Friday, June 19, 2009

A Tale of Two Sisters

Most of us know the story of Martha and Mary--how Jesus rebuked the older sister when she demanded that he tell Mary to come help her serve him. Jesus responded by saying that only one thing really matters, and Mary, who sat at Jesus' feet and listened, had found it.

But was Martha so unreasonable? She was an energetic, high-achieving woman who used her gifts to serve Jesus. Didn't that make her the perfect Christian? Any church would love to have several Marthas running their programs. And she would certainly fit well into our society, where busyness is a sign of importance.

But Martha failed to recognize the radical nature of the gospel. Most religions are about doing the right thing--or legalism. They set up a moral law for us to try to follow in order to please God. That's what Martha did. She tried to please Jesus by her behavior. But the gospel is revolutionary in that God first reconciled his wayward children to himself by paying the penalty for our sin. Then he said, in essence, that He wouldn't focus on behavior; instead, he would heal our hearts, the seat of all corruption. 

It's easy to fall into the trap of saying, "Thanks for the forgiveness, God! I'm so glad that I'm under grace and not under law, so I can do whatever I want. But of course I'll try to be good because I'm so grateful to you." This is actually legalism disguised by a faulty understanding of grace. If our conversion is real, we are born again by the Holy Spirit, but that's just the beginning. God wants to continue to work in us by his Spirit, so that our good deeds are wrought by him. Good works that flow from an unregenerate heart are like "a filthy garment," (Isaiah 64:6) and cannot please God. His grace can heal our corrupt hearts, if we let him. But legalism shuts God out. 

Legalism among the Galations got the Apostle Paul so bent out of shape that as soon as he finished greeting them with "Grace to you and peace from God, etc." he launched into a tirade that lasts throughout the letter. In Galations 3:1, he says, "You foolish Galations, who has bewitched you?" He wrote with large letters (6:11), accusing them of deserting him who called them for a gospel that is no gospel at all (1:6-7). He worried that they had suffered in vain (3:4). Clearly, Paul was very concerned.

And with good reason, because legalism is so insidious. If our behavior is good, we tend to think that we're pleasing God. But that's not necessarily true. "The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love." (Galations 5:6) God wants our good deeds to flow from a pure heart, and that comes from being truthful enough with ourselves to realize that we need the healing he offers.

He also wants us to know him so intimately that we have no trouble discerning his voice. And only by listening, like Mary did, can we really get to know him and experience his saving grace. 


Cindy said...

All true. But there is some defense for "Martha" people like me. God gives us the abilities we are blessed (or cursed) with. Being a "Martha" person is how God created us, not a choice. When Jesus says that Mary has chosen the better thing, he ignores the fact that someone had to be getting the meal ready, or whatever. Maybe Martha could have dropped everything and sat at His feet, too. But the personality and ability God gave her would'nt let her do that for very long. There wasy stuff to be done, and obviously Mary wasn't going to do it.

Just wanted to put in a plug for us compulsive organizers.

Anette Acker said...

It's definitely true that we're all different, and Martha was a doer. Jesus is not saying that he values some personality types more than others, nor is he saying that we shouldn't bother to get things done. Quite the contrary; he has prepared in advance good works for us to do.

This is the point: Our salvation is by faith, not by works. That means that Jesus wants to work through us instead of having us do things for him. Here's an example I read somewhere: Let's suppose you have a hand that just does whatever it wants to. It's always flopping around on your lap and doing random things that your brain has not ordered it to do. Well, that hand won't be very useful to you, because it's got a mind of its own, so it's never available. But the hand that takes orders from the brain can be very productive, doing whatever you want it to.

Jesus is the head, and we are members of his body. Martha was busy preparing food that Jesus hadn't asked for. He wanted her to join her sister and listen to what he had to say, so that she could be a useful hand, so to speak.