Jenna was five years old. Andrea was three. Sara was a newborn. They were too young to accomplish much on the keyboard but not too young to put on a recital for Daddy. So they did. Almost nightly. Perhaps it was a ploy to postpone bedtime. If so, it worked. What father can resist this invitation: “Daddy, can I play you a song?”
“Me too, Daddy. Can I play you something on the piano?”
“Of course,” I’d say. Consequently the scene repeated itself often. Little girl on piano bench. Clad in footie pajamas. Hair still wet from the bath. Pounding the keys more than playing them. Upon completion she would bounce down from the bench and curtsy. I would applaud. Denalyn would applaud. Sister number two would take her turn; the scene would be repeated. It was a delight . . . most nights . . . except for the fights. (Sorry, Jenna and Andrea, but there were a few.)
Jenna would, in Andrea’s opinion, play too long. Andrea would climb up next to Jenna and start edging her off the bench. Or Andrea would mess up the song, and Jenna would insist on showing her how to play correctly. Andrea didn’t want help. A squabble would ensue.
“But, Daddy, she’s not playing it right.”
“But, Daddy, it’s my turn.”
“But, Daddy . . .”
What they didn’t understand and what I would try to explain was this: Daddy wasn’t grading the song. Daddy didn’t need to be impressed. Daddy didn’t need a performance, a presentation, or a contest. Daddy just enjoyed being with his girls. Competition and comparison turned my little darlings into tyrants. “Can’t we just be together?” I’d say.
Jesus once said the same to two sisters. In their house competition and comparison threatened to ruin a good evening.
As Jesus and the disciples continued on their way to Jerusalem, they came to a certain village where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. Her sister, Mary, sat at the Lord’s feet, listening to what he taught. But Martha was distracted by the big dinner she was preparing. She came to Jesus and said, “Lord, doesn’t it seem unfair to you that my sister just sits here while I do all the work? Tell her to come and help me.”
But the Lord said to her, “My dear Martha, you are worried and upset over all these details! There is only one thing worth being concerned about. Mary has discovered it, and it will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38–42 NLT)
Gospel writer Luke embedded in his first sentence a few hints about the personality of Martha. “Martha welcomed [Jesus] into her home” (v. 38 NLT).
Martha was the one-person welcoming committee. Not Martha and Mary. Not Martha and Mary and Lazarus. Just Martha.
In my imagination she stands on the porch and welcomes Jesus into “her home.” Not their home. Hers. Lazarus lives there. Mary lives there. But this is Martha’s domain.
And this is Martha’s moment. Wide-open arms. “Come in, come in!” This is a big day. And Martha has in mind a “big dinner” (v. 40 NLT).
She escorts Jesus into the living room and offers him a chair. She gestures to his friends to make themselves at home. Jesus takes a seat, and Martha is about to do the same when she hears a noise from the kitchen.
Ding, ding. The soup is ready. The carrot-ginger soup that her namesake prepared on The Martha Stewart Show. Martha of Bethany remembers Martha of Stewart’s warning not to let the soup get too hot or sit too long.
“Excuse me, Jesus,” she says. “I need to mind the soup.”
She hurries into the kitchen, grabs her apron off the hook, and ties it behind her back. She slides the pot off the burner, dips a wooden spoon into the soup, and samples it. She nearly gags. It is as bland as egg whites. That’s when she realizes she’d forgotten the ginger! Martha of Stewart had looked at the camera and reminded, “Don’t forget the ginger.” But what had Martha of Bethany forgotten? The ginger. She throws open the wooden shutters and looks into the adjacent room. The disciples are chatting, laughing, talking.
“Dinner might be late!” she announces.
Jesus looks up and smiles. “No problem.”
Martha feverishly sets about making more soup. Skipping the soup course, of course, is out of the question. She is preparing a “big dinner.” She has the evening all mapped out in her mind. She will give Jesus soup. The disciples will watch. Yea verily the celestial audience will pause as Jesus will all but fall over with delight. “This soup is delicious,” he will say. “Divine! Heavenly! The broth of angels!”
Martha will blush and pretend to dismiss the compliment. “Oh, Jesus, it’s nothing. I just threw it together.” By now a crowd will have gathered on the front lawn. Perhaps a news truck or two. They will pass the word up and down the street. “Jesus is in Martha’s house, and he loves Martha’s soup.”
Of course, none of that celebration will happen if Martha doesn’t make the soup. So she relights the stove.
Then she checks the meatloaf. It has to be basted twice, once with tomato sauce and once with honey. It is time for basting number two. She sets the meatloaf on the counter. As she opens the pantry to fetch the honey, she spots the pitcher of mint tea on the counter. Horror of horrors! “I forgot to serve the mint tea!” What kind of hostess is she? She grabs a tray, fills glasses with ice, and hurries through the swinging doors.
Jesus by now is surely surly with thirst. She expects him to glare at her, glance at his watch, and arch his eyebrows. But he isn’t upset. He is sitting on the edge of his chair telling a story. His eyes are dancing. His hands are motioning. The disciples are smiling at his description of a Jewish boy who was feeding pigs.
And right smack in front of him, sitting cross-legged on the floor, is Mary, her baby sister.
“Pigs?” Mary asks.
“Yes, pigs!” Jesus affirms.
Martha steps over with her apology and tray of tea. “I am so sorry. I forgot the tea. You must think I am a terrible hostess. But, you see, I forgot the ginger and had to remake the soup. And the meatloaf . . . oh, the meatloaf!”
She sets the tray on the table and hurries back into the kitchen. She slaps sauce on the meatloaf. “Just in time,” she says as she places it back in the oven.
She takes the cutting board and begins slicing veggies. Through the open wooden shutters she sees Mary and Jesus. Her sister is laughing. Jesus is gearing up to tell another story. That’s when it dawns on Martha. Why isn’t Mary helping me? Mary could have cut the carrots or washed the celery. She could certainly do something.
Martha turns up the heat on the soup. And she feels the heat rise in her heart. Did her sister not know there was work to be done? The silverware is still in the drawer. The glasses are still in the pantry.
Martha releases an audible sigh. She carries an armful of plates into the dining room and sets them loudly on the table. No response. She feels her jaw tighten as she returns to the kitchen to stir the soup.
Within moments she marches back into the living room with the wooden spoon still in hand and slaps it in her palm, demanding, “Lord, doesn’t it seem unfair to you that my sister just sits here while I do all the work? Tell her to come and help me” (v. 40 NLT).
All conversation stops.
A dozen sets of eyes turn.
Mary looks down.
Jesus looks up.
Martha, cheeks flushed with anger, scowls. Her words hang in the air like the scrape of a fingernail on chalkboard.
What had happened to hospitable Martha, welcoming Martha? Luke gives us the answer. “Martha was distracted by the big dinner she was preparing” (v. 40 NLT). She had big plans to make a big impression with her big event. Instead she made a big mess. She became “worried and upset over all these details!” (v. 41 NLT).
Of all the ironies. Martha was in the presence of the Prince of Peace, yet she was the picture of stress.
What happened? What is the lesson behind Martha’s meltdown? That it’s a sin to cook? That hospitality is the Devil’s tool? No. The Bible makes a big deal out of parties and banquets. That it was wrong for her to expect Mary to help? Of course not.
Martha’s downfall was not her work or request; it was her motivation. I can’t help but think that she wasn’t serving Jesus; she was performing for him. She wasn’t making a meal for him; she was making a big deal about her service. She was suckered in with the subtlest of lies: self-promotion.
Self-promotion is all about self: “Look what I’ve done. Look what I’ve made.”
Self-promotion has little room for others: “She just sits.”
Self-promotion even bosses Jesus: “Tell them to get to work!”
Not a pretty sight.
Not a pleasant person.
Tell me, of the two sisters in the story, which would you rather spend time with—Martha or Mary?
Max Lucado, How Happiness Happens: Finding Lasting Joy in a World of Comparison, Disappointment, and Unmet Expectations (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2019).
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