Imagine this scene: your pastor, whom you revere as a wise and godly man, comes over for dinner. The opportunity is precious; he is a traveling preacher, admired for his rare combination of gentle grace and uncompromising strength. He lays hands on the sick and they are healed, he casts demons out of the tormented and they are set free, and it is rumored that he has raised a couple of children from the dead. All this has gotten him in hot water with the local churches, and the powers that be are working overtime to shut down his ministry permanently. But when he’s around, all you want is to stay close. He adores you and challenges you, exposes your sinful heart and yet encourages you to love. You’ve never known anyone whose company you enjoy more.
But he brings with him a crowd of ministry trainees- some you like and some you don’t much care for- and it’s dinnertime. These guys have been on the road, so they are hot, dirty and hungry. They have done you the honor of coming to your home, and so of course you want to serve them your best recipes and make them as comfortable as possible. Your mother taught you that a godly woman’s job is to serve, and this is your chance to show your pastor how seriously you take that job. So you pull up your hair, tie on your apron, and cook up a storm. Nothing but the finest for your beloved pastor and his posse.
Grease-stained and a little sweaty, you hustle into the den balancing a tray of hors d’oeuvres and a bottle of wine, only to see your sister sitting cross-legged on the floor next to the pastor. She’s glowing, but not from the heat of the kitchen. Crossing the room, you trip over some man’s big feet and nearly dump the whole tray in the pastor’s lap. Frustration gets the best of you: “Master, don’t you care that my sister has abandoned the kitchen to me? Tell her to lend me a hand.” (Luke 10:40 MSG)
He smiles and laughs a bit, but he isn’t going to make her help you. Fill in your name: “ _____, you’re fussing far too much and getting yourself worked up over nothing. One thing only is essential, and [she] has chosen it- it’s the main course, and won’t be taken from her.” (10: 41-42 MSG)
Responsibility plus expectation equals resentment- at least it does for Martha, the real-life hostess who throws this dinner party for Jesus in Luke 10. She can’t do much about the responsibility part. She’s an adult. But she gets in trouble with her expectations. When her sister doesn’t do what she thinks her sister should do, Martha gets offended. Also, we know from what Jesus says to her that Martha is doing more than is needed. The King James translation says she is “worried and troubled about many things,” not just her slacker sister.
Instead He tells her gently that by spending time with Him, Mary has chosen better. Martha expected Him to back her up. She expected Him to praise her. She expected He would be impressed by her effort for Him, but all He wants is for her to come sit close and talk with Him.
I am willing to bet that if you look around at back-to-school Parent’s Night, or your next meeting at work, or the neighborhood Halloween parade, you are going to see a whole lot more Marthas than Marys. I see Martha every morning when I look in the mirror. Our culture rewards the Marthas. Who doesn’t want to be the hardworking superwoman with the perfect family who appears to do everything, well, perfectly? None of us can ever be her, but we sure are going to kill ourselves trying.
This is what we have come to expect of each other; this is what we expect of ourselves. For all our effort, we get resentment and broken relationships. Striving robs us of our peace, and most important of all: we cannot hear what Jesus is saying.
A couple of weeks ago I went to see a movie called Bad Moms, which tells the story of Amy, a working mother with two kids who is beyond overwhelmed with her responsibilities. Amy not only juggles work and parenting and carpooling and cooking, she also makes a fabulous papier mache bust of Richard Nixon for her son’s history project and creates nutritionally pious* homemade lunches for her kids. All her effort wins her the disdain of the PTA moms, who cattily remind her that she is always late wherever she goes. Amy laughs and saying that being late is the only thing she is good at anymore, but she finds herself crying alone in her car nearly every day.
Amy has an epiphany when she walks in to a PTA bake sale meeting. Seeing the ridiculously long list of ingredients which are NOT allowed in bake sale goods- including sugar, flour, and eggs- Amy is appointed to be the “bake sale police force” responsible for patrolling all baked goods and confronting the moms who use illicit ingredients. (She is awarded this job because she was, of course, late to the meeting.) Amy walks out. She throws off the absurd expectations of the PTA bake sale committee and she refuses to judge other women for their cupcakes. Best of all, Amy breaks free of her impossible expectations of herself. If being imperfect means she is a “bad mom,” so be it.
Amy finds other moms who are exhausted with overserving and overdoing . When they decide to quit judging each other, grace and friendship replace competition and criticism. No longer burdened by unrealistic expectations, Amy and her friends are free to do what they wanted to do in the first place: love their families with deepest joy.**
And that’s what Martha wants to do, too. She loves Jesus dearly, and wants to express that love by doing her best for Him. He’s not mad at her for her overdoing, He just wants her to slow down and sit with Him awhile. He knows that she will find that love and that joy only by communing with Him first.
Becoming more like Mary isn’t an item to add to the to-do list. It’s not another load we need to bear, something else we don’t do as well as we would like to. Becoming like Mary is more like opening a clenched fist and letting go of all the unfair expectations we have of ourselves and of other people. It’s letting go of disappointment and frustration and judgment and exhaustion. With open hands we are free to receive what Jesus wants to give us most: Himself.
*I didn’t come up with that phrase; I heard it from a guy who visited our church from California. Kinda says it all, doesn’t it?
** Full disclaimer: Bad Moms is by no means a family movie. Do not take your kids to see it. The language is terrible and the humor is very crude, but part of the reason it is so funny is that the message rings true.