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 ~ Mary, Martha and the New Year ~

        For many the Christmas season was typically busy and so are the New Year celebrations and gatherings. Then it's back to the start of a busy new year with work and school obligations. Martha, the sister of Mary and Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead, had some blunt words to say about being busy.

        Bethany, where they lived, was a couple of miles from Jerusalem, a great place for Jesus to rest and spend needed quiet time with some people He loved very much. Luke's account of a visit there is only five verses, but packed with a wealth of considerations. Accounts of events and parables lead to a conclusive learning or “punch line.” The journey to the conclusion is also embedded with treasures of understandings.

        Significantly, I believe, Luke gave the detail that “Martha opened her home” to Jesus (10:38). Martha did the opening, the greeting, the hosting, then “was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made” (10:40a). Who among us has not experienced this with our guests? Jesus also knocks on the doors of our hearts and we let Him in. In the spiritual realm, have we not also been distracted from His presence by all the things we believe are so important to do in His name?

        Meanwhile, Martha's sister Mary, “sat at the Lords feet listening to what he said” (v. 39). Before long (though we really don't know how much), Martha reveals a striking egocentricity in herself and boldness toward Jesus: "Lord, don't you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself?” (v. 40b). Consider the culture of the Middle East and the times then (although it's true of many places today). A woman did not talk to a man like that, particularly a renown rabbi whom many considered the Messiah. And she beckons the Lord to share her self-pity by the challenge “don't you care?” Perhaps Martha was not engaged in loving service and hospitality. Perhaps she was jealous of Mary. But removing Mary from Jesus wouldn't get her any of His wisdom or attention. Taking turns with Jesus would have provided them both with Jesus’ presence and getting things ready, but Martha didn't offer that alternative.

        If Martha first motioned or addressed Mary before literally going over her head to Jesus, Luke didn't make a note of it, so we must go on what Luke wanted us to know. Martha then rips open the cultural and religious envelope and gives the Christ an order! “Tell her to help me!” (v. 40b). Martha is commanding the power and authority of God to make a human leave His presence.

        We cannot, however, look down at Martha without calling ourselves into judgment. Sometimes we are Martha, other times Mary. We may see a Mary-person, and think or tell him or her, “You are too secluded in your studies and prayers. Too many long walks in the park or woods isn't what serving Christ is about.” Worse, we could pray, “Lord, make this Mary-person be more active in my ministry. Make your servants stop wasting so much time in your name. Make them serve you like I do.”

        Or we may see a Martha-person and decide for them that he or she needs to temper their zeal and devotion to good works with more contemplation, study and prayer. Jesus integrated Martha and Mary as did His disciples and the early Church.

        I must qualify the last observation by pointing out something about Martha that wasn't integrated. Luke wrote that Martha “was distracted by all the preparations,” not their necessity. Could Martha, can we, go about taking care of the preparations without letting them distract us from Christ's presence? Moses was distracted by the great demand to be the conflict arbitrator for over a million Israelites. His father-in-law suggested Moses appoint a team of judges to do that work and Moses happily did so. When the early Church rapidly grew, the apostles saw a serious distraction coming in the need for financial, service, and organizational management. Thus they appointed a team of administrators, of which Stephen, the first martyr, was chief, freeing themselves for prayer and preaching.

        Jesus’ response to Martha was not, “Slow down, you are too busy.” Rather, He lovingly repeated her name. Jesus knew meals took work, preparations were necessary, and, no doubt, was grateful for Martha's work and service on His behalf. And, like us, He knew no matter how much we do, there is always more to get done. Our “time saving” technology made us more busy. Our enlarged and increased roads just made the traffic heavier.

        At another time when Jesus was in Bethany, a woman honored Him by anointing His head with the finest perfumed oil, worth a year's wages. She was yelled at by many, remarking it was a waste that could have been better spent on the poor. Jesus told them to leave her alone. He was fully devoted to the poor and oppressed. Jesus also knew the work on their behalf will never end, so He uttered the now well-known words, “The poor will always be with you, and you can help them any time you want” (Mark 14:7). Of the woman, Jesus said, “She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial. I tell you in truth, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her” (Mark 14:8-9, NIV). I am now fulfilling again what Jesus said of that woman.

        Her memory has many things to teach. Executed criminals were not entitled to perfumed oil anointing. Jesus, while making an observation of the continuance of poverty, oppression and injustice on this earth, was saying He was to die as one of the victims. The woman was anointing Him with love and honor while He was still alive. The memory of this woman reminds me of the sadness of a person during his or her waning years of life, perhaps in a community home, or prison, or alone at home, seldom receiving a letter or a flower, only to have his or her coffin surrounded with bouquets and other tributes, when no longer here to be nourished by them.

        Jesus did not tell Martha her busy work was in vain. “You are worried and upset about many things” (Mark 10:41) is what Jesus wanted her to see. “Only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better and it will not be taken away from her” (v. 42). I'm reminded of how Jesus taught His disciples, surrounded by thousands of people: “Seek first the kingdom of God, and all else will be added to you.” That is the “one thing” that “is needed.” And Jesus finishes with a resounding but quiet affirmation that dwarfs Martha's complaints and demands with an absolute authority: “It will not be taken from her” or anyone of us who also choose what Mary did.

        Martha, and those of us like her, would have been interested in what the most zealous and ruthless persecutor of the first Christians would later write as one of the most zealous and devoted apostles of Christ: “Who are you to judge someone else's servant? To his own master he stands or falls. And he [the Lords servant] will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand” (Romans 14:4, NIV). A servant does not pursue his own ambitions, his own self-exalting “testimonies” in Christ's name, his own accolades of fellow Christians masked as “to God's glory.” For these, apostle Paul had harsh, hammering words. To these, Jesus will say, “Get away from me. I never knew you.” The servant obeys and fully surrenders to the Master. Of these, their critics will hear Jesus’ words about that woman whose story is still being told in her memory, “Leave her alone. She did what she could.”

         As we enter a new year, some of us will continue to be very busy always preparing for something while some will seem more “idle,” always studying or praying for something. These ways have God's blessings. What He does not bless, are the worries, distress or distractions these ways may evoke.

        We are to “seek first the kingdom of God,” to “enter by the narrow gate,” to open that door whenever Jesus knocks, and then “choose the better thing” of resting at Jesus’ feet when He enters. New Year resolutions? Jesus said, “Mary chose the only thing needed.” And breaking resolutions? Jesus also said, with absolute authority, the Word of God Himself, “This will not be taken from her.”

John S. Hilkevich, Ph.D.
Spiritual Resource Services

Weekly Reflections © December 28, 2002

Responses are welcome at: Reflections@prayergear.com

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