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 only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
—Luke 10:38-42, NIV
Indulge yourself in a fantasy for a moment. Imagine that everyone in the church finally realizes how valuable and essential you are.
One weekday evening, you receive a phone call from the pastor, requesting your assistance at church. Dutifully you grab your things and go, thinking all the while how unappreciated you are. You arrive at the church and find that all the windows are dark, except for the pastor’s study. You fumble with the door latch, and as you open it, the lights go on and all the people jump out, shouting “Surprise!” Someone makes a short speech about how wonderful you are and how much they all appreciate you, and then they announce that the party is for you!
Well, I did tell you this was going to be a fantasy, except it’s really more like a nightmare. For in this fantasy, the crowd is so large and the atmosphere is so festive that you quite frankly get lost in the shuffle. The youth group puts on a skit, but you can’t see it for the crowd. The choir puts on a performance to much applause and the soloist receives the adulation of all, but no one pays attention to you, even though all this is supposedly in your honor. Everywhere you look, there are knots of people engaged in conversation, but you can’t seem to work your way into any of them, and you become a wallflower at your own party. The last straw comes for you when you get in the long line for the refreshments and find, when you arrive at its end, that the cake is gone and the punchbowl is dry.
So you slip out of the party to get some air, and on an impulse, you just go home. Later, you find out that the party went on for hours after you left, and no one even noticed that you were gone. So you feel even less appreciated now than you did before they threw the party in your honor!
Well, that may not have happened to you, but now you can have sympathy for Jesus, because this is what happened to Him at Martha’s house.
Martha invited Jesus into her home, but she got so distracted with putting out a big spread for Him that she neglected her guest. Can you see it in modern terms? There she is, busily folding the napkins into swans, setting the salad forks to the left of the dinner forks, basting the roast in the oven, rolling the dough for the rolls, carefully arranging the centerpiece for the table. Her plans are too elaborate for her abilities. She doesn’t have time for Jesus, who would have been sitting all alone in the living room if Mary hadn’t been there to chat with Him. Finally, Martha bursts out of the kitchen, her face covered with flour, her apron askew, and sweat pouring down the sides of her face. In most translations, it says that Martha asked Jesus to send Mary to help her—but the word ‘help’ doesn’t really show us her desperation. What she said in Greek was, “Tell her to grab the other end of this thing with me!” Martha must have felt like she was trying to cut down a redwood tree with a two-man saw, and she wanted Mary to grab the other end.
Most of us would expect Jesus to have compassion on Martha’s problem and to tell Mary to toddle off into the kitchen to help her sister, but that isn’t what happens. Jesus takes Mary’s side! For a moment, before our piety sets in, we ask ourselves, “Where does Jesus get off telling Martha that Mary can sit in the living room and goof off? Can’t He see that she needs help in the kitchen?” But if it wasn’t for Mary, Jesus would have been all alone at a dinner thrown in His honor, just as you were all alone at the party in the nightmare fantasy you just read.
The most important thing at a dinner party is the guest! Without the guest, there is no point to the food, the background music, the tablecloth, the place settings, the good china, the fancy crystal, the fancy hors d’oeuvres, or any of the other things we may have at a dinner party. But it is still possible to entertain a guest, though perhaps not in style, if the caterers don’t show up.
The nightmare fantasy I described might be a fantasy for you, but it isn’t a fantasy for Jesus. It happens to Him every Sunday! We paint the church and wax the pews and adjust the sound system and dress the choir in fancy robes and rehearse the music and hire an organist and put on skits and do all those other things we do to make our ‘worship experience’ as grand as possible. There is nothing wrong with those things, we should continue to do those things, but we should not let them distract us, as they distracted Martha, from their purpose! We start the service with a nice invocation, promising Jesus that we have gathered to honor Him, but we fail to deliver on our promise. We become so concerned, as Martha was, with the appurtenances of worship that we forget to worship! We ignore our guest of honor as we entertain ourselves. We address Him briefly in prayers, but otherwise we either talk about Him as if He isn’t there or we ignore Him and entertain ourselves.
I wonder if sometimes Jesus gets miffed or has His feelings hurt, or if He slips out quietly before it’s over, since we do not pay attention to Him.
So I understand why Jesus didn’t sympathize with Martha’s plight—she had her priorities backwards! She planned a party so elaborate, that she had to neglect her guest to pull it off, and what purpose does that serve? Mary, on the other hand, put Jesus first.
So in church, resolve to be a Mary and not a Martha. In your worshipping, don’t forget to worship!