June 13, 2021 • Life for Leaders
Scripture – Luke 10:38-42 (NRSV)
Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
Sometimes we can get so busy doing good things for Jesus that we forget to spend time with him, to enjoy his company, to learn from him. Serving Jesus by serving others is a fine and godly thing to do. But, if we are so busy serving that we neglect the relationship with have with Jesus, then our faith is out of balance. Jesus welcomes us into his company, inviting us to be his disciples and even his friends.
Today’s devotion is part of the series Following Jesus Today.
A Note from Mark
Friends, this summer I’ll be teaching a one-week online course at Regent College. The course is called: The Bible and Work – Going Broader and Deeper. I’m looking forward to digging into Scripture with my students and auditors. We’ll be spending three hours each afternoon (Pacific Time) during the week of July 12-16. If this sounds interesting to you, you can take the course either for credit or audit. And if you’re over 65, you can get a 50% tuition discount! For more information about the course, click here. To learn about how to register, click here. It would be fun to have some of our Life for Leaders readers in this course with me. – Mark
Last week I began reflecting on Luke 10:38-42, a story of Jesus’s interactions with his friends Martha and Mary. In this story, Jesus and his entourage showed up at the home of Martha and Mary. Martha welcomed Jesus and then got busy with preparations for a meal for him and his disciples. Mary, Martha’s sister, didn’t help out, but rather sat at the feet of Jesus, learning as he taught. Martha was not happy. She asked Jesus to tell Mary to help her with the work. But Jesus declined, saying, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:41-42).
Our translation says that Martha was “distracted by her many tasks.” The original language reads more literally, she was “distracted with much serving” (Luke 10:40, ESV). The original language for “serving” is surprising. “Serving” translates the Greek word diakonia, which is sometimes rendered in the New Testament as “service,” but is commonly translated as “ministry.” In secular Greek, diakonia was used for a variety of kinds of service, including serving a meal. It has this connotation in Luke 10. But it the use of diakonia here also testifies to Martha’s desire to minister to Jesus through her hospitality. She wasn’t just filling her time with incidental chores. She was working hard to make sure Jesus and his crew were well taken care of.
Jesus did not do as Martha asked. He did not send Mary to work with her sister. Rather, Jesus explained that Martha was distracted by the service she was performing. “There is need of only one thing,” he said. “Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken from her” (Luke 10:42). What is this one thing? What is the better part? In context, being with Jesus is the one thing, not preparing a meal for him as Martha was likely doing. The one thing is listening to Jesus, learning from him, receiving from him, enjoying his company. This, Jesus said, was the “better part.”
If we’re going to understand this scene, we need to note a couple of details. First, doubling up on a name, saying “Martha, Martha” was not a form of rebuke in the linguistic culture of Jesus. Rather, it was a tender way of speaking, a sympathetic address. Jesus wasn’t chewing out Martha here. He was reaching out to her in kindhearted love. In fact, implicitly he was welcoming her, inviting her into his circle of teaching and fellowship.
Second, though Jesus said that “there is need of only one thing,” we must read this in context. He was not suggesting that Mary should spend her whole life doing only one thing. She was not supposed to spend the rest of her waking hours doing anything other than sitting at Jesus’s feet. He was not saying that she should never work, never welcome people with a meal, never do anything but sit and learn. No, in context, Jesus was effectively saying, “There is need of only one thing right now, in this moment, as I am teaching. There will be plenty of time for other things later.”
Martha’s problem wasn’t that she was working hard to welcome people graciously into her home. It was that her efforts took her attention away from what mattered most in that moment. The text says that she was “distracted” by her service. Distracted from what? From listening to the teaching of Jesus, like her sister. She was distracted from being with Jesus by trying so hard to serve him. In seeking to welcome Jesus by serving him, she was not welcoming him as her teacher and Lord. Moreover, she was missing out on the chance of a lifetime to be with Jesus in this intimate learning setting.
If you’re like me, you can relate to Martha. You really want to serve Jesus in your life. You seek to serve him in a wide variety of settings: in your daily work and your home, among your friends and your neighbors, in your church community and your city. It’s a wonderful thing to serve Jesus. But you may be the sort of person that gets so busy doing things for Jesus that you don’t spend much time with him. Your faith is so much about what you do that you neglect experiences of communion with the Lord, times of worship and prayer, moments of silence and solitude, practices of contemplation and adoration.
If this sounds at all familiar, then you may need to hear the invitation of Jesus, not to do more for him, but to be with him more. Jesus welcomes you into fellowship with him, even into friendship (John 15:13-15). He wants to teach you, to listen to you, to receive your love, and to give you even more love in return. He welcomes you just as you are, right now. Will you join him?
Are you like Martha, eager to serve Jesus, but with a tendency to do so much that you neglect the relational dimensions of your faith?
When in your life have you had particularly intimate encounters with the Lord? What made those distinctive?
What spiritual practices are built into your life, so that you are regularly “sitting at the feet of Jesus?”
Set aside a chunk of time in the next week for being quiet in Jesus’s presence. See what you learn from this experience.
Lord Jesus, thank you for your tenderhearted response to Martha. Thank you also for making it clear that Mary’s choice to be with you was the right choice in that moment.
Lord, I know that often I am more like Martha than Mary. I really do want to serve you well with every part of my life. But I can get so wrapped up in doing that I fail to spend time with you. Help me, I pray, to find the right balance of service, learning, and adoration. May I learn to enjoy your presence, to listen quietly to you as you speak through the Spirit. Amen.
Sign up to receive a Life for Leaders devotional each day in your inbox. It’s free to subscribe and you can unsubscribe at any time.
Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the unique website of our partners, the Theology of Work Project. A book on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: How Do We Counter a Breathless Pace of Life and Move Towards Balance?
Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a Senior Strategist for Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, where he focuses on the spiritual development and thriving of leaders. He is the principal writer of the daily devotional, Life for Leaders, and the founder of the De Pree Center’s Flourishing in the Third Third of Life Initiative. Previously, Mark was the Executive Director of the De Pree Center, the lead pastor of a church in Southern California, and the Senior Director of Laity Lodge in Texas. He has written eight books, dozens of articles, and over 2,500 devotions that help people discover the difference God makes in their daily life and leadership. With a Ph.D. in New Testament from Harvard, Mark teaches at Fuller Seminary, most recently in his D.Min. cohort on “Faith, Work, Economics, and Vocation.” Mark is married to Linda, a marriage and family counselor, spiritual director, and executive coach. Their two grown children are educators on the high school and college level.