38 Now while they were on their way, Jesus entered a village [called Bethany], and a woman named Martha welcomed Him into her home. 39 She had a sister named Mary, who seated herself at the Lord’s feet and was continually listening to His teaching. 40 But Martha was very busy and distracted with all of her serving responsibilities; and she approached Him and said, “Lord, is it of no concern to You that my sister has left me to do the serving alone? Tell her to help me and do her part.” 41 But the Lord replied to her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and bothered and anxious about so many things; 42 but only one thing is necessary, for Mary has chosen the good part [that which is to her advantage], which will not be taken away from her.”
One of the comparisons in the Bible (& therefore the church) is Mary vs. Martha. We read that Mary did the right thing by sitting at Jesus’ feet, but her sister Martha was “very busy & distracted with all of her serving responsibilities.” From this story, people use phrases like, “Be Mary not Martha.” “Which one are you?” “Do you love Jesus or do you serve?” “The Martha Syndrome,” etc.
This can be confusing because we’re also called to serve in the church, by using our gifts, you know, be the body… but… we’re not supposed to serve like Martha. There’s a tension there. So my question is: just because we don’t see Mary serving elsewhere, does that mean she never did? To say it another way: just because the story is about Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet and Martha is seen serving, doesn’t mean Mary never served & Martha never sat at Jesus’ feet.
More importantly than this debate is Jesus’ example! He’s the Author & Finisher of our faith & the One in Whose image we’re to be conformed. What can we learn from His life? Jesus said, “I came not to BE SERVED, but TO SERVE…” (Matt 20:28
). It’s obvious that it’s not an either/ or issue. You can’t assume from this quote that Jesus never had intimacy time with His Father because He served. Then why is it ok for Jesus to serve but not Martha? What’s the difference between the two?
From what we can see in Jesus’ example in the Gospels, the difference & what Martha may have lacked is the balance between these three keys:
Priority. Heart Posture. Timing
- Jesus had His priorities straight. He loved the Father more than anything (especially ministry) & it showed.
- Jesus’ heart posture in serving wasn’t an attempt to make the Father love Him more or to get others’ attention.
- Jesus wasn’t found serving when He was supposed to be sitting and vice versa. His timing was in sync with the Father
Though the waters can get muddy in church culture, the fact that there is a tension between the two ideas makes sense: serve or sit? Often times, the reason we have to emphasize being still over and over again is because “busy” is the #1 way people describe their lives in America. We can serve/work/do ministry so much that we forget about Jesus, who the work is about in the first place.
However, it can also get distorted to the other extreme: we can be SO self-absorbed in receiving, that it actually hinders our relationship with Jesus and others. Like a lake with no outlet, we can become stagnant.
With this and Jesus’ perfect example in mind, I’ve come to the conclusion it’s a both/and balance that we need to learn. It’s not about asking “should I serve or should I sit?” But knowing when to sit, having the right heart posture when you’re serving & putting Jesus first no matter what you’re doing.
Heart posture makes all the difference. Why are you sitting? Why are you serving? To get others’ attention or to earn the love of the Father that you already have? Unfortunately neither of these two extremes are the motivation God wants us to have for serving, or even for the time we spend with Him. I used to think if I spent no less than 45 minutes a day in fervent prayer and Bible study, God would love me more. Without that, I was in danger of losing the standing I worked hard to gain. Those 45 minutes weren’t because I loved Him and wanted to be with Him— but out of fear. It took time to realize that God wants our motives to be voluntary love. Five minutes of connection are more valuable to Him than an hour of empty legalism.
Jesus gave up His life for His Bride. Not a work force. He died for your heart. Not for your performance. The truth is, God can have anything in the universe He wants, and above everything, He wants your love… think about that. He just wants us to know how much He loves us, and then for us to respond out of love. Similarly, a bride on her wedding day strives to be beautiful with the perfect hairstyle, makeup, and dress. Why? Because she knows she’s loved by the man she’s about to marry. Not in an attempt to earn his love. She knows she already has it. That’s why she wants to look beautiful. It’s out of response.
Another key difference in Jesus’ example of balancing the “sitting vs. serving” tension is priority. Priority means we make the Lord more important than anything else. Not just in thought or theory but by how we live. If Jesus tells you to put down the work & just be with Him, will you? If He says to get up and serve that person, will you?
Holy Spirit recently told me something that helps my perspective. He said, “There will ALWAYS be more work to do. You will never finish it all, no matter what. But this moment with Me–when it’s gone, it’s gone. Don’t miss out.” Ask yourself, do I love ministry more than Him? Or, do I prioritize doing tasks more than connecting with Jesus Himself?
If your heart’s priorities have gotten jumbled up in ministry, in serving or busyness, you can at any time respond to Jesus’ call in Revelation 2: return to your First Love. You will never regret time spent with Him. Our jobs, our calling, family, & everything else in life are all means to an end. Jesus is that end. Knowing God is the highest calling or prize we will ever attain. HE alone is the point and He must be exalted above all else!
Timing will most likely fall into place after the previous two. “Be Mary, not Martha” in terms of timing means don’t worry about sweeping up crumbs, when the God of the Universe is trying to have alone time with you! When Jesus is in the room, don’t make a sandwich that He didn’t order. (Hint: that’s what Martha did. She literally had God in the flesh in her living room and was freaking out about making food).
It means– don’t serve & be distracted when it’s time to “just be” & listen. Push pause! The world can wait! It will not fall apart while you’re seeking God’s face and listening to His voice. (He’s the One holding it together in the first place. Not you). The Gospels record many times that Jesus went alone to pray, or got up early to pray. We see His priority is in the right place. However, His timing was, too. When Jesus was faced with a crowd of broken people that only He could heal and serve, He could still focus on them while staying connected to the Father. Balance. Both.
If our lives are led by the Holy Spirit, Jesus has #1 priority & we know that working doesn’t earn God’s love, then timing will also be in its rightful place.
From experience, I’ve learned you can actually encounter Jesus while serving at the same time. We really can be the servant of all, like He was, without sacrificing the priority of Him being our First Love! There is grace for us found in Christ! He balanced the two extremes of sitting & serving perfectly, while He was a person like you and I. He will give grace to the humble. Even in your work, you can find Him!
So take a moment and let Him clear away the cobwebs that have made your vision blurry. Let Him examine your heart and touch the places that are hard to deal with. Keep asking for help to make Jesus the first place in your heart. Say yes to His leading, and sit when it’s time to sit. We get to serve like Jesus did, while balancing it with the truth that nothing is more important than seeking His face & sitting at His feet.