“Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things. Only one thing is important. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken from her.”
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This is the first article I ever wrote and sent in to a magazine. No one was more surprised than me when HomeLife bought and published it. From November, 1996, here’s the lesson God taught me about Martha and Mary.
I went on a cleaning jag recently. Closets were emptied, drawers rearranged, papers tossed. Whenever this mood strikes, I become so focused I don’t want to stop for anything. So when a friend called to ask if my children and I would like to join them for an outing, my refusal was instantaneous. “If I stop now, I’ll lose my momentum. Maybe tomorrow—if I find an extra hour,” I suggested lamely.
She laughed. “Shannon, if you found an extra hour, you would probably alphabetize the condiments in your refrigerator.”
I knew she was joking. But in my mind the wheels began spinning … mayonnaise next to mustard, then olives … as I scribbled “reorganize fridge” on my job list. But my four-year old son and 10-year old foster daughter rushed through the back door. Both Zac and Ashley were covered with sand, and Ashley looked utterly devastated.
“Look, Mom,” she whimpered, thrusting a stiff, dripping chicken corpse toward me. “Another hen fell in the pond!”
Clearly she wanted my sympathy. But while she mourned the chicken, I grieved over my carpet, where sand and pond muck now covered my beautiful vacuum tracks.
I got the vacuum out—again—and helped Ashley clean the carpet. As we worked my temper rose, and by the time we finished I had mustered up a good bit of steam. Annoyed at the setback, I announced, “There won’t be time to make those cookies we’d planned on since my whole schedule has been thrown off.”
As the morning progressed, I scurried to get back on track. Pushing harder, I actually made up all that lost time, and just before lunch I decided I could spare 10 minutes to meet with my Creator. With a satisfied glance at my orderly dining room, I opened my Bible to Luke 10 and began reading the account of Mary and Martha, those infamous “M” sisters.
As always, I clucked my tongue disapprovingly at Martha. I mean, really. How could she have whined? And to Jesus, of all people! The Lord Himself sat in her living room, and all she could think of was divvying up the dishes. Couldn’t she hear her plaintive tone, begging Jesus to referee and make Mary help?
What a shame! While Mary sat at the feet of her Lord, soaking in every precious word, Martha fumed in the other room, wrapped in self-pity and missing the big picture.
The sound of little feet running up the porch steps drew my attention to the sliding glass door. If that boy traipses more sand into this house …
Ashley’s voice filtered in through the closed door, interrupting my silent warning. “Where ya going, Zac?”
His breathless voice was animated. “I found a bird’s nest! I want Mom to come see!”
Hidden just beyond the door, safe where they couldn’t see me, I smiled and eavesdropped.
“Don’t pester Mom.”
“But I want her!”
My smile broadened. And then it died altogether as Ashley steered Zac away from the door and their voices trailed down the stairs. “You know she’s much too busy cleaning to come and see a dumb bird’s nest.”
My whole body stiffened. I stared at the passage I had just read. It couldn’t be. I am not Martha!
I reread verse 40. “Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made.”
Well, of course she was distracted! She was the hostess! When you have guests, you feed them—don’t you? Suddenly I was defending her. Maybe there was more Martha in me than I wanted to believe.
What would I have done? Would I have dropped to my knees before Jesus and waited on His every word? Or would I have stomped around the kitchen, muttering under my breath about that lazy sibling of mine?
I wanted to deny the truth, but couldn’t. I could practically hear my own “go-ahead-and-take-advantage-of-me-that’s-what-I’m-on-the-earth-for” tone of voice as I brought sheep-liver pate and manna a la mode to the guests in the living room. Big sigh. Rolled eyes. “Don’t bother getting up, Mary. Jesus, I’d love to stay and chat, but there are dishes to be washed, and you’ll probably all be wanting freshly crushed grape juice soon so I guess I’ll just … (big sigh) … head back to the kitchen.”
I had one of those moments of stark realization as I saw myself through the eyes of my family. How many times had I been Martha while they longed for Mary? How many bird’s nests had gone unshared?
I don’t want to be Martha! Martha was wrong; Mary was right … right? But why?
My confused gaze fell on the Bible’s margin where several “look-up” options were listed, and I read them over a few times until they Lord prompted me back to one particular phrase: Wise Choice.
Wise Choice. One choice smarter than another. That didn’t necessarily imply one was good and one was bad. It just meant one was better, wiser. Could it really be that simple?
Jesus’ words in verse 41 confirmed it. “Mary has chosen what is better.” So that was it. Martha’s choice had not been bad—it had simply not been the wisest choice for that moment. Apparently her guests would have survived if she had taken time to sit at the feet of her Lord.
And what of my children? Certainly they need laundered clothes and clean dishes and nutritious meals. But is it just possible they also need a mother who knows as well how to be Mary as she does how to be Martha?
I was duly convicted. I determined, on the spot, that I would “sit on the floor” with my children at least once that afternoon. I would set aside my life-and-death cleaning schedule for a period and be their Mary.
My opportunity came without warning. The kids were finishing their lunch, and I was making a cup of coffee for the planned “moment” when I would honor them with my attention. The house was in order; the stage was set; it was almost time. Unexpectedly, the container of coffee slipped out of my hands and coffee grounds sprang to freedom all over my just-swept floor. I groaned. Another setback.
The broom I retrieved from the laundry room was still warm from the last time I’d used it. Hurriedly, I started tracking down all the renegade grounds from the far corners of my spotless kitchen. As the pile came together, my breathing began to normalize. That hadn’t been so bad. It hadn’t thrown my schedule off by more than a few minutes. But then the Lord intervened.
“Oooh, Mom! Look! You made an ‘M’!” Zachary announced with glee, one spaghetti-stained little finger pointing to the pile of grounds. “Do it again!”
I looked at the pile. It took a second, but there it was. A rather nice ‘M.’
“Do it again,” he repeated.
Was he crazy? We had a big afternoon ahead of us. First, we were going out for a quick look at that nest; then we were going to come back and read a nice, short book. If all went well, we might even color together on the floor. I couldn’t make a detour here or it would throw off the whole … Did he say, “M?”
I looked again. There it was, and it screamed, “Martha.”
Dear Lord, I prayed, help me to be Mary.
I made a swipe at the floor. Ashley squealed with delight. “There’s a mermaid—do you see her?”
The rules developed quickly. Only one swipe allowed, and I couldn’t swipe again until we’d seen something. There was an aquatic theme to that particular pile of coffee grounds. During the 10 or 15 minutes we played the game, we saw a whale, a dolphin, scuba diver, jellyfish, and of course, Ashley’s mermaid. But there were other surprises. We saw flowers and hands, a spoon, a dog, and even a bungee jumper.
I was stunned. The lesson was simple: you can’t schedule time to be Mary, for she is spontaneous. She hides in the shadows, waiting for an unguarded moment. And she whispers. The choice of whose voice you listen to is entirely yours—but you must be determined if you want to hear Mary, for Martha’s outcries will always be many and loud.
The children groaned disappointedly when I announced, “last swipe,” but they cheered when I got the chocolate chips down from the cupboard. I decided we had time for baking after all.
Ashley had one parting suggestion as she put the broom away for me. “Next time let’s try that game with a box of macaroni and cheese.”
I’m new at this, honey. Let’s not push it.