Finding the Right Balance"Many things are important in life, but only one thing is needful: that we listen attentively to the voice of Jesus, and that we do His will."
The search for a proper balance between work and worship, between duty and devotion, is as old as religion itself. Often it isn’t easy to discern the proper ratio.
The people of Israel faced the dilemma on more than one occasion. The prophet Samuel, in his farewell address, reminded the people of “all the righteous acts performed by the Lord for you and your fathers.”
He continued, “Now then stand still and see this great thing the Lord is about to do before your eyes.” It was almost as if he were saying, “Don’t just do something. Stand there and hear what the Lord is saying.”
But on another occasion, when Joshua and the elders were prostrate before the Lord because of the sin of Achan, the command of God was to “stand up … Go consecrate the people.” Could not the Almighty just as easily have said, “Don’t just stand there. Do something”?
The two extremes of doing instead of listening, or listening instead of doing, were evident on yet another occasion, when Jesus visited the home of Martha, Mary and Lazarus in Bethany.
On this particular day when Jesus was visiting, Mary sat at Jesus’ feet, enthralled by His teaching. Meanwhile, Martha was so busy with household chores and meal preparation that she scarcely had a moment to be with Jesus—who, after all, was her guest.
Finally, her patience exhausted, Martha went to Jesus with her complaint.
“Lord,” she said, “don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me.”
But Jesus answered, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset by many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken from her.”
We can assume from the context that Mary was neither lazy nor insensitive to the fact that there was work to be done. If Mary never helped with the housework and the preparation of meals, Martha hardly would have expected her to help on this occasion. Indeed, judging by Martha’s complaint, ordinarily Mary would have been in the kitchen working side-by-side with her sister.
But as far as Mary was concerned, there was no option. Jesus was speaking, and she needed to listen. No inner voice of conscience condemned her. She was doing what she needed to do, and she had the Lord’s approval.
In our day, when so many voices clamor for attention, it is vital that we sit at the feet of Jesus and hear His word.
But Martha, of course, had other thoughts.
Let’s face it. The ministry of the gospel calls for physical labor. Ask any Salvation Army officer about his or her day. Devotion is a requisite, but 100 different tasks also demand time and manual effort.
We must be clear about one thing. Martha was busy at a good and honorable activity. She was doing what any responsible housekeeper would do.
But there were two obvious flaws.
First, she fell victim to self-pity, which led to a spirit of anger towards her sister.
Approaching Jesus, apparently in front of those assembled to hear Him, she complained, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me.”
In retrospect, wouldn’t it have been much better for Martha to speak directly and privately to Mary? Misunderstandings between individuals often can be settled by a frank but friendly discussion. When those misunderstandings are aired in public, a quick, peaceful settlement is more difficult to achieve.
One must wonder what Martha’s real motives were. Was her sole aim to make her home as comfortable as possible for Jesus and His disciples? Or was she looking for compliments, hoping to be seen as a martyr?
Martha’s second error was putting more emphasis than was needed on the physical and mundane.
Martha was worried and upset. The Living Bible describes her as “the jittery type [who] was worrying over the big dinner she was preparing.”
Jesus rebuked her in the spirit of love and helpfulness. “Martha, Martha,” He said, “you are worried and upset by many things.” Or, as the Living Bible puts it, “Martha, dear friend, you are upset over all these details.”
Jesus did not “put down” Martha. He realized, as did King Solomon, that “there is a time for every activity under heaven.” There was no question about the necessity of cleaning the house and cooking the meals—at the proper time. But God has His priorities, and so must we.
There are many modern Marthas and Martins who are so busy doing the work of the Lord that they never discover His will. It is better to please Christ than to work for Him, although the two are not mutually exclusive. Very often we please God by working for Him and for others.
When Jesus said to Martha, “Mary has chosen the better part, and it will not be taken away from her,” He was not only defending Mary’s action; He was also uttering an eternal truth. Mary was correct in the choice she made, and Jesus would not ask her to do kitchen duty at that time. He declared that what she gained from communion with Him had everlasting value. The words of Jesus, which she hid in her heart, could never be taken from her. Throughout her life they would be a source of spiritual strength.
Many things are important in life, but only one thing is needful: that we listen attentively to the voice of Jesus, and that we do His will.
Commissioner Robert E. Thomson is a retired Salvation Army officer and freelance writer with more than 100 by-lines in a variety of periodicals.