Two Sisters … many distractions … one good portion.
Luke’s account of Jesus’ quick dialogue with His friend and follower Martha (with Martha’s sister Mary sitting silently at His feet) is among the most-preached gospel accounts. On the surface its meaning appears simple. But after a week of study and reflection, I (speaking for one Bible reader) am still growing into its application.
Two sisters (:38-39). You know the story in Luke 10.38-42. Jesus is visiting Martha and Mary. Martha just has to be the older sister. She’s entertaining, hosting, and appears to run the house. Looking at the other two accounts that include Martha and Mary (in John 11 and 12), we see a scrappy, assertive and even forward Martha. She’s a black-and-white thinker with good theology. After all, she’s the one who points out “I know he [Lazarus] will rise again at the resurrection.”
Her sister Mary is different. In the three gospel accounts where Mary appears she comes off as retiring, contemplative, and always close to tears. When, in John 11, she, like Martha, says to Jesus, … if you’d been here my brother wouldn’t have died, Jesus doesn’t respond with a theology lesson; He says “Where have you laid him?” Jesus responds to Mary with Himself. And, in John 12, it’s this Mary who anoints Jesus’ feet to prepare Him for burial.
While the rest of the disciples struggle with Jesus’ message of Cross first, then glory, Mary gets it.
Many distractions (:40). The crisis comes in this passage when Martha is preparing a meal for Jesus, and Mary chooses to sit at Jesus’ feet. But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone?”
Martha’s problem here isn’t her serving; it’s her heart. She clearly wants to serve Jesus in a manner appropriate to His person, but she expresses her distracted heart by lashing out at Mary for leaving her “alone”, and even at Jesus for not pointing out to Mary what she, Martha, believes to be obvious. Martha is running over people in her frantic effort to do the right thing.
The Good Portion (:41-42). Jesus says to Martha: Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. In other words, you’ve got a lot on your plate, Martha. There’s lots of good things to do, but you’re missing the one thing that will bring it all together.
And what would that be? Jesus continues: Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.
It’s helpful to note here that this account takes place in a kitchen. The word “portion” is often used of food. Martha is in the kitchen consumed with producing food that will be gone in a few moments. Mary has connected with something deeper.
What is it that Jesus said when tempted by the Devil in Luke 4.4? It is written, “Man shall not live by bread alone.” Left unsaid to the Devil in that earlier passage is the full citation from Deuteronomy 8: … man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.
Martha did the right thing, but Mary did the thing right. Mary understood that Jesus’ teaching (found for us in God’s Word) is the Good Portion that will nourish His followers always.
Now, a shallow reading of this passage might lead us to the wrong response. We might think that the proper response to Jesus is the six-hour quiet time. “Let somebody else do the work,” we might say. “I’ll just reflect on Jesus.”
We know better, don’t we?
Martha’s problem isn’t that she’s working too hard serving; it’s that her service to Jesus has become one means among many to an end she can’t even find. In doing many things, she’s missed the one thing. She’s missed Jesus’ teaching. The “good portion”. And in missing Jesus’ instruction, she’s missed Jesus! And in being distracted she’s worn herself out.
In wrestling with what my response to this passage needs to look like—busy husband, father and pastor that I am—I’ve come up with four practical questions to ask myself. May I share them with you?
- Am I really desiring Jesus as the Good Portion? If I desire Jesus among other things, I’ll become distracted. Then I’ll probably blame other people for what I think they’re supposed to be doing. I might even blame Jesus for what I think He should being doing through other people. And it all started with a heart problem on my part. Nothing good happens when we fail to regard Jesus with focused devotion.
- Am I preoccupied with other people in my service? Where do my thoughts range? Am I consumed with Jesus’ word, and with His estimation of my life. Or am I so managing things that I can’t forget about what I think others should be doing? This question is a flash-point question. It ought to sound like buzzers and sirens in my head when I get this wrong.
- Am I serving so that others can enjoy the Good Portion? One sure-fire way to know we’re serving Jesus is when we don’t get any immediate benefit for ourselves. So, watching kids so that our Woodland women can sit at Jesus’ feet in study is a great way to serve, for example.
- And, finally, Am I content in Jesus at the end of the day so that I trust Him with what I couldn’t do? This is a hard one, a discipline even. But confessing my inner Martha has much to do with ceding control to God for my limitations, which become, if I do this properly, matters that will wait.
This is the kind of passage that we’re not done studying until we’re done living. Why don’t you meditate this week on these five short verses in Luke. Make up some practical questions of your own, why don’t you? Sit at Jesus’ feet, in your times of reflection, and in your times of joyful serve to Jesus. Don’t be distracted. Don’t be frantic. Choose the one thing. Choose the Good Portion, and be joyful in Jesus.
And have a blessed weekend, in the Lord!