The past four mornings I have had the joy and privilege of sharing the morning devotion for the Compassion International Asia leadership gathering. Yesterday morning was my last one and I shared about the Mary and Martha story (Luke 10:38–42 ). Rereading the passage, it struck me that a listener in Jesus’s time would have applauded Martha for doing the right thing. She was right in providing hospitality to her guests. Indeed, hospitality is an important biblical value. And there would be hearers who would be disturbed by the fact that Mary didn’t help her sister. A reader in Jesus’s time would have seen Martha as the hero and Mary as a slacker. How did Mary end up becoming the hero of the story?
Here is an account of Martha’s response to her duties:
“. . . Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” (Luke 10:40b NIV)
Here was a hardworking Martha responding to the needs before her; in this case, the needs of her guests. She had a lot to do and no help. We can’t blame her for being frazzled and upset—upset at her sister for not helping and upset at Jesus for not getting her sister to help.
Most of us can identify with Martha. Too much to do, too little help. Exhaustion leads to anxiety and anger which in turn alienates us from key relationships in our life. Martha’s starting point was the needs before her. She responded to what needed to be done and became overwhelmed. If our ministry is need driven, we will soon discover that there are more needs than we can possibly handle. The Good Samaritan had one need on one road. In an internet age we know of thousands of needs on thousands of roads.
Why was Mary commended? Because she had made an important choice. She had chosen to first draw near to Jesus. She had adopted the posture of a disciple.
The lesson here is that our first call is to draw near to Jesus to allow Him to shape us. Our first call is to grow in Christlikeness. Our ministry then flows out of a Christlike heart. We remember that Jesus only did what His Father told Him to do (John 5:19; 12:49). We too must seek to do a ministry that is God centred and not need centred. There are many needs before us. Our first step is to draw near to the Lord to be shaped and to be led. We need to learn to ask: With all these needs before us, Lord, what would you have us do? Whatever the Lord leads us to, we say yes. Whatever He says no to, we say no. Our approach to ministry must be God centred, not need centred.
It is a blow to our pride that we cannot meet every need. Perhaps that is the heart of sin, the desire that we, like God, shouldn’t have limits. But we are not God, and if we seek to meet every need we encounter, we will soon discover that indeed we are not.
The lesson of the Mary and Martha story is not that prayer is more important that service. It is that prayer must come first.