Luke 10:38–42 (NIV)
As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”
“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
Take a deep breath; especially all you Martha types out there. This text has traditionally been deployed to scold you and tell you to be more like Mary. I reject this characterization.1 You can see the note for further reflection below for more on that. This text is not about contemplative-type people versus activist-type people. I have come to believe this is a false dichotomy we create to insulate ourselves from transformative change.2 So what is this text about? Thanks for asking. It’s about two things: attention and distraction. It is about absorption in self vs. attunement to others; self protection vs. self giving. It’s why this is such a critical matter when it comes to fruit bearing.
The fruit of the Spirit is love—agape is the term, which is divine love. All we have said here and ever will discuss is about this one thing—learning to abandon ourselves in love to the One who has already abandoned himself to us in love. This is to become the love of God in the world. This is the one necessary thing. From this gifted place the kingdom of Jesus opens up and all things become possible.
The problem with Martha here is not that she was serving. It is that she was distracted. She had lost awareness of the sacred guest and gotten caught up in the performance of her responsibilities, crossing her t’s, dotting her i’s and otherwise covering her you-know-what. Her sister had gotten caught up in the guest. Martha resented her for this dereliction of responsibility. Martha’s service had become more about Martha than Jesus, otherwise she would have been delighted her sister was attending to him.
Years ago when I was in seminary I was preparing to preach my first sermon to my home church back in Dumas, Arkansas. My anxiety ran high as I wanted to say something meaningful and powerful and thereby impress these people who meant so much to me. My mentor, Maxie Dunnam, pulled me aside in the midst of my rising angst and said something to me I will forever remember. “John David, these people don’t need a performance from you. What they need is an act of love.”3
There is a way of serving that comes from a deeply attentive and attuned heart and mind to Jesus. There is also a way of sitting at the feet of Jesus as a pious performer in a religious show. This issue is not serving Jesus vs. sitting at his feet. The crux of the matter is attention and distraction.
We see this come full circle near the end of the Gospel of John at another dinner party in Martha’s home. Watch this.
Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. (John 12:2)
Martha served. Something tells us she was not distracted this time but wholeheartedly attuned to this guest of highest honor. She had learned this way of holy attention and though she was doing the same kinds of things, everything had changed. Her service, far from anxious distraction, had been transformed into an act of love. This is the fruit of the Spirit. But where was Mary?
Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. (John 12:3)
Mary was trending toward the awakening of abandonment. And the most amazing thing, by now the fragrance of that perfume has filled the whole world. It always does.
Wake up, sleeper! This way you are traveling is a life of totalizing simplicity, of a comprehensive kind of joyful surrenderedness, of being transformed by Jesus into a person of pure love. And there is nothing greater than this.
Farmer Father God, thank you for Jesus, this persistent guest of honor who winds up serving everyone at the party just by being himself. This is who we want to be like—someone so at home with our self that we forget our self because we have become so aware, attentive, and attuned to others. We confess our distractedness and yet we will not self shame for it. We simply invite you to come into our innermost self and sort us out. By your Spirit, sift out our distractedness by becoming our attention. Praying in the name of Jesus, amen.
What is it about you that causes you to be distracted? Where does that come from? Are you ready to move beyond diagnosing it and turning it over to Jesus in new ways?
For the Awakening,
NOTES FOR FURTHER REFLECTION
1. Perhaps the deepest revelation of this text has to do with the revolutionary way Jesus welcomed women to take a seat at the table and to join in the conversation at the feet of the Rabbi. In those days, women had their place and it was not there. Martha had perhaps taken the more traditional role (then and now) and her resentment of Mary was beyond just not having her help. In this vein I invite you to avail yourself of our recent release by Carolyn Moore: When Women Lead. There is something in all of us that doesn’t want to claim the places Jesus offers us around his table. We are more comfortable from a distance. Perhaps we don’t want the responsibility that comes with real friendship. We are more at ease with being a helpful acquaintance, benefiting from our association yet not buying into the real deal.
2. These days the Enneagram is all the rage. Before it was the Meyers-Briggs. Before that I’m sure it was something else. And there will be the next thing after coming soon. And I suppose all of this is fine, until its not. These personality tests can be super helpful in both understanding ourselves and others; however there comes a point at which they become lazy ways of summing each other up, layering on assumptions, and robbing ourselves and others of our Jesus-given potential to become more than our number or our type. The genius of Jesus, as the image of God, is he embodies and expresses the full spectrum of human personality. I believe in this way he enables us to be most fully at home with our personality and yet doesn’t reduce us to a certain type. He empowers us to become more than we are by virtue of his presence in us. And this enlarges our capacity to love those who are different than we are.
3. That was one of the early “Maxie Mic Drops” in my relationship with him. One of the signal privileges of my life was to serve him and his wife, Jerry, as their first grounds keeper at Rose Hill, the president’s residence at Asbury Theological Seminary. I mowed the acres of grass, picked up the mountains of leaves, weeded the endless flower beds, trimmed the never ending hedges, and a thousand other chores all in the interest of getting to know this cherished couple. I had no idea years later I would come to serve on his cabinet as vice president for Community Formation and dean of Chapel at the seminary which would later give rise to this work we are doing today with Seedbed. I am who I am and where I am because of the way Jesus in him invested in Jesus in me for almost thirty years now. The other signal privilege was to be part of publishing his memoir, God Outwitted Me: The Stories of My Life. Get a copy and read it. He is one of the great Christian leaders of our time.