My husband and I host people in our home all the time. We are called to live in community with one another. We strive to live in community on a regular basis, but with that community comes hosting duties. As a hostess I provide food, entertainment, and above all make sure my house is clean. These three things can become an obsession for me, so much in fact that I find I never leave the kitchen. It's unbelievably easy to get wrapped up in the details and not enjoy our company. We get so distracted with preparing that we leave little time for fellowship and gospel-intentionality.
When I get so consumed with preparing, the story of Mary and Martha hits home for me.
Hospitality: Gift or Idol?
While Jesus is traveling, Martha opens her home to him. At this point, Jesus is pretty popular in some circles. He isn’t just traveling with the 12 anymore. There are crowds following him. I picture Martha’s house resembling a sardine can, so I see why Martha felt the need to get everything ready.
Can we all relate to Martha? Don’t we all get a little apprehensive about having people over? Will there be enough food? Is my house clean enough? This concern and attention to detail can spread into a much bigger problem. Hospitality is a spiritual gift, but it can quickly become an idol.
I can’t count how many times I have been cleaning in the kitchen alone when people are over. People leave their plates everywhere; someone needs to clean it up. It’s my house so it’s my responsibility. There is a mental checklist of things I have to get done before I can join everyone. The countertops are dirty, there are dishes in the sink, and the chip bowl is empty.
Like Martha, I am distracted by all of the service..
I get so encumbered by these tasks that I don’t enjoy our company. My guests aren’t here to watch me keep my house clean. They are here to fellowship with me, just like Jesus is there to fellowship with Mary and Martha. What can start as a little preparation can become a big distraction.
Mary gets it. She probably laid out some cheese and crackers and made it a point to get a good seat. So good a seat that she was literally “at his feet.” Mary seems to be excited by the opportunity to spend time with Jesus. . Not only was Mary at Jesus’s feet, but she also “listened to his teaching.”
Meanwhile, Luke writes, Martha “was distracted with much serving.”
This simple juxtaposition calls the posture of their hearts into question. While Martha’s serving is not a bad thing, she quickly becomes consumed by it. Her heart is more centered on the hustle and bustle of having people over. Mary is captivated by Jesus. He is all she needs. Mary has centered her heart on Jesus.
Hebrews 12 says, “Let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith...” Mary was laying aside every hindrance. She was intentional with her attention. I’m sure Mary knew there would be plenty of distractions, and she knew this was not the time to get caught up in them. Her sister, however, did not have the same perspective.
The Greek word for ‘serving’ is diakonian, which means ‘ministry.’ Oh, how this changes my mindset when I read it as, “Martha was distracted with her ministry.” How many times do we get caught up in our ministry we forget who we’re doing it for? We are so distracted by the ministry itself we forget to focus our hearts on the one our ministry is for. Instead of looking up, we begin to selfishly look inward.
A Change of Heart
We worship a God who is jealous for our attention and we live in a world that offers an endless supply of distractions. I justify my behavior by saying, “Jesus, I’m doing this for you!” I need to clean up while people are here so there are no distractions between them and God. Jesus gently replies, “No my child, you are doing it for yourself, in my name. You are the distraction.” Ouch.
Jesus replies the same way to Martha. The Message says, “Martha, dear Martha, you’re fussing far too much and getting yourself worked up over nothing. One thing only is essential, and Mary has chosen it—it’s the main course, and won’t be taken from her.”
Jesus isn’t telling Martha that her preparations are bad. He is saying that they have taken his place in her heart. Only one thing is needed: a heart held captive by God. Mary has chosen what is essential.
I’m a Martha. I am anxious and troubled about a huge list of things that have to get done before I can sit down. We have people over to eat good food and enjoy one another’s company. I want my home to be a welcoming hospital for the broken and hurting of the world to come in and be healed by the Physician. But the Spirit cannot speak through me when I am distracted with the ministry of “doing”. Christ no longer holds my heart captive, my selfish desires do.
My friend recently took her daughter to story time at the library. The children were seated looking at the storyteller. Every child had a view of the book until her child decided to stand up for a better view. She blocked everyone else’s view of the book. The other kids were now focused on her and not the story. They couldn’t see through her to the storyteller.
Martha was so consumed with her ministry she blocks the view of Jesus. “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.’” (Luke 10:40) How often are we the ones who stand up in front of Jesus while blocking others’ view? And we do it in the name of our ministry.
So how do we stay Christ-centered at a simple gathering? For me, it means putting 2 Corinthians 10:5 into practice by “taking captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” When I get the itch to do the dishes that are piling up, I say a quick prayer to refocus my heart on Christ. Through the gospel, he alone offers me freedom from idolizing hospitality toward others.
It’s okay to be prepared, but as soon as the door opens, preparation should stop. Chances are, your house is already spotless and most of the food is ready to go. You've been there, done that. Something will always need to be cleaned, but company will not always be with you. So when you feel a Martha tendency surfacing, refocus your heart. Make Christ the ‘main course’ of your fellowship because it can’t be taken from you. Your friends are willingly walking into a Christ-centered environment, so make the most of it for Christ and the gospel.
In the grand scheme of things, what will you remember later in life? Will you remember you checked everything off your to-do list? Or how awesome it was to experience God’s presence in your home? Let’s make it a priority to focus on Christ who is Lord of our ministries rather than the ministry itself.
Danielle Brooks lives in St. Augustine, Florida where she owns and operates Danielle Brooks Photography. Danielle and her husband, Rich, attend Coquina Community Church and host various weekly gatherings in their home. They are also parents to a crazy Russian Blue cat named Ava.