mary_martha“We must be more like Mary.” I was at the first meeting for 2012 of the Dental Prayer Fellowship last Monday morning. There was a report on a mission trip to China. A number of those who went shared that a key lesson they learnt from the trip was that they needed to be more like Mary, a reference to the Mary and Martha passage from Luke 10:38-42.

As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But 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!”

“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed – or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” (NIV)

One of them said that a commitment to sacrificially serve others was a given for many of us. What was needed was a shift of our focus from what we should be doing for God (our default position), to seeing what the Lord is doing; to spend more time listening to Him.

I applauded loudly, silently, in my heart. They had learnt a key lesson, and one we needed to hear as we started a new year. And they had interpreted Luke 10:38-42 correctly.

Often, the Mary-Martha episode is quoted as teaching that we should be less busy and spend more time in quiet reflection. While this is surely true for many of us, that is not the main lesson of Luke 10:38-42. The contrast between Mary and Martha is not one that pits activism against quietism. The passage contrasts independent action, to the choice to listen to the Lord first.

Martha is no villain. She demonstrates caring hospitality, a key value in biblical faith. Her problem was that she launched into her frenzied caring without first asking the Lord what needed to be done. She decided what needed to be done and she plunged ahead. Look at verse 40. See how many times she refers to herself (me, myself, me.) She was ministry focused but she was not God focused.

In comparison, Mary, sat at the Lord’s feet, listening. Her focus was Jesus and what He had to say. That was what she did first. Joel B. Green helps us to understand the meaning of Mary’s posture and contrasts it with Martha’s actions.

… Mary is depicted as one who has begun the journey of discipleship by acknowledging through her posture her submissiveness to Jesus and by “listening” to his word. Martha’s “doing” on the other hand, is censured, rooted as it is in her anxiety as a host rather than in dispositions transformed by an encounter with the word. (The Gospel of Luke, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997, 434.)

A recent article by Pico Iyer points out the speed and noise of modern society, and the need to disconnect, to be quiet.

The urgency of slowing down — to find the time and space to think — is nothing new, of course, and wiser souls have always reminded us that the more attention we pay to the moment, the less time and energy we have to place it in some larger context. “Distraction is the only thing that consoles us for our miseries,” the French philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote in the 17th century, “and yet it is itself the greatest of our miseries.” He also famously remarked that all of man’s problems come from his inability to sit quietly in a room alone. (“The Joy of Quiet,” The Sunday Review, The New York Times, December 29, 2011.)

We would add that we need to be quiet so that we can listen to the Lord.

Carving out times of solitude and silence so that we can hear what the Lord is saying to us. I believe this is God’s word to many of us for 2012. I don’t know about you but if something is not in my planner it usually does not happen. If you believe this is God’s word to you as well, take out your diary/planner now and put in those blocks of time when you will sit at the feet of Jesus.

I am a Martha. I am an activist. And like her that means I am often fretting, worried and angry. It has been a long journey for me to be a better listener, both to neighbour and to God. I pray I will progress a little more in 2012.