Don’t just do something; sit there!
“”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.”” (Jesus Christ to Martha, sister of Mary and Lazarus of Bethany; Luke 10:41b-42, ESV)
Martha of Bethany is the perfect picture of the activist Christian. We are told that “Martha was distracted with much serving” (Luke 10:40, ESV). Martha had a good heart, what we sometimes describe in church circles as a “servant’s heart.” There is much about Martha and her servanthood that we might commend. After all, what would the church do without its’ Marthas? Without them nothing would get done in the church! Martha seemed so eager to serve Jesus and His company, who had come into her home, although one may perhaps detect a bit of pride in Martha as she expresses annoyance at her sister Mary, who had chosen to sit at the Lord’s feet to listen to His teaching (v. 39) instead of help her sister Martha with all her domestic tasks. “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” (v. 40b, ESV) Given the circumstances it seems like a fair complaint. Poor Martha is working herself to the bone trying to serve her guests, and probably also trying to make a good impression. By complaining to Jesus about her sister she is indirectly addressing Mary (who was likely within earshot), essentially saying to her, “Don’t just sit there; do something! Get your lazy bones up off the floor and help me!” But instead of rebuking Mary for not helping her sister with the serving, Jesus issues a gentle rebuke to Martha (vv. 41-42). In all the distractions of her serving, Martha had missed what her sister Mary perceived: namely, the unique spiritual opportunity the circumstances presented to them to sit at the feet of Jesus the Messiah in their own home, and to learn from Him. In His mild rebuke to Martha, it is as if Jesus is saying to her, “Martha, don’t just do something, sit there! Don’t you recognize this unique opportunity to sit at my feet and learn from Me?”
Just like Martha couldn’t understand the apparent passivity of her sister Mary, activist Christians (the “Martha Christians”) today sometimes look down their noses at their more passive fellow believers (the “Mary Christians”). It’s not that “Mary Christians” are totally lazy and do nothing. They too go to church. They too seek to honor the Sabbath. They read their Bibles. They pray. They contribute financially to the work and mission of the church. They catechize their children. They seek to diligently use the means of grace (word, sacraments and prayer). Many of them are even involved in mid-week church activities (home Bible studies, small groups, service committees or prayer meetings). They seek to serve God responsibly in their daily vocations. But from the standpoint of “Martha Christians” their “Mary Christian” counterparts are simply not doing enough for the kingdom of God. The motto of the “Martha Christian” seems to be, “Do more! Try harder!” Like the historical Martha of Bethany, Martha Christians are often well intentioned and have good hearts. They often possess a noble desire to see the world evangelized and the culture transformed. But in their energetic spirit of activism they can tend to harshly judge their Mary Christian counterparts as being apathetic, overly-passive, even lazy. But as our Lord Jesus took the side of Mary, who had chosen to passively sit at His feet and learn of Him, so I suspect that our Lord would likewise take the side of today’s “Mary Christians” in many circumstances.
We must constantly be reminded that the good news of Christ teaches us that we are saved, not by our own doing or striving or serving, but by receiving and resting upon Christ and what He has done for us! The danger of the “Martha Christian” mindset is that it can obscure the biblical message of grace. Martha Christians are in danger of thinking that the more they serve God, the more they “do” for the kingdom, the harder they try, the more acceptable they will be to God. But the gospel teaches us that it is not our doing, our serving, our activism, our efforts that save us; rather it is Christ’s doing and dying which saves us! Among other things, repentance involves turning from reliance upon our own efforts to win acceptance with God to relying in faith upon Christ alone for salvation. “Mary Christians” understand that God’s grace summons them to sit down and rest at the feet of Jesus, who has done all things for them and for their salvation. Like the historical Martha, Martha Christians sometimes think that a good dose of guilt will motivate their Mary Christian counterparts into more activity for the kingdom, which usually means being more like them. But Mary Christians understand that service which pleases Christ is not motivated by guilt for not doing enough, but by gratitude for what Christ has done for them.
The last thing the church needs today is more well-intentioned “Martha Christians” laying a guilt trip upon God’s people to “Do more! Try harder!” Instead, whether we are “Martha Christians” or “Mary Christians,” we all need to remember that our motivation for service in the kingdom of God is not guilt, but gratitude. Yes, there is a place for exhortations to greater devotion and greater service. But first we must, like Mary, sit at the feet of Jesus and learn of Him. Before we give and serve, we must rest and receive.
Dear reader, don’t just do something; sit there!