Spending time alone with God is an essential part of the Christian life. Time when we can rest in his presence, read his word and speak to him in prayer. However, many of us are consumed by our busy lifestyles and responsibilities. As a result, we can easily push this time to the side and give it less priority.
Does that sound like you at all?
I know it certainly describes me.
I can even get busy serving God in church, taking part in different ministries, writing these blog posts, and doing things on His behalf. Yet, despite all of that, it can still feel as if I have not spent any quality time with Jesus. I can neglect to listen to His voice and spend time in His word.
This is a concern for us all as Christians, and a trap that Jesus saw we can easily fall into if we’re not careful. In Luke’s gospel, this very situation happens when He visits two of His friends, Mary and Martha, at their house.
Jesus’ visit with Mary and Martha
In Luke 10:38-42, Jesus visits His two friends, Mary and Martha, who are two sisters who live in Bethany. They also have a brother named Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead in John 11. However, he’s not present on this occasion.
After Jesus arrives, Martha spends all of her time distracted and getting things ready in preparation for Jesus. We don’t know exactly what that involves. However, it’s not hard to imagine she spends most of the time in the kitchen, or making sure everything is in order, especially if He might be spending a few days there.
On the other hand, Mary simply sits at the Lord’s feet listening to what He has to say.
Not long after, Martha realises that she’s doing all of the work herself and expresses her frustration. She comes to Jesus and says in verse 40:
“Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her to help me.”
Jesus replies “Martha, Martha. 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.”
The importance of spending time with Jesus
Have you ever hosted a party or dinner and found yourself spending the whole time serving or waiting on people? At the end of the evening, you find that you haven’t spent any quality time at all with your guests, or your conversations have been very superficial and fleeting. I know I’ve done that before, which is why I generally prefer other people’s parties to my own.
This is similar to what has happened here with Martha. She gets so caught up with trying to be hospitable and making sure everything is just right, that she neglects her guest and forgets the whole reason Jesus was there in the first place. To spend time with them and enjoy their company.
Now it’s important to make sure that we don’t start writing Martha off as a perpetual busybody. We mustn’t view everything that she does negatively and begin to read that into all of her actions or words either here, or in John’s gospel where she also appears.
I’ve written an article here on 3 reasons why it’s good to be a Martha as well as a Mary. Be sure to check it out, where you’ll see all the positive qualities that she does have.
In the same article, I mentioned the The 5 Love Languages by Gary Chapman. We all express our love to others in different ways. This can be through quality time, words of affirmation, physical touch, acts of service and giving gifts. Each are equally valid and needed in a relationship.
Martha’s love language seems to be acts of service, while Mary’s is quality time. That doesn’t mean that one loves Jesus more than the other. They simply express it in different ways.
Jesus Himself isn’t saying that service is even a bad thing, since His own ministry is one of servanthood. However, throughout His ministry, Jesus does also spend a great deal of time with the Father in prayer. Often, He goes out by Himself to pray for a whole night.
We can end up doing things in our own strength when we don’t spend time in prayer with God.
3 reasons for sitting at Jesus’ feet
1. It allows us to hear from God first
R Kent-Hughes explains in his commentary, Luke: That You May Know The Truth, that the patristic church often regarded Martha as symbolic of the active life and Mary as symbolic of the contemplative life. However, this is an incorrect reading of this passage. He quotes Catholic Biblical scholar Joseph Fitzmyer, who explains:
“To read this episode as a commendation of contemplative life over against active life is to allegorize it beyond recognition and to introduce a distinction that was born only of later preoccupations.”
Kent-Hughes goes on to add that:
“The story of Mary and Martha is actually about the necessity of the priority of the Word of God in a life of active service for the Master. In fact, the teachings of Jesus were dramatically actualized in both women’s lives. Both are women of excellence and noble character.”
R Kent-Hughes points out that women were not forbidden in Judaism to receive instruction in the Torah. However, it was unheard of for a rabbi to allow a woman to sit at his feet. Sitting here at his feet demonstrated that she wanted to learn from Jesus.
In Luke 8:4-15, Jesus tells the parable of the sower and the importance of hearing the word of God. In verse 14, when He is explaining the meaning of the parable, He warns against seed that falls among thorns. This represents those who hear the word of God but then go on their way as they are choked by life’s worries, riches and pleasures, and they do not mature.
While Martha may not necessarily be like the seeds falling among thorns, she is becoming choked by certain worries and not taking time to hear the word of God.
Jesus had been on the road to Jerusalem when he dropped by at the two sisters’ house. While He would’ve appreciated a meal no doubt, He was more interested in both Mary and Martha’s company, and being able to share things with them. Martha instead prioritised serving over hearing.
Kent-Hughes observes the use of the word “distracted” in the passage. It suggests that Martha did in fact want to sit and hear Jesus as well. However, she was being constantly pulled away by serving. She was going back and forth with all the preparations instead of sitting still.
In that culture, hospitality and childbearing would’ve been the things that were a measure of a woman’s worth. These gave her a sense of identity. Martha was trying to be hospitable, as it showed her worth, especially to Jesus. However, Jesus wanted her to trust in Him for her identity and value.
Martha also didn’t want to fail as a host. Jesus was a good friend of hers, and she didn’t want Him to think she was not making Him feel welcome. But she was missing the point.
She was distracted by many things. Jesus understood all of that. These things were important, but not the most important thing.
The one thing Martha needed was to cease all her activities and sit at Jesus’ feet and hear his word. That was the better part. The most important thing. To be in a relationship with Him and to hear from Him.
In order to love Jesus, we must listen to His words. Hearing His words comes before doing
It is difficult to find the correct balance in a busy world today. Christian author Joanna Weaver discusses in her book Having a Mary Heart in a Martha World: Finding Intimacy with God in the Busyness of Life how to achieve the correct balance between being both a Martha and Mary. However, she rightly doesn’t dismiss Martha’s service-oriented approach.
2. It shows that we recognise who He is
The act of being at a person’s feet in the gospels has a special significance. In many instances, a person falls at Jesus’ feet.
In Luke 17:16, the Samaritan leper falls at Jesus’ feet in gratitude after Jesus heals him. The demoniac known as Legion also falls at Jesus’ feet begging for mercy. Later, he is sitting at Jesus’ feet when he is clothed and in his right mind.
In many instances where we encounter Mary of Bethany, we find her at the feet of Jesus. Not only here in Luke 10, but also in John 11. There she says “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Immediately she falls at his feet, even though she does not confess the same hope as Martha. Later, in John 12, we find Mary anointing Jesus’ feet.
Being at Jesus’ feet represents an act of worship and giving Him the same honour reserved for God. It is an open acknowledgement that a person recognises who Jesus is, and that there is something special about him. I’ve spoken more about Mary anointing Jesus’ feet and the significance of that here.
Martha appears to have learnt from Jesus’ visit in Luke 10:38-42, for she later demonstrates that she recognises who Jesus is.
Kent-Hughes observes that Martha does, like Mary, choose the good part. We know this because of her own confession of faith in John 11:21-27.
In verse 27, she confesses:
“Yes Lord. I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is come into the world.”
As Kent-Hughes notes:
“How did Martha come to this? She had chosen the “one thing.” She sat with Mary at Jesus’ feet. She was an avid hearer of the Word. And the church was built on the granite of such confession. We should never, ever disdain Martha.”
3. It shows a sense of trust
Not only does being at Jesus’ feet show that we acknowledges who He is, but it also demonstrates a sense of trust.
Although Mary didn’t make the same declaration of faith that Martha did in John 11, the fact that she fell at Jesus’ feet would’ve had a similar effect. It would also have shown that she trusted that Jesus would be able to work in the situation even though Lazarus was dead.
When she sat at Jesus’ feet in Luke 10, there was a similar sense of quiet trust. She rested in Jesus’ presence and did not worry about all these other things, like her sister Martha.
As Martha became more distracted with all the preparations she had to make, she ended up irritated with her sister Mary for not helping. To make matters worse, she took her anger out on Jesus and demanded that He tell Mary to help her. The very reason Jesus had come to visit her today was to spend time with her, but she ended up missing the point of that.
Jesus acknowledged that Martha was concerned by all these things. Even if Mary had helped her out, it is likely that Martha may still have worried. She was allowing the task of serving to overwhelm her. Jesus said that one thing was needed.
When Jesus says that Mary has chosen what is better, many translations translate this as choosing the “better part”. The Greek word translated as “part” can also mean “portion”. This can refer to a portion of food, but can be used in a metaphorical sense too. For example, in Psalm 119:57, it says “You are my portion Lord; I have promised to obey your words.”
Often when “portion” is used in this sense, it indicates that God is all we need.
Resting in God is an act of trust. When we do that, we don’t put things into our own hands but leave them in God’s hands.
As 1 Corinthians 3:6-8 says:
“I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labour. For we are co-workers in God’s service; you are God’s field, God’s building.” (NIV)
By trusting in God, we can understand that we are only co-workers and stewards of God’s work. We are not the ones who makes things happen. It is God himself.
When we go about serving, even to please God, we can end up striving and trying to define our own identity. We find ourselves doing it all in our own strength.
In Matthew 11:28-30, Jesus says:
28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
This is something that Martha had to learn. To take Jesus’ yoke upon her and learn from Him. It was the one thing needed. To listen to Jesus’ voice and sit at His feet and to soak up His word.
This is the challenge to each of us. But don’t fool yourself that just because you’re not busy or serving, that you’re seeking the good part. I know what it’s like to be sitting still trying to have a quiet time, but distracted by other thoughts or my phone. I’m not rushing around in that moment, but I’m still distracted by many things.
Spending time at Jesus’ feet is important and is the “one thing” or “good portion” that we all need to seek. It is essential to hear God’s word and dwell upon it.
Joanna Weaver has written an excellent devotional called At the Feet of Jesus that helps us to focus on who Jesus is and set aside the distractions of our duties.
Do you find it difficult to sit still, draw on the word of God and rest in his presence? Or are you distracted by the cares of this world or serving? Have you managed to find the correct balance yet? If so, how have you achieved this?
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Robert is the founder of Drawing on the Word. He has a Bachelor’s degree in Theology and a Master’s degree in Systematic Theology. He also has a degree in Law and was called to the Bar. Robert previously taught religious studies and was a theology lecturer. He is an artist, musician and writer, and has created a graphic novel version of Luke’s gospel. You can follow him below.