- Illustration by Hannah Conti
When I get to heaven, I have a lot of questions to ask, like: “How do we make sense of suffering?” and “Where did Moses and Abraham hang out before heaven was open?”
But one question I’ll be sure to ask is prompted by Jesus’ response to Martha when He was a guest in her home and she asked for help:
“Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things…” (Luke 10:41)
When I read those words of Jesus, I just want to ask: “How could you be so rude to Martha, when she was so nice to invite you for dinner and she did all the work?”
Behind the scenes of this comment, Martha (and I suppose Mary) were hosting this little dinner and they invited Jesus to come. Now, Jesus was all about dinner. Some of His most important conversations happened over meals. When you see Jesus sitting down to a meal with people, take note; something important is about to be said. That’s one of the reasons why I have struggled with this scripture so much. Here’s the rest of the story:
“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 the better portion and it will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38-42)
Did Jesus really say “few things are needed?” It’s easy to tell that men didn’t have to cook back in those days.
Back then, they made everything from scratch. When I read this passage, I often wonder if He was unaware of the “few things” that Martha did to put this meal together. Martha was annoyed to be the only one who was working. She was stressed out from all the serving AND the lack of help from her sister.
Most of us can relate to stressful dinner parties. We have always loved having parties, even when the kids were very young. I have learned to do the best I can and not stress over the rest, But occasionally those “many things” Jesus chided Martha for worrying over really do get in the way.
I remember the time we ran out of food while hosting my daughter’s sweet 16 in our backyard. That was very stressful. We were trying to make dinner more healthy so we didn’t load up trays of pasta. It turns out that pasta goes a long way and roasted veggies are too much work for a big group of people. In the end, all we had to offer was tortilla chips.
I understand both Martha’s anxiety over serving and Mary’s desire to sit at Jesus’ feet. When I’m anxious, I want to run away and unwind, to spend time in rest and prayer. When I am overwhelmed with the stress of serving others, I neglect the better portion that Jesus spoke about to Martha.
As a mom, a caregiver, a coach and a woman who leads ministries for women, I have a lot on my plate. We all do. When I am angered by this passage, it’s usually because I am “worried and anxious about many things.”
Then I hear Jesus say: “One thing matters. Choose the better portion.”
I used to think that this passage was about taking the time to pray, as if prayer was somehow more important than serving. I realize now that it’s also about relationships and being present to those we serve. If we are running around checking off our to do lists and anxiously serving others, then we may be missing the point and the persons we are trying to serve.
This passage reminds me to offer my presence and not just my service. I formed an entire ministry to women based on the vision from this passage. It’s called, “Heart and Hands.” It was born out of my own struggles to balance service with prayer and presence. Women in particular have this struggle. In this prayer group, we pray that we might have Martha’s hands and Mary’s heart. We share with one another how the Lord gives us strength to serve and to be present to ourselves, each other and God.
As with many lessons in my life, my daughter Johanna is my teacher. In the warmer seasons, she likes to take her morning coffee with me on the porch. She wakes up later than me, so by the time she comes out on the porch, I am ready to move on with my day. She starts her day slowly sipping her coffee as she chats about this and that. Often I am tempted to leave her sitting there so that I can check emails, do dishes or jump in the shower. As Jo relaxes with her coffee, I have a choice to make. Will I rush around her with Martha’s hands or sit next to her with Mary’s heart?
People with brain injuries, like my daughter, have a lot to say. But it takes time for them to say it and time for us to listen. Johanna has this cute expression she says when a conversation clicks for her and she comprehends what is being said. She nods her sweet head as the curls fall softly around her face and her little mouth curls in a smile, as she says, “Yes, yes, that’s good to know.”
It is all good to know: how to serve without stressing out, to throw a dinner party without running out of food. It is good to know how to choose the better portion and be present to those we serve. It’s good to know what matters most; how to serve with Martha’s hands and to love with Mary’s heart. These are the better portions and when we choose them, they shall not be taken from us.
Eileen Benthal is a writer, speaker and wellness coach with a B.A. in Theology from Franciscan University. She and her husband Steve live in Jamesport and have four young adult children. Their youngest, Johanna, is a teenager with special needs. Eileen can be reached at FreeIndeedFreelance.com.
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