As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”
“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
I know people serving as missionaries on distant islands. I have acquaintances teaching in inner city schools. My friends volunteer at an at-risk youth center in the city. I know people opening halfway houses, teaching in prisons, fostering children, and on and on and on.
And here I am: Trying to raise my kids. Trying to donate used items to the pregnancy center when I get a chance. Trying to be friendly to the new family at church. Trying to be a good wife. Trying to be a good friend. Trying to take a meal to my friend who’s sick. Trying to force myself outside of my comfort zone. Trying to take on challenges and more activities (although it stresses me out to no end and we all end up getting sick and having to cancel anyway).
And yet always feeling like I don’t do enough.
The story of Martha and Mary finds its way into sermons and devotionals (particularly for women) on a regular basis. Busy Martha—cooking and cleaning, too worried and frazzled to take the time to sit and listen to the Master. Mary, choosing the better thing and listening at the feet of Jesus. There are certainly all kinds of lessons to draw from this (and they have been drawn over the centuries of Christianity), but here is the lesson I saw this time.
Martha wasn’t just busy. She wasn’t running around like a chicken with her head cut off just for the fun of it. She was serving the Lord! She had chosen a wonderful service in opening her home to him. She was making dinner for Jesus; she was cleaning for him! And yet that still wasn’t what was needful.
Needful. Required, indispensable, imperative.
Think on that. What was needful? Mary chose to focus on the One. While in the company of the Lord, Martha chose to divide her attention multiple ways instead of coming into his presence and sitting under his teaching.
So often, it’s easy for me to get caught up, not just in the daily tasks I feel pressing on me, but in all the ways to serve and the things to do for God.
Now, I’m not diminishing the importance of action. I shouldn’t let fear or laziness keep me from doing when there is so much work to be done. But if my attempts to serve God distract and pull me away from the presence of Jesus, I’ve missed the point. My work for God is empty when the action doesn’t spring from my relationship with Him—from my love, my focus, and devotion to Him. Mother Teresa spoke of this, saying, “There is always the danger that we may just do the work for the sake of the work. This is where the respect and the love and the devotion come in—that we do it to God, to Christ, and that’s why we try to do it as beautifully as possible.”*
As good and important as it is to serve God, striving to serve him is not the primary, or “needful,’ thing. We are called to relationship, to discipleship with him. We are called to listen.
How did Martha miss that? Surely she loved Christ, too. She was the one who opened her home to him. Bishop Robert Barron explains here,
What’s being criticized is Martha’s mind and soul are split and divided, where Mary’s soul is focused on the One… The danger for all of us is Martha’s danger—that we will become anxious and upset about the many things, preoccupied with all the things we have to do, preoccupied with all of the various duties that we have…without attending to the one great thing that stands behind all of them, the one great thing for which all of those things exist. What has Mary chosen? Not the contemplative life, so to speak… The one thing necessary… She becomes riveted on him… She has found the one great thing that will make sense of the whole of her life. Listen—it will enable her to understand the relationship among all her many concerns, that will allow her to do all those things with a sense of peace and purpose.
There are many things to do and they must be done. Prioritizing time in God’s presence doesn’t mean leaving all the chores for others or disparaging the need for action. I may be wrong, but I would imagine that Mary ended up washing plenty of dishes that evening.
I hope that Martha sat down with her sister and listened for a while, though. I hope they came into his presence and caught his vision of his Kingdom. I hope they went about making beds, sweeping floors, and baking bread with a renewed sense of purpose and identity, of goodness and righteousness, and of God incarnate at the center of it all.
What are some ways you have found to listen to God in the midst of your work? How do you keep Christ at the center, while still serving?
*I found this quote attributed to Mother Teresa in multiple places, but cannot actually verify that it came from her.