Too busy to pray? Too preoccupied with all YOU have to do that you miss what other people need?
Then you might want to get to know St. Martha of Bethany. You know, Martha and Mary, the sisters of Lazarus. You do remember that story, don’t you? If not, you can read about it in Luke 10:38-42.
Basically, Jesus was coming to dinner. Jesus, the miracle worker. The teacher of profound practicality for the poor regarding the Kingdom of God. Jesus was something of a celebrity. And he was coming to dinner. Of course, this wasn’t the only time that Jesus would visit the house of Lazarus. Jesus was a miracle worker, yes, but he was also a friend of that family.
Still, he was coming for dinner, and there was so much to be done!
You have to remember that cooking dinner 2000 years ago in Palestine was not as easy as it is for me and you today. There were no microwaves. There were no stoves. No electric ovens. No running water. No canned or boxed foods. Everything was from scratch, and everything was by hand.
In those days, Martha would start preparing for dinner shortly after waking up in the morning. It was an all day affair. Grinding wheat by hand at the community mill. Trips to the village well to fill buckets of water for cooking. Picking veggies in the small home garden. Starting a fire to bake the bread and boil the water. That’s right. Fire. If this was in the summer, then it was already over 90 degrees outside. And you had to cook over a fire. Goodness. This time of the year I sweat like crazy grilling steaks or burgers. Or chicken (some of which I accidentally burned last night).
Cooking dinner in the time of the bible was a big production on a regular day. But this day was special. The guest was Jesus.
And then there was the cleaning. The house had to be cleaned. That was a chore in itself.
As a woman, Mary would certainly be expected to help with all these tasks. And maybe she did for a while. But once Jesus arrived, Mary sat at Jesus’ feet, enthralled with his words of joy and peace. She obviously forgot all about the work that needed to be done.
Meanwhile, Martha was hard at work. The frustration finally got to her and she told Jesus, “Jesus, you know how much needs to be done to get things ready for dinner. And Mary is just sitting there. Please tell her to help me!”
I’m sure you remember Jesus’ famous response: “Martha, Martha, you are busy about many things. But only one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.”
Now, let me ask you. How do you read that response? What would your reaction have been?
On the surface I think I would have balked. My feelings would have been hurt. I would have sulked for the rest of the day. And probably the next day too. But looking under the surface, I think there is another way of understanding what was going on.
We can see later in the gospels that Martha really does love Jesus. She believes absolutely that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah. We see this clearly at the tomb of Lazarus (see John 11:17-53). So, how might Martha taken Jesus’ “reprimand?”
First of all, Jesus spoke those words in love. I think Martha knew that. Let me paraphrase what I think Jesus’ words meant:
“Martha, you are doing a great job. You have been so busy getting things ready for dinner. You’ve been working all day! I appreciate that. I can’t wait until dinner. You are a great cook and you keep a clean and peaceful house. But you have lost the peace in your heart. You have been worried about Mary sitting here listening to me and not helping you. Are you jealous? Listening to the Word of God is the most important thing. And you and I will have plenty of time to talk later. Instead of losing your peace, thinking only of yourself, consider Mary. Maybe right now she really needs to hear my words. Maybe she needs this more than you know. Please rejoice with me that she is responding to my grace. And rejoice in the fact that you are responding to my grace too. In your own way. In the way that I ask of you. You are serving your God, and serving Him well. Mary is being fed spiritually by your God because that is what she needs the most. Be at peace, Martha. I am here. And you are doing the right thing. Trust in that and do the best that you can do. I love you.”
Thats my paraphrase. You may read it a different way. That’s okay.
What can I learn from this story?
I guess that God calls us to demonstrate our love for him in different ways at different times. And different people will demonstrate their love in different ways. I need to focus on myself, on my relationship with God. What is he calling me to right now? Do I need to be fed by him? Is he speaking to me in the quiet of my heart? Or is he calling me to serve him and others right now? Sharing with them the spiritual food he has placed in my heart?
The trick for me is to be Martha when Jesus calls me to be Martha, and to be Mary when Jesus calls me to be Mary. And to do so without wishing that I was the other one. Martha can’t be Mary. She can only be Martha. Ultimately, I think Jesus is telling Martha (and telling me by extension), “Be who you are. For it is you that I love.”
Amen to that!
Jesus, help me to be Jeff… for you!