Today we review Jesus’ visit with two sisters, Mary and Martha, each of whom had a different hosting approach (Luke 10:38-42). Before we delve too deeply we must affirm an obvious point: The biblical Martha conjures a curious parallel to a contemporary American celebrity with the same first name. So well-known is this modern Martha—an author, cook, interior decorator—that it is almost reflexive for readers to fill-in the last name. The gist is that whether ancient or modern, the story of Martha stimulates a discussion about distractions and priorities.
As hostess, our ancient Martha welcomed Jesus into her home. Once inside, Jesus sat down and Mary absorbed his every word. Meanwhile, sister Martha was frantic, attending to some unspecified domestic chores. Frustrated, Martha came and asked Jesus to put her sister Mary to work. To be fair, we must admit that social norms dictated that Martha was responsible for making Jesus welcome and comfortable according to the strict customs of the day. However, Martha was too focused on protocol and not enough on the higher need of drawing close to Jesus. Martha was so concerned about tradition that she missed communing with Jesus.
Jesus responded by citing Martha’s faulty thinking. He said that Mary was doing the essential thing in listening and visiting with him. Jesus called attention to how Martha was distracted by many things, such as her running to and fro. Jesus’ response reveals that there was nothing of critical importance in Martha’s tasks, and Jesus was not willing to tell Mary to go and likewise busy herself. Martha allowed her duties and role to obscure the greater good of embracing Jesus. Martha may have missed a precious opportunity to receive blessings from Jesus.
Have you ever been distracted to the point of forgetting something more important? This situation is even more distressing when it happens in the church. I’ve spoken with many long-time church members who have done marvelous things for their congregations. To cite just one case, let me introduce “Buford,” a pseudonym for a man who had been a member for sixty-five years and who for decades was a chief volunteer. Whenever we needed something fixed, Buford was the go-to man. For many decades Buford did many tasks. He fixed pipes, arranged visits for the boiler repair man, unplugged the bathroom sink, painted the fellowship hall and performed similar duties. One day Buford came to me dejected, asking for pastoral care because, as he put it “I’m feeling discouraged and unfulfilled.” After our meeting it was clear that Buford had busied himself but he had never really met the Jesus at the center of his faith.
No one would look at Buford and say that he was doing anything wrong. After all, attending to church work and keeping the physical structure up and running seemed to be the great work he had long performed unselfishly. Yet the greatest thing was missing: connecting with God for the most satisfying life. Buford had given of himself for a worthy cause in helping the church, but in doing so he found it easy to focus on church chores while ignoring a deeper connection with God. A cautionary Bible verse emerges at this juncture, reminding us of priorities. “For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world and yet forfeit their life? (Matthew 16:26).
There are various reasons why people like Martha and Buford busy themselves, accomplishing needed and expected jobs while simultaneously downplaying spirituality. For some folks it is avoidance, as if the necessary church work (as in Buford’s case) substitutes for the real work of spiritual vitality. Buford’s testimony revealed something that plagues many people of both sexes. That is, task-driven priorities can rob us of the more important role to manage our spiritual life. Even people of good judgment are drawn to distractions because in performing outward, unquestionably good work people are affirmed and recognized. The bad part of living off from gratitude and praise is that people who exclusively absorb even the sincerest thanks are left incomplete. The temptation is that in following our worldly roles we may find it too easy to forget our spiritual health. It is easier—yet ultimately unsatisfying—to substitute any duty for a transforming relationship with God. We are privileged to uniquely manage our calling, a promise that as we draw close to God, God will draw close to us (James 4:8).
Perhaps we, like Martha of old or our contemporary Buford can be worried and denied fulfillment by a preoccupation with non-essentials. It is easy to get buried in duties and yet become derailed from a greater calling. We can become absorbed in taking care of transient crises which have no eternal significance. We can lose sight of the essential things, such as spending time with God. In short, we should never be too busy to focus on life’s deeper moments.
Take time out of your over-scheduled day and create a peaceful oasis. Welcome Jesus into your hearth and home without competing for title of world’s best host or hostess. The world won’t come to an end if you don’t take care of every little thing. Invite God over for a visit and lighten up from your load of cares. What you will gain from drawing close to God will far outweigh the daily chores. –Reverend Larry Hoxey