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Wide Open Spaces: Beyond Paint-by-Number Christianity by Jim Palmer



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Signposts: Daily Devotions

Written by Jim Palmer

Monday, November 29

Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed.
—Luke 11:41-42


In the story of Martha and Mary, Martha welcomes Jesus into her home for dinner. Jesus arrives and the text says, “But Martha was distracted by all her preparations.” Not surprising. Think about it, what if Jesus were coming to your house for dinner? 

And yet the text refers to Martha’s efforts as a “distraction”—probably written by someone who wouldn’t understand. Later in the story, Martha becomes angry with her sister Mary for not helping. In Martha’s mind, all the preparations were necessary, and she was left to do them all herself while Mary hung out with Jesus.

I often wonder if perhaps there was more to why Martha was so wrapped up in all the work. Maybe she felt Jesus expected this of her, as if Jesus wanted things to be just right. Maybe she was counting on this being her way to be noticed and esteemed by Jesus: “Oh Martha, what a beautiful home and wonderful dinner, you must have worked long and hard!” 

Maybe Martha felt like Jesus couldn’t possibly have just wanted to be with her and felt obliged to do something for him. Maybe Martha felt unworthy and inadequate to sit with Jesus. Maybe all her work was a necessary distraction because she feared intimacy with Jesus. Doing something for Jesus was in her comfort zone; being with him wasn’t.

In The Other Side of Silence, Morton Kelsey writes,

An efficiently busy life, which keeps us occupied without being harried and keeps our attention entirely on interesting outer things, is probably more potentially destructive of spiritual growth than debauchery or alcohol or hard drugs. These obvious indulgences usually at least lead to emptiness, and sometimes to despair, and in such times one is dangerously vulnerable to being found by God. On the other hand, a quiet, efficient, busy life spent continuously in good works can shield an individual most effectively from any plunge into the depth where God dwells.

Martha became angry with her sister and says to Jesus, “Lord, don't you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” Martha’s frustration sums up where we can often find ourselves in our spiritual lives. Busy doing things, but empty inside. Jesus responds, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

Jesus is not scolding Martha. A paraphrase could be: “Martha, I appreciate all the work you have put into this. Yes, you have a nice orderly home and the meal was wonderful. But it wasn’t your home or food that compelled me to come. Martha, it was you. I came to be with you. I love you. I want to know you and I want you to know me. That’s the most important thing.”

What if the thing God most wants from us is…well…us!?

God, you want to be with me!? Okay, here I am.

These Signposts originally appeared on explorefaith in 2006.