Martha and Discerning What’s Important

Not long ago I was talking to my adult daughter about when she was young. She made a comment that still pierces my heart by saying, “You weren’t around much when we were growing up.” I was stunned. I mentally disagreed and questioned it, but I also know that at this point my perception doesn’t matter. Although we have a great relationship now, what matters is her perception that other things were more important to me than her.

We all have limited time and want to make the most of it (Ephesians 5:16). But in order to do that, we need to distinguish between what is important and what is not. For I want you to understand what really matters, so that you may live pure and blameless lives until the day of Christ’s return” (Philippians 1:10). This is critical for everyone, but especially leaders since our decisions often have far-reaching consequences.

There is an instructive story with big implications in Luke 10:38–42. The context focuses on loving God and our neighbour (vv. 25–29). First, Jesus tells the parable of the good Samaritan, which was about loving one’s neighbour. Then comes the story of Mary and Martha illustrating love for God, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind” (Luke 10:27).

Jesus is invited to the home of Mary and Martha. Mary sits at Jesus’ feet listening as He taught and it seems Martha is interested but is distracted and continuously dragged away by the self-imposed pressure to prepare a big dinner. Finally, her frustration boils over, “‘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’” (vv.40–42).

Jesus commends Mary for choosing to listen to Him and will not allow Martha to deprive her of the opportunity to do so. Jesus’ lesson to Martha was that she had let her preparations become her priority and too burdensome. Although she wished to honour Him with an elaborate meal it was more important to listen to Him.

What leadership lessons can we learn from this?

Sometimes the good is the enemy of the best

The story is not meant to exalt contemplation above action, but to indicate the proper way to serve Jesus. This is by prioritizing Him and His Word. It is about the duty to listen to Jesus and the Word of God. Mary sits at Jesus’ feet as a learner. She was eager to learn from Jesus and this was an opportunity she seized upon. It is possible to have good motives but wrong priorities. Serving Jesus with action is good but not at the expense of spending time with Him and giving attention to His Word.

What we deem as important may not be important to Jesus

Martha mistakenly thought Jesus cared about the things that were most important to her—being hospitable by preparing a big meal. Some would counter that all that sounds great, but we do need to take care of domestic duties such as making meals, etcetera. They say it is too idealistic to spend all our time at Jesus’ feet.

But that is not what is being said. There was nothing wrong with preparing a meal for Jesus. It was how Martha was doing it, not leaving room for the most important thing. In reality while eating is necessary, it isn’t more important than Jesus and His Word. What Jesus says is most important should be most important to us too. His goals need to be our goals. We can too easily be concerned with, and distracted by, the values of this world, even the things we consider “necessities.”

“Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need.” (Matthew 6:33)

Our values manifest themselves in our relationships and attitudes toward others

Because Martha’s values were wrong, so was her attitude toward Mary and Jesus. She was frustrated with both of them—Mary, because she wasn’t helping, and Jesus because He didn’t seem to see the unfairness. He wasn’t saying to Mary what Martha thought He should. Our attitudes and frustrations with others are a weathervane indicating whether our values and goals are pointed in the right direction. When frustrated with others we need to ask ourselves, “What misplaced values are the cause of my frustrations?”

Successful leaders learn to do what’s important.