I’ve always been intrigued by the scene in Luke’s Gospel where Mary sat at the feet of Jesus, while Martha busied herself serving him. Martha showed Jesus hospitality, and welcomed him into her home. She focused on serving the Lord, even to the point of frustration because her sister wasn’t busying herself as Martha had been. But the story reveals to us that there’s a busyness for Jesus that Jesus himself objects to. The text tells us that,
Mary… sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone. Tell her then to help me.’ But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.’ (Lk. 10:39-42)
Can you believe that? There’s Martha – the doer – tending to the Lord, wanting to make this a special visit for him. This was, no doubt, a big moment for her; and everything needed to be perfect! And yet, Luke tells us that her service for Jesus was actually a distraction from Jesus. One popular Greek lexicon defines this word, distraction: to be pulled or dragged away or to have one’s attention directed from one thing to another, to be distracted, quite busy, overburdened(BDAG). Burdened with the heavy lifting, Martha begins to wonder whether or not Jesus is at all concerned with her sister’s lack of assistance. After all, she’s just sitting there! Jesus’ gentle response to Martha comes as somewhat of a shock. He recognized that Martha had a lot on her plate. He was intimately aware of her anxieties, but he knew that her focus was misdirected. What the troubled Martha needed wasn’t to keep busying herself for Jesus, but to sit and spend time receiving from Jesus.
Can you identify with Martha? Americans take pride in being “busy,” and recent research shows that many view busyness as a sign of importance. It isn’t very different in the church today, where Christians are often encouraged to think about “What they could be doing for Jesus.” Our emphasis in recent days on not being consumer Christians has led to a pendulum swing, where now the real focus is on being a super-servant. Everyone has to be in a small group, and have a ministry, and volunteer for big church events. I think small groups are great, and service is wonderful, but if you’re not careful, you can begin to experience what Martha felt. The feelings of being burdened, troubled, anxious, and frustrated when you look around. “Why isn’t he volunteering? Does Jesus care about everything I’m doing for him? Is he going to deal with my sister over there who hasn’t signed up for the nursery yet!?” Like in this story, Jesus is aware of our busy service, and he calls us to stop for a minute, and listen. For some of us, that’s far more difficult than filling our schedules with things to do.
I wonder if sometimes we don’t use busyness as an escape. When we’re pulled around serving Jesus, we have a pious justification for why we don’t have to spend time listening to Jesus. Doing is much easier than hearing, especially when what we hear is the voice of the one who knows all of the things we’re anxious about. His word confronts our insecurities and fears. It shines a light on the sin we often try to atone for with our busy service. Listening is uncomfortable, but Jesus says the most important thing you can do, Martha, is sit and listen to my voice. I don’t think this means we need to choose between serving Jesus, and hearing Jesus; rather, it highlights that the only right way to serve Jesus is after having sat at his feet and heard him.
Has your busy schedule, filled as it may be with acts of service for Jesus, distracted you from stopping to listen to his voice? I’m afraid that in our zeal to “mobilize the troops”, we pastors have often given the impression that the most important thing about your involvement in the church is your service. I’ve heard it said before that the first thing we should think when going to a church isn’t, “What am I going to get out of this?” But, “What can I do to serve?” Jesus challenges this order though, doesn’t he? You should go to church, and open the Scriptures throughout the week, expecting to receive. Hearing the word of Christ is the necessary thing which Jesus encouraged Martha to stop and do.
If you’re burdened, frustrated, anxious, and troubled, perhaps it’s because you’ve been dragged away in your busyness, and Christ’s voice has become faint. To you, I believe Jesus gently comes saying, “Martha, Martha…” He knows you’re tired and can give you rest. He sees all of your sins and wants to cleanse you. Only once you stop being too busy for Jesus can you experience the service he offers you. He washes his guests in his work, bathing them with his word. He sets the table and provides the meaty feast: his own life, given for you. This means that you don’t primarily go to church to do but to receive. To experience Jesus’ divine service, the good portion, which will not be taken away from you.