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Luke 10:38-42 and John 11:17-44

Martha is a wonderful woman who loved Jesus very much, even if she found Him rather irritating at times. Martha was a practical person, one who focused on the realities and practicalities of life. She lived in Bethany with her sister, Mary, and brother, Lazarus. Jesus visited often and she loved to open her house to Him and His friends.

The apostle, Luke, records the first occasion when Martha met Jesus. He had turned up in her village with the twelve disciples and Martha saw their need of refreshment - food and water for washing - so offered her home as a refuge. She threw herself into the work with great enthusiasm, rushing here and there. She was just as excited as her sister to have Jesus in their home, but she felt that she could not sit and listen to what He had to say because there was a lot of work to be done. (Does that sound familiar, perhaps?)

Pride and priorities

In those days and in that culture, hospitality was of prime importance. From Luke's short description of the visit, Martha was clearly "pulling out all the stops" to see that their guests were treated well. By then, Jesus' reputation had probably gone ahead of Him and Martha clearly wanted to offer her guests the very best, perhaps taking some pride in being the first in her village to welcome such a famous teacher. According to John's gospel, when he recounts the story of Lazarus having been taken ill and died, he mentions that "Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus". (John 11:5) That relationship must have developed over time, with Jesus and His disciples being regular visitors to Bethany. Was Martha in danger of valuing her reputation as a practical home-maker above her spiritual relationship with Jesus?

As the evening wore on, Martha began to wilt under the pressure of all that she had set herself to do. At that time, the burden of domestic arrangements fell almost exclusively on women. Martha would have expected her sister to share that burden with her but, to her increasing irritation and resentment, Mary continued sitting at Jesus' feet, drinking in every word that He was saying. She seemed to be oblivious to Martha's predicament and her own responsibilities. Eventually, Martha's frustration boiled over. If Jesus was such a great spiritual teacher and man of God, why on earth could He not see that Martha had been abandoned by her sister, who was not supporting her in the work that had to be done? "Lord, don't you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!" (Luke 10:40)

Having started out with such great intentions of being a dedicated and hard-working servant for Jesus, she found her frame of mind being quickly overwhelmed with annoyance, bitterness, jealousy and self-pity. It didn't occur to her that perhaps her own priorities might be wrong; that perhaps she was blowing things out of all proportion and that her obligation to be hospitable with home comforts could take second place to everyone's spiritual needs.

How often have we begun to do something with great enthusiasm, either at home, work or church, only to end up being hurt and let down by others? This is a common experience but, so often, we feel it more keenly because our motivation and expectation is driven by selfish desires: attention seeking, wanting acclamation and affirmation from others, pride, competitiveness, or wanting to show off our abilities. All too often we plunge into things, believing that we are doing them "for the Lord", when we have spent little time in seeking His direction or actually praying about the task that we've taken on.

Managing our time

The problem with busyness is that we become preoccupied with our "to-do" list. We forget the reason why we are doing things and Who it is that we are really serving. In turn, that can create in us a bad attitude towards the people we are serving. We may have every intention of starting a new day with a time of worship (like Mary at Jesus’ feet) but, before we know it, we are having to prepare breakfast, deal with children or rush off to catch the bus. We put on our headphones and listen to a worship track or Christian podcast and ignore the person next to us in the queue, hoping that this will give us the peace that we need to face the day ahead.

Jesus told Martha that "few things are needed - or, indeed, only one." (Luke 10:42) It can be really helpful to pray through our list of regular, daily activities and then decide which things are truly needed. We can then plan time for those activities. We have to sleep and eat and look after our personal hygiene. We all have responsibilities: to earn money, care for children or other dependents, maintain close relationships with family and friends. All of those things need time, but our relationship with Jesus must surely be the most important part of our day. It may mean cutting out time watching the TV or reading a magazine or doing a hundred and one other things but, without that time spent "at Jesus' feet", we shall quickly find that, like Martha, we are overwhelmed with negative emotions and frustrations.

“Choose for yourselves this day who you will serve... But, as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” (Joshua 24:15)

Let's choose:

  • A living relationship of the heart. (Matthew 6:33)
  • A time every day to give undivided attention to our Father. (Joshua 3:9; Matthew 6:6)
  • To build up our prayer time (not expecting straight away to spend an hour praying). (1 Corinthians 3:10-15)
  • Not to give up within a week or two. This is a decision for life. (Hebrews 12:3-12; Philippians 3:14)
  • To cut out whatever gets in the way. Let's show God that we mean business. (Hebrews 12:10-14)
  • To keep a constant check on our motives for doing any form of work "for the Lord". (Matthew 8:21-22; Philippians 2:3)
  • To ask ourselves the question: "Can I afford this new activity (not financially but spiritually)?" (Revelation 3:15-20)

Perfectionism

It can be good to practise a technique or skill so that we improve at it. This applies to all sorts of activities (such as sports, hobbies, work or leisure) but we also need to recognise that we cannot achieve the highest standards in everything we do and that some things have to be left in God's hands. We cannot control every situation in order to have a perfect house, perfect children or a perfect life. Trying to achieve these things will only cause us to become unbalanced and not appreciate all that God has given us. Martha was consumed with the small details of life and she nearly lost the most important thing: a living relationship with Jesus Christ. "Sitting at the feet of Jesus" reminds us that eternal priorities are what really matter.

We are already "perfect" in our spirit because of the supernatural union with Christ that took place when we were born again as a child of God. This guarantees that, because we are "in Jesus", we appear before the Father as completely perfect. (Hebrews 10:10) At the same time, we know that, for the duration of our time on earth, there will always be a gap between where we are with our physical bodies now and where we shall be going once we get our heavenly bodies. We can use this time to grow and mature in soul and body, becoming more and more like Jesus all the while. But this is God’s grace at work in us (through the Holy Spirit); it is not something that we can achieve through our own self efforts. (Philippians 3:1-15; Ephesians 2:8-10)

Competition

The biggest lie that our Enemy tries to sell us - constantly - is that we can be "like God". (Genesis 3:5) It leads directly to a situation where we even think that we can compete with God: that our ideas can be as good (or even better) than His. It also introduces the concept of competition as a fundamental aspect of human life: we need to compete with each other for all sorts of things. But, as Martha discovered, finding spiritual contentment starts when we acknowledge our need of Him above all else. Putting any relationship or possession before our love for God means that we enter into the realm of idolatry. Idols don't have to be little wooden figures or (massive metal figures); they can be anything that we set up in competition with God Himself. They might include our lives, partners, children, houses, reputation, position, ministry and so on.

We need to recognise the lie and remind ourselves that God has created each and every one of us as a unique human being, made in His image. We do not need to compete with each other for His love and affection. He knows us intimately and loves us exclusively. (Psalm 139:1-24) We don't have to try and be someone that we're not, nor achieve (by our own efforts) some standard of perfection that is unattainable. Jesus has done that for us. Only one thing is needed. "Dear children, keep yourselves from idols." (1 John 5:21)

One thing is needed

It seems that Martha did learn her lesson. When Lazarus died, Jesus deliberately put off going to Bethany and only arrived there after Lazarus had already been placed in a tomb. On hearing that Jesus had arrived, Martha goes out to meet Him while Mary stays at home. "'Lord', Martha said to Jesus, 'if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that, even now, God will give you whatever you ask'" (John 11:21-22) Jesus replies simply: "Your brother will rise again" and Martha acknowledges that she believes in a resurrection "at the last day". Jesus then says: "I AM the resurrection and the life... Do you believe this?" "'Yes, Lord', she replied, 'I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world'". (John 11:23-27)

This is the same clear understanding that Peter had also reached. (Matthew 16:16) Like Peter, Martha was someone who liked to be "hands-on" and tended to be preoccupied with practical matters but, when it came to spiritual things, she learned to put her priorities in order. Like Peter, she recognised something that the disciples as a whole struggled to get hold of: that Jesus was the promised "Messiah" - the very Son of God. Martha was never going to have the "touchy-feely" personality of her sister, but she learned that only one thing is really needed: to put your faith in Jesus Christ, God's anointed one, who is the resurrection and the life. Anything else is an idol.


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