During a recent Vacation Bible School, my son brought home a worksheet showing a bedraggled, exhausted woman whose face was frantic with worry. She held a pot that birdseed had been glued into and was in a perpetual state of trying to hurry up and get things done. It was Martha from the Mary and Martha story of Luke 10:38-42. “Poor Martha,” I thought, “She’s just trying to make things nice for Jesus.”
On the flip side of the worksheet, was a more sinister looking Martha. One that in bold letters is accused of complaining and grumbling. In the background, looking beautiful, lovely, and pious, was Mary. Sitting at Jesus’ feet, her illustration was gorgeous and sweet. “Martha looks like a total jerk,” I thought. “And Mary is so beautiful – look how happy she is.”
At Her Worst
The worksheet had its effect. It showed the nastiness of the sin of complaining. A sin we are all guilty of, but especially those gifted with a heart to serve. At their best, those with the gift of hospitality create an environment of love, care, and welcoming that feels peaceful, safe, and warm. At their worst, the desire to serve turns into a drive to make everything “perfect” and an attitude of barking orders at others, internal fuming about how they end up doing everything, and making things more about how hard they work rather than glorifying God in their work.
Then it struck me. Forever in the history of God’s people, their only real connection with Martha is seeing her on her worst day while her sister is at her best. Those of us who are like Martha feel conviction when we read this story, and those who are like Mary get affirmation. Everyone gets a beautiful illustration of what it means to simply enjoy God’s presence.
One thing this story is not about, but is interesting to consider, is what Martha could have been like on her best day and what Mary could have been like on her worst. We have all seen the best of a “Martha”. It’s amazing to walk into a room or home of someone gifted with hospitality and experience the care, attention to detail, and love they express when they’re using their gift for others in the name of Christ.
And we have also all seen the worst of a “Mary”. Someone whose focus and attention is so consumed with learning about God, they don’t stop to consider others. They’re preoccupied with one intellectual pursuit after another, even going so far as to skip Bible reading in support of reading “books about God”. They border on sloth as they choose study over helping with simple tasks around the home, let alone investing time and space for other people’s needs.
Living together for much of their lives, these sisters knew each other’s best and worst. Martha, who loved to serve, was fed up with Mary not helping. Their most important guest ever was in their home and Mary, once again, was just sitting there! Then there’s Mary, who dreamed of the day she could sit at the Teacher’s feet and she finally got to – in her own home! Though she was likely so fixated on Christ, she didn’t notice her sister’s grumbling, she was probably tired of being told what to do and how to do it when they opened their door to others.
At Her Best
But we weren’t given a glimpse of Martha at her best or Mary at her worst. For whatever reason, God chose to illuminate what it is to set our hearts on Christ in all we do through a vivid and clear picture of someone else’s sin.
Go easy on Martha. We’re seeing her in her sin. She likely had a marvelous gift that glorified God well. Remember, Mary is at her best. She sinned like any of us and had her share of “bad days”. Rather than focus on these two sisters and compare yourself, keep your heart set on Christ in all you do – work or rest. Let your attention be on him.
Months later, though the birdseed on the handout has sloughed off, I choose to look at the harried Martha. The wicked-looking one is a better reminder of the ugliness of sin, but the bedraggled one reminds me of how I feel when I’m doing too much and focused on the wrong thing. That’s the one that causes me to pause more and bask in Jesus’ glorious presence no matter how I’m doing. In all things, Christ wants us to see him first. We’ll have plenty of bad days as we struggle with this, let us seek more of the good.