Anxious and distracted! The word translated distracted literally means to be pulled apart in many directions.You see, there is nothing inherently wrong with Martha’s work. Her actions are essential for the proper working of the household. But in the midst of her work, in the midst of her activity, she has become anxious and distracted by many things! As one biblical commentator put, Martha has lost herself in her work. She has forgotten that, ultimately, she is loved and valued not because of what she does, but because of who she is as a beloved daughter of God.
When we understand Martha’s story as a story about anxiety and distraction, it speaks powerfully to our present culture. Because we live in a culture in which value and meaning are based primarily on productivity, efficiency, and success. The demands of life are often pulling us apart in many different directions. We try to put a positive spin on all this and call it “multi-tasking” – but the reality is that quite often deep inside we are profoundly anxious, confused, and distracted by many things.
On a personal note, the story of Martha and Mary has always been especially challenging. I tend to be a task-oriented person. I like to be as productive and efficient as possible. You have heard me say before that if I complete a task that is not on my “to-do list,” I will go back and add it to my list simply for the sheer satisfaction of being able to cross that item off the list. And yet on more than one occasion, as I have gazed proudly at my completed check-list, I hear the words of Jesus, “Doug, Doug, you are anxious and distracted by many things!”
Many years ago, when I was in college, I found myself anxious and distracted by the demands of life. And so, I took a walk in a local park and found a quiet spot near the edge of river where I could read my Bible and write in my journal. And in that moment of quiet reflection and contemplation, the Lord spoke to my heart and I heard the words, “Doug, you are not identified by what you do for me, but by who you are in me.”
You are not identified by what you do for me, but by who you are in me. In Christ, we are a new creation! In Christ, we are forgiven and at peace. In Christ, we are the beloved sons and daughters of the living God. This is the essential truth about who we are in relationship to Jesus. This is the ONE thing that is necessary, as Jesus said to Martha.
In the midst of our often frenetic and fragmented world, we so easily become anxious and distracted by many things. We are so easily pulled apart in many different directions. We are so easily consumed by the demands placed upon our time and energy. And yet, Jesus seems to be saying to Martha, let it go. Don’t let anxiety and distraction rule your life!
This doesn’t mean we aren’t called to be responsible. This doesn’t mean we aren’t called to the work of mission and hospitality. But it does mean the midst of that work, there are times when we are simply called to rest in the presence of Jesus and let some things go!
Now, of course, this “letting go” of anxiety and distraction is not a superficial work. This is not simply about reducing activities. This is not about simply about rearranging the furniture of our lives. This is not about cramming the clutter of our lives into the hall closet only to have it come crashing down the next time we open the door.
This is about the refocusing of our hearts. Recognizing that your identity is fundamentally determined not by what you do or fail to do, but by who you are in Christ. Because, you see, Jesus doesn’t just want to just stop by your house for the afternoon. He wants to take up permanent residence in your life. And in the midst of the anxiety and distractedness of the world around us, there are times when Jesus simply calls us to sit at his feet and listen.