Our friend Laura and her family are part of the RPC of Australia. She blogs at lauracerbus.com.
Does the story of Mary and Martha bother anyone else?
Honestly, for much of my life I’ve had a hard time understanding what exactly I’m supposed to take from the story. I’m not obviously the Martha or the Mary — I’m happy to be in the classroom or the kitchen. But I’m not happy to be left alone in the kitchen when guests are over. To me, Mary’s abandonment of Martha seems selfish, justifying Martha’s indignation. In my mind, the order is simple: share the work load, and share the fellowship with guests.
That may work well for my husband and me, but it doesn’t make sense of Jesus’ rebuke.
Jesus tells Martha that only one thing is necessary, that Mary has chosen the better portion.
But what about the chores?! Eventually someone is going to have to leave the family room and roll up her sleeves in the kitchen. I’ve made enough checklists, mental and physical, before hosting guests that I’m not content to leave the story there. Something else is going on.
Luke gives us another story of two siblings. This one, a parable told by Jesus, features two sons. The elder brother is a good son. He stays home and works for his father, rendering him dutiful service. The younger one, discontent with life at home, treats his father with scorn and squanders his inheritance in a far country.
When he returns, the hearts of both sons are revealed. The younger one is ready to burst with a speech of repentance that he has been practicing. He is willing to become a servant, if only to be welcomed once more into his father’s house. The older one, however, only has words of complaint. “Look!” he protests in anger, “All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends” (Luke 15:29). He is bitter. He calls his work slavery. He cannot understand his father’s extravagant love towards his rebellious brother, because his own service to his father, his commitment through the years, has not come from love. The father recognizes this, and recognizes that even though his older son has faithfully served, he has neglected true communion with him. “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours’” (Luke 15:31).
Notice what the father does not say. He does not wonder why the son has been serving him all these years, as if he should have put his feet up and feasted every day instead. Rather, his reminder to the son communicates that the son has neglected the heart of their relationship: intimacy and participation.
For most of my adult life I’ve struggled to make time for my daily bible reading and prayer because of my desperate drive to get something done. I just have to — I say, countless times a day. I just have to — and then I’ll sit down and listen. The problem is that I’ve been treating my communion with Jesus as an extra to my day, something nice, but not the essential part of my Christian life. After all, if James is right and faith is worked out in actions, and Jesus said clearly that what we’ve done for the least of these we’ve done for him, then I have a lot of work to do.
Like Martha and the elder brother, I’ve missed what Mary understood and practiced: true obedience and service flows out of communion.
It is our communion with Jesus, through his Spirit, that sustains our very lives. It is our communion with him that feeds our love for him and for others, that makes our obedience possible and prevents it from being the loveless duty of the elder brother.
Without love, without communion with Jesus, we may not be the prodigal son, running wild in disobedience, but we will be something more dangerous: the arrogant, bitter elder brother. “All these years I’ve been slaving for you…!” These words come from a heart that has dutifully ticked the items off of his to-do list each day, all without love, without any true communion with the Father.
Without communion with the Father, we will be as distracted and anxious as Martha was. Jesus did not tell Martha that her work was unimportant, that in Jesus’ kingdom chores don’t need to be done (wouldn’t that be nice!). But she was letting her duty to serve drive her heart and her actions. It’s not hard to imagine that, if she ignored Jesus’ tender rebuke — can you hear his gentleness in his address, “Martha, Martha…”? — she could end up like the elder brother: a woman known for her dutiful hospitality to Jesus and the disciples, but with a bitter and loveless heart.
Service without communion will leave us bitter and estranged from the intimate fellowship with God that is the goal of our salvation.
This is a word for me. This is a word for all of us who throw ourselves dutifully into serving Jesus and his body.
We are not sanctified by our service. We cannot achieve more holiness by some sort of determined, teeth-gritting boot-strap-pulling obedience that adds more projects and tasks to our lives. The number of volunteer commitments, church projects and leadership roles do not directly correlate to our commitment to Jesus.
Instead, we are sanctified through a relationship. United to Christ through the Spirit, we are brought into the sweet fellowship of the Triune God. Out of that fellowship, by God’s grace, we are made holy through His Word like Mary shows. It’s then that service comes into the picture: as the fruit of our communion.
We serve, not because we are sanctifying ourselves, demonstrating our commitment to Jesus, or repaying a debt. All of these happen outside of Jesus, as if we are giving them to him. But the reality is that outside of Jesus, we have nothing to give. We cannot do anything apart from him. All of our service and obedience can only come out of our relationship to the Triune God. Our service participates in Jesus’ own, which he offered perfectly as the Son of Man.
In that reality, we can rest, giving up Martha’s worry and anxiety. We can reject the elder brother’s bitterness as we exult in the presence of God with us, and as we long more and more for the day when our communion with God will be face to face.