Has any saint received more negative press than Martha? All she did was ask Jesus to tell her sister to help her with the chores, and she ended up being branded as spiritually dull, overly anxious, or even worse, spiteful. After all, Jesus rejected Martha's request and even told her that her own priorities were out of order.
What was wrong with Martha's behavior? Why did she receive this unexpected rebuke from Jesus? Was it sinful for her to have wanted everything to be perfect for such an important guest as Jesus? Was it sinful to clean and cook? Don't we all act this way when family or close friends come to visit our home?
In fact, Jesus was probably pleased by the way Martha tried to make everything just right. He probably felt honored by her desire to serve him so graciously. So why did Jesus say what he said? Because he wanted Martha—and all of us—to know that there is a point where our tasks consume us, rob us of our peace, and separate us from God.
We are all guilty of being distracted. We are all guilty of working on the things we consider vital and important—only at the expense of our relationship with Jesus. This month, we want to put ourselves in Martha's shoes and look at the way our responsibilities in the world can distract us and block us from receiving Jesus and all that he wants to give us.
Active and Contemplative. In a sense, we can say that Martha represents all of the members of the church who feel led to spend their lives on the active work of the church. Those of us in this category want to serve Jesus and his people with our whole heart. On the other hand, Martha's sister Mary represents those of us who tend toward the contemplative side of Christianity. Those of us in this category place a high value on being with Jesus, talking with him, and listening for his still, small voice.
Of course, very few of us are 100 percent active or 100 percent contemplative. Most of us who tend toward the active category do spend time in prayer. It wouldn't be too hard to imagine even Martha on her knees at different times. Similarly, most of us who tend toward the contemplative category do spend some time in active service. We really can't assume that Mary failed to carry some share of work around the house or in the neighborhood. So to be accurate, we should be clear that we are talking about degrees of activity and service versus degrees of contemplation and prayer.
What was at the heart of Jesus' rebuke to Martha? It was the way she became distracted from the Lord and his words, not her heartfelt desire to serve, that he sought to correct. Martha was immersed in the preparations. The demands of service overwhelmed her and made her anxious and judgmental toward her sister. As a result, Martha sank into a pool of self-pity and self-righteousness, prompting Jesus' response. We can just imagine, after this episode, Jesus telling her, "Don't lose your peace, Martha. Don't go overboard and let your desire to serve me overshadow all the ways that I want to serve you."
Isn't it amazing? From our earliest days, we are taught to give and give and give. It's as if the service is in our blood. That's probably why Martha felt justified in her request to Jesus. The problem was that she didn't grasp Jesus' teaching that it is more critical for him to serve us than for us to serve him. In truth, we really cannot "outgive" Jesus.
Two Levels of Distractions. As the story of Mary and Martha demonstrates, being distracted from the Lord means being preoccupied with someone or some thing to such an extent that we experience a degree of separation from Jesus. Sometimes these distractions come from evil temptations, while at other times they come from our own motivations and mind-sets.
Clearly, not all distractions are alike. On one level, there are times when the sinful lures of the world distract us and turn our attention away from Jesus. But on a deeper level, we can also be distracted by our own good intentions, as Martha was. On this level, even our work, our families, and our service to the church have the potential to distract us from Jesus.
At the lower level, it's temptations toward immorality, gossip, deceit, and the like that distract us from the Lord. These temptations tell us that we need to do this certain action to feel fulfilled, or that we have a right to do it, even though we know that it may well be opposed to the way Jesus wants us to think and act. Whether they come from the devil or from our own fallen nature, these temptations deceive us by encouraging us to focus only on the supposed benefits of the temptation. Then, when we have given in to them, they prey upon our consciences, often leading to a bitter aftertaste filled with guilt and shame.
This was the problem King David faced not long after he became ruler of all Israel. While his entire army was out fighting the Ammonites, David stayed home. With nothing to motivate him to keep his eyes fixed on God, and an idle mind, he fell into adultery with Bathsheba. Then, in an attempt to cover up his sin, he arranged the death of Bathsheba's husband Uriah. Normally a fair and just man, David couldn't see anything wrong with what he did. His conscience became so dulled that he let his mind wander unchecked, to the point where he justified deception, adultery, and even murder.
Generally, the "lower-level" distractions such as the ones David faced are not too hard to spot. By contrast, the "higher-level" ones—the ones that are rooted mostly in good intentions—are more murky. At this level, we can become distracted from the Lord when we allow our responsibilities, our goals, and the normal demands of life to dominate our minds and preoccupy us. This was why Jesus rejected Martha's request. If she had prepared a simpler meal, if she had held on to her peace and found the time to sit with Jesus as Mary did, it's likely that Jesus would not have chided her.
Facing Our Distractions with Hope. If we want to grow closer to Jesus, then we need to address both the lower-level distractions and the higher-level ones. Jesus told the adulterous woman to go and sin no more (John 8:11). He told the man at the pool of Bethsaida to avoid further sin (5:14). He even told the apostles to stop fighting among themselves and to concentrate on serving each other instead (Luke 22:24-26). In the same way, Jesus wants us to examine ourselves and see if we are being distracted by any of these lower-level lures.
At the same time, we need to be on guard against the "good" distractions, such as our work, our financial responsibilities, our marriages, and our families. As important as these activities and responsibilities may be, they too have the power to turn our attention away from Jesus by offering us a false sense of security or fulfillment.
It sounds like a lot of hard work, doesn't it? But before you lose hope and conclude that you can't manage all the distractions in your life, consider this: Jesus was tempted by one empty promise after another. He knows firsthand how difficult it is to resist temptation. He also knows how much we are tempted every day. Just think: Jesus knew all of this when he spoke to Martha, and still he called her to change. Evidently, Jesus believed that Martha could change. And what's even more encouraging, we can bet that Jesus was ready to help Martha overcome her distractions—just as he stands ready even today to give us the grace we need to overcome.
God didn't give up on David, Moses, or Paul, even though they all had innocent blood on their hands. He didn't give up on the Samaritan woman, even though she had been divorced five times and was currently living in sin. He doesn't give up on any sheep that wanders away and gets lost. And he won't give up on us.
Jesus told Martha about a better way, and he wants to show us this way. He has but one purpose in mind: to tell us that we are God's beloved children and that he always holds us close to his heart. So whether we face lower-level distractions or higher-level ones, we can deal with them and be freed from their influence. And as that happens, we will find ourselves more and more willing—even eager—to spend time each day sitting at Jesus' feet and listening to him. And that can only result in one thing: Our relationship with him will grow more and more intimate by the day.