This July I had the honor of speaking at women’s Bible study for a summer series on women from the scriptures. After I had spoken, my dear friend approached me and lamented, “While you were teaching, I felt very convicted about something. I am always trying to put on Martha, but I’ve gotta tell you, I’m not even very good at it!” I nodded knowingly. Me too, my friend, me too.
During the newborn stage with my baby girl, I had a routine of nursing, diapering, and putting her down for naps. I would sit down at the kitchen table to write out a schedule for the week. My list included nap times, eating times, and outings, as well as a thoroughly mapped out bedtime routine. Anyone other than mommy would be hard pressed to follow such a strict order of things. Yet somehow I thought that living by the schedule would keep me sane and prove that I was a good mom.
I believed it was up to me to be worthy of the calling of motherhood. Had I forgotten how mercifully God had met me in my waiting? Of course not, in fact, what I had forgotten was that my worth could never be defined by my abilities. I was not defined by the pain of my past nor my pursuit of perfection.
In this post I will share the tale of two sisters who are often defined by their relationship to Jesus–one taking the posture of performance, the other a posture of praise. In learning from them, I have found my “one thing.” It’s why I am choosing worship over worry.
(The following is a transcript of the message I spoke on July 19, 2017 for The Women Part Two: A Look at the Lives of Five Women in Scripture.)
What is My One Thing?
When my spiritual mentor, Linda Osborne, invited me to coffee to chat about this Bible study series, I was delighted. She asked me if I would be a speaker for one of the sessions, and there was no question in my mind. She told me to go home and pray about it, think about which woman from our chapters I’d like to teach on. There was like a holy hush in my spirit that whispered, “You already know.”
I knew the Lord was prompting me to speak at this event, and even more specifically, I already knew I was to teach on Mary and Martha. On the surface, the reason for this was obvious. After all, I have often joked about Martha being my evil twin; she is the Dr. Jekell to my Mr. Hyde. I know, harsh, right? All joking aside, I have always connected with the Mary and Martha story, because in the flesh, I am just like Martha—the achiever, the perfectionist, the worrier. Yet I have always prayed for a heart like Mary—the quiet, the faithful, the worshiper.
As I went into this study, it became even more clear to me why I was to give this message. You see, mine is a restoration story–a death to life kind of story, a sort of Lazarus awakening. God wasn’t going to let me just get by telling you the Mary and Martha that you already know. There was always something more–one essential thing–and as you will see, Mary got it. She got it, and I wanted to get it too. I pray that we will see it and leave this space knowing our “one thing”, and begin living it out today!
A Tale of Two Sisters
In Joanna Weaver’s book, Having a Mary Heart in a Martha World, she writes,
“Perhaps no passage of scripture better describes the conflict we feel as women than the one we find in the gospel of Luke. Just mention the names Mary and Martha around a group of Christian women and you’ll get knowing looks and nervous giggles…It’s the tale of two sisters. It’s the tale of you and me.”
The Bible doesn’t tell us a lot about Mary and Martha. They are mentioned by name in three places in the scripture: Luke 10 and John 11 & 12. But from these brief accounts we get a picture of what life was like for these two sisters in Bethany. We get a snap shot of their personalities, their faith, and we also come face-to-face with our true selves in the light of Jesus’ love. Reading the story of these two women feels like turning a mirror on myself…
In five short verses of Luke 10:36-42, we are introduced to two sisters in which we see two characteristics that can define us as women. A few weeks ago Kris talked about how we sometimes define our worth by our circumstances. In this tale of two sisters we see women who were defined by two things:
This is a tale for any of us who have ever felt torn by what we think we must do Vs. what our soul truly desires. For any woman who has felt the internal tug of war between today’s most pressing needs—what Charles Hummel calls “the tyranny of the urgent”—in conflict with the longing of our heart, we will find hope as we rest at the feet of Jesus.
Weaver says the struggle is this: “We want to worship like Mary, but the Martha inside keeps bossing us around.” My friends, the struggle is real. Do you ever feel weary and torn in two? Our hope is found in returning to our source, who is Jesus.
We read in the short passage of Luke 10:38-42, Jesus and his disciples had just come from a long day of ministry and had been traveling on the road, when they came to the village of Bethany, where our gal Martha opened her home to them. Martha put on her service apron and went about busily preparing for their honored guest—she would prepare a meal fit for King—and that he was.
Here she thought she was the one to serve, she finally had her chance to use her skills to serve the Lord, to show off her gifts and dutifully fulfill the law of hospitality. It was up to her to get the work done and make sure everything was perfect for Jesus. But poor Martha was so caught up in her mind about all she needed to do, that when she saw that her sister Mary wasn’t helping, she complained, “Lord, don’t you see how my sister has abandoned me to the kitchen? Tell her to come help me!”
“Martha, dear Martha…You are worried and upset over much…Only one thing is needed.”
Hearing Jesus’s gentle reply, I had to stop and ask myself, “What was the one thing?” It should seem obvious, right? Jesus points out that Mary had chosen the “better part”. I hovered awhile over these simple words: the “one thing” and “better part”, and I realized that Mary “got it”. She knew her one thing. I wanted to know what “it” was—although I probably knew it in my heart, and you probably do too.
Notice how Jesus never said, “Martha, why are you working so hard,” or “Martha, you are such a perfectionist,” or “Why can’t you be more like your sister?” Each member in the body of Christ has unique gifts that make each of us important. Where would we be without the helpers, the organizers, those with the gift of hospitality to open their home and make other’s feel welcome?
Here in this story, the Lord demonstrates how he does not look at outward appearances. He is looking at Martha’s heart. He sees how worried and distracted she has become in her service. I relate a great deal to Martha and often struggle with anxiety related to my circumstances. Usually I can point it back to expectations—whether those I’ve placed on myself or what I perceive from others. Maybe Martha feared the expectations of others…but more than likely I believe she was a slave to her own expectations of herself as she projected them onto her sister. “I’m doing all the work here and nobody’s helping me! Look. Mary’s over there lounging around while I do everything!” Sound familiar?
Jesus sees right through her complaint and gets straight to her heart. She is distracted. This temptation is as timeless as the first woman. Distraction is a tactic the enemy uses to take our eyes off our Source and onto our circumstances. It is the dividing point separating us from worship as we slip into worry. Even while the situation may be temporary (i.e. how to feed all the guests and make sure they have beds to sleep in ), what distracts us may lead to a deeper, more troubling conclusion… We doubt that we are loved and we doubt God’s goodness. We allow our circumstances to define us instead of allowing God to define who we are.
Martha’s complaint reveals that she has already spiraled down the rabbit trail of discouragement and doubt, “Lord, don’t you care?” “Don’t you care that my sister has abandoned me to the kitchen and left me with all the work?”
Jesus’s compassion toward Martha is as if to say, “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10).
In her book A Million Little Ways, Emily P. Freeman explains that in the New American Standard Bible, the verb phrase for “be still” is translated, “Cease striving and know that I am God.” She writes this:
The words we read as cease is sometimes read ‘be still, let go, return.’ But the first way, the original way, is a verb that means sink. Sink and know that I am God….My flesh tells me I don’t want to sink. I don’t even like getting my hair wet. Fear and logic tell me I need to stay in the boat to make things happen, not step out into the water and risk drowning. But my spirit knows there is something sacred in this sinking…Without looking up to God, sinking leads to drowning. But when my eyes are locked on his, sinking tells a different story. Drop the hands and let the knees weak. Loosen the grip and let the arms open wide…
Listen again to Jesus’s words to Martha, this time from the Message translation: The Master said, “Martha, dear Martha, you’re fussing far too much and getting yourself worked up over nothing. One thing only is essential, and Mary has chosen it—it’s the main course, and won’t be taken from her.”
We see how Mary understood what was essential. She had abandoned herself to worship as she sat at Jesus’ feet, drawn to the magnetism of his words, captivated by his presence. It isn’t every day that God comes over for dinner—and here he was, sitting right in her sister’s living room. Mary knew him–her one thing–and she made herself open and ready to receive from him.
I was reading from Oswald Chambers who said, “The essential thing is my personal relationship with Jesus Christ—‘that I may know him…’ (Phil. 3:10) God’s perfect design for me requires my total surrender—complete abandon of myself to Him.”
Do you remember Jesus’s call to all who are weak and weary? It is found in Matthew 11:28-30 (The Message):
“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”
The kind of rest Jesus offers requires trust, letting go, a kind of sinking deep. This kind of rest requires belief that comes from knowing that he is God. Jesus didn’t come to be served but to serve. He simply wants to be with us. He longs for relationship as much as our weary hearts are longing to receive what only God can give: he is pursuing us with his love, offering new mercies, and restoring grace.