A wonderful time of year
Time to decide what’s really important
by Rebecca Lister
It’s that time of year — “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.”
It’s a time that the “Marthas” of the world relish — a time of baking, shopping, wrapping, cooking and constantly doing. I am referring to Martha, sister to Mary, probably the most famous sisters in the Bible. Jesus had a close relationship with Martha and Mary’s family, and the Bible has several stories about them. Jesus even raised their brother, Lazarus, from the dead (John 11), so their relationship must have been quite special.
One story about this family is especially relevant to us during this hectic holiday season. Imagine the scene as Luke 10:38-42 describes it. Jesus and some of his disciples are coming for a visit to Mary and Martha’s house.
What an honor, to have a now famous rabbi in her home! Martha sets about preparing the most complex and amazing meal she can think of.
First, she spends all day getting the house clean, for not a speck of dust can be spotted by her guests. She then finds delicacies at the market she knows Jesus will love, things that take hours to cook to just the right consistency and texture. She prepares the table, placing items carefully and lovingly.
Throughout the day, Martha has had to stop, put her hands on her hips, and fuss at her sister, Mary. “Come on, Mary! All you’re doing is looking out the window, waiting for the Master to come. Stop dreaming and start helping for a change!” she finally says in frustration.
The situation does not improve when Jesus and the guests arrive, either, for while Martha is bustling around in the kitchen putting the final touches on her masterpiece of a meal, Mary is sitting at the feet of Jesus, listening to him raptly.
Martha has finally had enough. She decides to elicit Jesus’s help on the matter, hoping she can get Mary’s hands in the kitchen instead of sitting idly in her lap. Jesus does not answer as she hopes, however. “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.” [NRSV]
If I were Martha, I might have been hurt by such a response. I would have thought, “Doesn’t he understand? Surely he sees I need help!”
Jesus’ response seems somewhat insensitive, and frankly, a bit vain. A closer look, however, reveals the real reasons for Jesus’s gentle admonishment. It is not clear, but more than likely, Jesus never asked Martha to prepare an elaborate meal; Martha took it upon herself to do that. The meal was what Martha wanted, not what anyone else had asked for. All of the guests, including Mary, wanted to interact with Jesus, not to have a fancy meal that requires massive preparation — and produces stacks of dishes to wash afterward. Maybe everyone else just wanted to order a pizza!
It is a shame we do not have a live recording of this incident, because we would have been able to hear Jesus’s tone of voice as well. I imagine him gently putting his arm on Martha’s, saying her name once; I then imagine Martha looking away, hurt. Jesus says her name yet again, patting her, urging her to look at him, begging her to stop, and to realize that in her frantic preparations, she is missing time with him. Especially poignant is the fact that Jesus knew his time was limited, though Martha did not.
Today, as was the case back then, Jesus still wants to spend time with us. He doesn’t want it to be a complicated, black-tie affair; he wants a simple meal, some bread, some wine and lots of conversation.
So, Marthas of the world: Slow down and spend quality time with your loved ones during these holidays. Make sure you are preparing not an elaborate meal, but a place in your busy calendar — and in your heart —for them and for Jesus, for he is “the better part.”
Rebecca Lister is an associate professor of music at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pennsylvania. Her passion is music and worship in churches. She has had several writings published in the academic field of music.