|"Christ in the House of Martha and Mary" by Diego Velásquez, 1618|
"Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me." But the Lord answered her, "Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her."
There are so many lessons to draw out of this text, as many people already have, so I will not here try to be exhaustive, but just focus on one thing.
Hospitality. Hospitality, that is, in Christ.
Usually when I have seen this text expounded upon, I come out thinking Martha and Mary are pitted against each other on all levels and Martha is horrid for serving drinks while she should be listening to Jesus. "Chip the glasses and crack the plates! Just sit at Jesus' feet!" At least, that is what I hear (perhaps mistakenly, I admit).
Anyhow, whenever I do hear that, my little toe spazzes and my eyebrows yank and my ear twitches. As in, I am bothered. Mayhaps 'tis because I have so often identified with Martha, mayhaps 'tis because I like practicality and never understood the whole "Let them eat cake!" mentality. I mean, people still need water and food to keep breathing, whether they worship God or Vishnu. And Jesus knew that. So I could never bring myself to believe that what Christ actually wanted Martha to do was to throw out the vittles and live on the dew of the universe as she sat enthralled at His feet. There had to be something else, or maybe something more.
Let's take a peek at the text, and see if anything pops up. First, what exactly does Martha do? She welcomes Jesus into her house. That's something, no? How many people do you think were welcoming a hunted Pharisee-infuriating Rabbi? Nevertheless, after that good start, Martha became "distracted with much serving." Ouch! She was missing out on the very thing she spent so much time and energy to facilitate: welcoming the person of Christ into her home. On the other hand, Mary sat at Jesus' feet to hear whatever He came to say in the first place. But Martha was distracted with serving.
What was her problem? Was it the food? Was it the dusting? Was it the napkins folded like swans and the spoons set in the proper order, or preparing the perfect menu and making sure The Rabbi ate local and organic? (Okay, so maybe those were not exactly first-century problems, but you get my point.) Nope! The service and the meal and the cleanliness were not Martha's sin. They may have been her headaches, but they were not her problem.
Read that one sentence again. "But Martha was distracted..." Ohhhhh. She was distracted. As in, she was totally off-tract (track). Yes, her problem lay not in the glasses and the plates, but in her purpose with those glasses and plates, in that purpose which was letting the food get in the way of The Food. Martha's focus, goal, vision were all wrong.
You know what? I think Martha could have served a superb spread in a beautifully clean house without bringing Jesus' loving rebuke upon herself. The problem was not her hospitality, but her heart. And you know what also? I think Mary was probably a great help around the house. I bet she wasn't some ascetic dreamer who eschewed dusting as some low, insignificant calling. See, Mary's heart was right, so her hospitality could be pure, too. If only Martha's heart were in the right place, with the right focus, she would have been able to be a lovely hostess and a loving listener as well.
But her heart wasn't in the right place. It was distracted, remember? She let her soul bend on the cutlery and the preparations, and that was her undoing.
What is the remedy, for me and for her and for you? Yeah, you are smart. You guessed it. The "one thing that is necessary": Christ.
If Martha's focus had been on Christ, she would have provided what was needed to better enable her guests, and herself, to drink in His words. Instead of worrying about how the floors reflected on her housekeeping skills, instead of agonizing over whether the meal showed off her culinary achievements to their greatest advantage ~ in short, instead of being "anxious and troubled about many things" ~ Martha could have gladly and simply served the Master with a selfless heart so she could sit at His feet, too. Will people need water and some bread on this hot and dusty day in order to better focus on Jesus? Yes? Alright, we will provide some. She could skip the caviar happily if that meant allowing Jesus to shine brighter in her home. She could leave out the crystal and china if their requisite care would have "distracted" anyone (including herself) from what Jesus had to say. Basically, if it helped Jesus be big in her house, it was a go, and she could relax and rejoice. However, if it shoved Jesus away from her house, it had to go, and she could still relax and rejoice!
Mary grasped this concept. She chose the better thing and focused on the Master, knowing that everything domestic was already in order for Him to be the center of attention. Any more fussing over details would have only been superfluous and distracting to the whole point of their hospitality: Christ, the One Thing Necessary.
What does this mean for our hospitality, then?
It means that all the fiddling we do with the plates, the menu, and the dusting must have one purpose and one purpose only: making much of Christ. It means you can be a Martha. You can be a Martha with a Mary heart, a Mary vision, and a Mary desire. You can relish in folding your cloth napkins into swans or in having your toddler try his best to make a triangle with paper towels. You can serve an ∞-course meal (like in Babette's Feast) or grab a casserole out of the freezer.
Should China dishes only distress and prevent you, and therefore your guests, from beholding Jesus in the midst of your home, crack the China. Should your use of China dishes bless you and your guests by showing the generosity and love and splendor of Christ to those coming over for the evening meal, then, by all means, break out the China (not, ahem, literally) and delight in the afternoon-teaness of it. Whatever serves to exalt the name of God in your home, whatever most shows the love and grace and truth and glory of our Lord Jesus Christ to His guests at your house is precisely what you ought to do.
Remember, we are simply stewards left for a while on this earth to glorify the King and bless His name. That's what your welcome mat is for. That's what your pocket-book is for. That is what your broom is for, and your pots and pans, and disposable plates and crystal jars. They are all the King's, loaned to you as tools for making Him known on His earth while you are here. Go ye therefore, brothers and sisters, and use those instruments for their one purpose: to make disciples in His person and truth.
So the next time you are flying frantic "getting the house clean for company," please remember to prepare the necessary things to magnify the One Thing Necessary. Believe me, your frantic state is not on the necessary list. In other words, turn your eyes upon Jesus, friends, and make sure you can look full in His wondrous face as you overview the table-settings, bathrooms, kitchens, and front door. Because, really, those things of earth grow strangely dim in the light of his glory and grace.