Calm Down, Martha!

Worried woman pressing her templesAre you familiar with the story of Mary and Martha in the Christian New Testament?  I have always been fascinated by it.  In a nutshell, here’s what happens:

Jesus is visiting the home of three siblings, Mary, Martha and Lazarus.  (You can read the story in two excellent translations by going here.)  The wording is very clear that it is actually Martha’s house.  Perhaps she had inherited it from a deceased husband; that’s never spelled out.  Anyway, the disciples have probably come along too, although, again, that’s not spelled out, nor is the question of whether or not the visit is on the spur of the moment.  So we are told that Martha is busy getting a meal ready (she almost certainly had servants to help her) and gets rather irritated because her sister Mary isn’t helping her but is instead sitting at the feet of Jesus and listening to His teaching: “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!'” (Luke 10:40 NIV).  And what does Jesus reply?  Well, it’s not what you’d expect.  He basically tells Martha to calm down:

 “‘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.'” (vss. 41-42)

I am about 100% Martha, so I’ve always been pretty sympathetic to her in this story.  Why couldn’t Mary get up and lend a hand?  She could still listen to Jesus at the meal.  Let’s get the food on the table!  But, as a former pastor of ours used to say, “I don’t feel that I can edit Jesus.”  So maybe I’d better pay attention to what He says, and not interpret this story according to what I think.  The principles embodied in this story are many, and I’m sure I’ll return to them in later posts.  But here are some ideas that have struck me, with help from an excellent sermon preached recently by my current pastor on how the Bible teaches us to deal with stress:

How many times have I planned an ambitious meal for company that had nothing to do with my desire to serve my guests and everything to do with my wanting to show off?  (I’m not saying that’s what motivated Martha.)  I’ve given myself a whole lot of unnecessary stress. So, for instance, there was the famous Thanksgiving dinner in my old downtown apartment for which I attempted to replicate a menu from Bon Appetit magazine in an article titled, I believe, “A Renaissance Thanksgiving.”  My poor family!  I was determined to make that meal, even though I had a small, poorly-equipped kitchen (with a gas oven that had to be lit with a match, which I guess was sort of Renaissance-era) in which to do it.  As I recall, they had to wait for some time for dinner, after having come all the way into the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Denver where I lived and then schlepped folding chairs, a card table, and a coffeepot up four flights of stairs (since the building had no elevator–another Renaissance touch) along with two or three small children.  I think it was another meal when we had the Great Exploding Duck Fat Pan.  I still have nightmares about that one, as I don’t know how we escaped having a fire when I foolishly poured water into the Pyrex baking dish that was full of the rendered fat from the duck I was roasting and it suddenly just . . fragmented.  I guess the floor of the oven was deep enough that the fat was contained and didn’t drip down onto the gas flames.  For some reason I had decided that we had to have duck.  What a disaster!  And the whole thing could have been avoided had I just given maybe two seconds’ worth of thought to the question: “What will work best with my facilities to show hospitality to my guests?”

I would also point out something that just struck me as I was writing this post:  what Jesus says about what’s really necessary:  “You are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one.”  One rather surface meaning of this statement would tie in with what I said above, that the focus needs to be on the one thing of actually showing hospitality instead of showing off.  But this concept of true hospitality is what Matt Lewis (whose book I wrote about yesterday) would call a “downstream idea.”  The more fundamental question is, “Why am I doing this?  What’s my ultimate goal?”  Maybe that should be something about fulfilling the two greatest commandments:  Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and your neighbor as yourself.  Whew!  A pretty high bar.  But if that’s what I’m aiming at, then I won’t be too worried about things that don’t matter while focusing on those that do.  As my dear friend Cecelia used to say, “What’s at the center of the issue?”

Well, I’ll have an opportunity to put these ideas into practice this evening, as a dear cousin and her family are coming for dinner along with my brother and sister-in-law.  I’m going to keep it simple, which is not the same thing as making it easy for myself or failing to plan adequately.  I have a nice steak dinner on the menu and will be going to the grocery store before noon.  I will get the items that can be done ahead of time done, so that I can relax and enjoy our guests.  I’m not making a fancy dessert, or indeed any dessert at all, as I’m pretty much off them myself and am finding more and more that people don’t want to feel obligated to eat something they know they shouldn’t.  So I can save myself time and hassle and help everyone be a little healthier.  What a deal!  I do have some lime-yogurt dip for fruit that I made for an event on Saturday and then didn’t attend, so we’ll have some fruit with that.  We’ll sit out on our deck and enjoy ourselves.

Do you get yourself tied up in knots over unimportant issues?  How could you change?

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