Christ Speaks to the Problem of Compulsive Busyness
Luke 10: 38 - 42
What if you opened the door and found that Jesus Christ wanted to come in and spend some time with you? What would you do? That’s not as far-fetched as it may seem. In fact, that’s what happened to 2 sisters. Both Martha and Mary knew who Jesus was and were glad to welcome him into their home. It is obvious that they were thrilled to have such a visitor. They both loved him and were thrilled to have him stay with them. It is soon clear that the 2 sisters were quite different in temperament. Their ways of making Jesus feel at home could not have been more different.
It helps to know that this incident takes place toward the end of Jesus’ ministry, perhaps about 6 months before his crucifixion. By this time opposition to his ministry has hardened into open hostility. Martha, Mary and Lazarus lived in the village of Bethany, on the eastern slopes of the Mount of Olives. Jesus has now turned his face toward Jerusalem and is making a final tour of various towns and villages.
Jesus rarely spent a night in a home. He didn’t own a home and depended entirely on the kindness of his followers for all his physical needs. “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20). Even something as simple as a home-cooked meal was a treat. It was considered culturally important to welcome strangers into your home, to offer them good food, and if necessary, a place to stay overnight. In later years this practice of hospitality became a key factor in the spread of the gospel as itinerant evangelists carried the Good News into distant corners of the Roman Empire.
Jesus comes to the home, Martha reacts one way, Mary another, and Jesus comments on the difference. That’s all there is. Yet this simple story has confused and sometimes frustrated people. Perhaps because of its simplicity, the urge to take sides is almost irresistible. Which sister was right? Was Martha justified in what she said? Should Mary have done more than sit at Jesus’ feet? And behind those questions are deeper issues involving personal identity, individual preferences, and how we can best serve the Lord.
1. Martha’s Mission v. 38 - 40
Perhaps the place to begin is with a closer look at Martha. Here is my take on her personality. She is bighearted, generous, hospitable, hard working, a big-project person, a giver, and (in the best sense of the term) a homemaker. She is also a born leader who knows how to do many things at the same time and how to do them well. If she is demanding, she demands nothing of others that she does not also demand of herself. She is also somewhat quick-tempered. In short, she is a classic Type A personality: gifted, driven, demanding, and capable of accomplishing a great deal.
I want to say this in her defense. Regardless of what else we may think, it is clear that she loves the Lord and does what she does out of love and not obligation. She respects Jesus so much that without hesitation she wants to honour him by using her gifts to prepare a meal in his honour. Her motives are pure even if her attitude is not quite right.
Preparing a big meal is a big job and requires time and effort and true commitment. Meals don’t cook themselves. Not everyone can sit in the lounge listening to the guest of honour. Someone has to be in the kitchen or everyone will starve. Thoughts such as those began to go through Martha’s mind. I think women understand this better than most men do. After all, since most men never make a big meal, the mysteries of the kitchen are just that—mysteries to us.
It’s at this point that the true differences between Martha and Mary come into focus. Martha felt responsible to ensure that the meal was properly prepared and served. For whatever reason, Mary did not join her in the kitchen. She chose to sit at Jesus’ feet, a posture and attitude that eventually got under Martha’s skin.
v. 40 says that Martha “came to him” - “Martha exploded out of the kitchen.” When she couldn’t take it anymore she marched up to Jesus, rolling pin in one hand and a bowl in the other, and said, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left all the work to me. Tell her to help me.” It’s hard not to smile when we read those words because all of us have been there at one time or another. And we’ve all said something similar when we’ve felt let down and abandoned by those we thought were going to help us.
When Martha says, “Lord, don’t you care?” she really means to say, “Lord, you don’t care at all because if you did, you would have told Mary to go to the kitchen and help me.” Martha’s “presenting problem” is very clear: “Jesus doesn’t care and Mary won’t help!” She is both criticizing Jesus and blaming her sister. Underneath this are her real problems: unrealistic expectations, misplaced priorities, and misdirected anger. To say it another way, Martha’s problem is that she doesn’t think she has a problem. She thinks everyone else has a problem but her. As long as she could blame someone else, she didn’t have to face what was in her heart.
She is busy but not blessed. Jesus has come to her home but she is so stressed out that the joy has been replaced by frustration and anger. Oddly enough, her desire to serve Christ actually pulls her away from time with Christ. The good is crowding out the best.
Most of us would sympathize with Martha. Here are 13 hungry men who have dropped by for supper. There is lots of work to be done! The food must be bought, prepared, cooked, arranged, served, and then everything must be cleaned up afterward. At a minimum, this involved several hours of hard work. And every person—man or woman—who has ever ventured to prepare a meal like this knows one irrefutable truth: Food doesn’t cook itself! Someone has to watch the roast and someone has to mash those potatoes. Viewed from one perspective, Martha is just being a responsible hostess.
“Weary Servants of the Impossible.” Because they feel the weight of the world on their shoulders, they attempt to “do it all” even if no one will join them.
2. Mary’s Position v. 39
Evidently Mary never said a word when her sister confronted Jesus. That was probably a good idea. What could she say that would have satisfied Martha anyway? Mary only appears for certain 3 times in the gospels—in all 3 places she is always in the same place—at the feet of Jesus.
“At the Lord’s Feet”—Closeness
“To his Word”—Submission
4 words reveal Mary’s heart: quietness, closeness, attention and submission. She is utterly devoted to the Lord and wants nothing more than to be near him. Listening is hard work. It’s not easy to sit in a classroom or in a church and listen carefully for 20, 30 or 40 minutes. Sooner or later, the mind tends to drift off. It’s a rare compliment if someone says, “He’s a good listener.” Many of us listen only as long as we need to work out what we’re going to say next when our turn comes to talk. Mary was a truly good listener.
Did Mary know about Martha’s frustration? Perhaps. Certainly she knew her sister well and couldn’t have been totally surprised when she burst from the kitchen into the living room. But her desire to be with Christ far outweighed any desire she felt to help her sister. On this sacred day, she would choose to listen to every word Jesus spoke.
Raises 2 interesting questions. Who is serving the Lord—Martha or Mary? The answer is, both are serving the Lord. Martha is serving him by preparing the meal, and Mary is serving him by listening quietly at his feet. But who is in the better place at this moment? Mary is. She is able to hear what her Master says and is ready to respond at a moment’s notice. Martha is so distracted that she can’t hear anything Jesus is saying.
How simple it is to sit at Jesus’ feet. Even a child can do it. A mother can do it. A father can do it. A single adult can do it. A widow can do it. A teenager can do it. Anyone with a heart for Christ can sit at his feet. If you cannot sing or preach or speak or teach, you can still sit at Jesus’ feet. If you don’t have money or an abundance of outward talents, you can still sit quietly at his feet. Anyone who wants to can do this anytime, anywhere.
3. Jesus’ Admonition v. 41 - 42
How tenderly Jesus speaks to his frustrated servant: “Martha, Martha.” He knows her name and he repeats it twice to assure her of his love. He knows how she feels and he understands her frustration. Even in his words of reproof, there is warmth and compassion in his voice.
Martha was distracted with many preparations that had to be made. One moment she’s worried about the roast, the next the rolls, the next the dessert, and the next she’s wondering why Mary doesn’t come and help her. Jesus told her she was worried and upset. The word “worried” has the idea of a mind in pieces. And the word “upset” means to cause trouble. She is going to speak her mind and spread the misery around! Her massive preparations were part of her service to the Lord. Yet those very preparations had become a snare to her soul.
Note the contrast between “many things” and “one thing.” Here is the heart of the problem. Martha was so pulled in every direction that she forgot the reason for it all: Jesus had come to her home that day! The “many things” had overwhelmed the “one thing” that really mattered.
Many good things that occupy us can squeeze out the “one thing” that ought to be at the centre of life. Jesus is saying something like this: “Martha, you are so busy serving me that you have no time for me to serve you. I appreciate your love and I recognise that your motives are good, but your heart is divided and distracted. Your zeal to serve me has pushed me to the edge of your heart. Martha, I want to be at the centre of everything for you. That is far more important that preparing a fancy meal in my honour.”
How did it happen that Mary was in the “better” place? Answer: She chose it. Given the same opportunity that Martha had, she chose to go to the living room and sit at Jesus’ feet. It did not happen by chance; it never does. You will never end up at Jesus’ feet by accident. You must choose to go there or it will never happen. Mary did not know when or if Jesus would return to her home. She wanted to spend time with him while he was there. She knew there would always be other meals to prepare, but she might never have another chance to be with Jesus. That’s why she was willing to leave some things undone if necessary in order to be with Jesus. She chose the important over the urgent, the better over the good. And that is why the Lord commended her. This passage is not about cooking versus praying or the active life versus a life of contemplation. It’s about the divided life vs. the focused life, a life of frantic activity versus a life centred on knowing Christ.
Knowing Before Serving
There will always be plenty of work to do. The work set before us will never totally be done. We will work all our days and when we die, the work will continue after we are gone. We are right to work and work hard doing what God has given us to do. But work is not an end in itself—not even work for the Lord. Good work, righteous work, even holy work, even preparing a meal for Jesus, can become a distraction if we are not centred upon the Lord. Knowing Christ must come before serving Christ or else our service will be barren and our hearts will be frustrated.
Must we then choose between Martha and Mary? The answer is no. Both have their strengths. Both have their weaknesses. If you were on a sinking ship with Mary, she’d say, “I’ll pray.” Martha would say, “I’ll find the lifeboats.” Both are necessary.
I love the final phrase of the text where Jesus declares that what Mary has gained “will not be taken from her.” What she gained, she would have forever. Meals come and go. Sometimes mothers complain along these lines: “I work for hours to prepare a nice meal and then it’s gone in 10 minutes.” But time with Jesus is yours forever. I’m sure Mary never forgot that wonderful day when she sat at Jesus’ feet drinking in every word.
In the end this story is about the danger of distraction while doing good things. The one thing we need most is to sit at Jesus’ feet. It will not happen by accident.
But what about the meal? Someone has to go to the kitchen. We can’t all be dreamy-eyed mystics like Mary. True, but Martha could have set aside the meal or she could have prepared something very simple. Or she could have rejoiced that her sister had such a wonderful opportunity and that she had the privilege of preparing a meal for the Son of God. Think of it this way. Martha wanted Mary to be like her. Jesus didn’t agree, but he also didn’t tell Martha to be like Mary. He simply commended Mary for choosing the “better part” that day. Martha would always be Martha—she couldn’t and shouldn’t be anything else. But her attitude under pressure was wrong and that is what Jesus confronted.
One thing is needful: To sit at Jesus’ feet. How happy we will be if we find a way and the time to do it. We must not let the good crowd out the best. It is easy to lose our perspective when we are serving the Lord. No amount of service for Christ can substitute for the value of spending time at his feet. It is right to serve the Lord but first we must listen to him. The world says, “Don’t just sit there, do something.” Jesus says, “If you are worried and distracted, don’t just do something, take time to sit at my feet.”