You Gotta Serve Somebody

  I used to lead this mission trip to Mexico every year.  I think I must have led close to 8 trips--all to a small, very poor area just outside of Tijuana.  Unlike so many mission trips with Christian groups, we chose to really and truly embed our groups within the community rather than stay somewhere "safe" and then be bussed in to do work.

We felt pretty superior about our approach to missions, actually.  We were proud of our humility.

Then there was one trip where My friend Brian and I were the project leaders for a pretty large roof repair job.  Homes in the suburbs of Tijuana are not exactly constructed with simple roof repair in mind.  This one was no exception.  The family who lived there had added rooms to their house over the years when they were able to afford it and when they had materials.  We arrived to "fix" their roof, which was leaking badly and we had plenty of money and materials to spare.  We also had a lot of bright, shining Christian young people who were ready to solve problems and serve God. 

We were missing some things, though.  We had not bothered to talk to the family about what they wanted or needed.  And when we started to make a mess of things, we didn't see the need to seek the advice of the community.

The people in the neighborhood, including the residents of the house, were starting to scratch their heads and mumble to one another as they watched us.  Our group left the work site midweek full of discouragement, and starting to say things like, "Geez, if they would just build their roofs right the first time..."

That night the man, who lived in the house with his wife and several children, borrowed a hydraulic jack from a neighbor and had several of his friends help to actually jack his roof up so that he could put supports under it, using wood and materials that we had left there.  The result was nothing less than a transformation.  When we arrived the next day, the roof that had given us fits with all of it's unusual angles and pitches was perfectly even. 

We realized a couple of things:  First, the man didn't need us to fix his roof.  He just needed the materials, and he would have done it himself with the help of his family and neighbors.  Second, we hadn't bothered to ask him what he needed.  Instead we jumped on the roof, started tearing sections of it off, made a mess and then walked away frustrated at what a shoddy job he'd done in constructing it.

Both of these realizations made us feel pretty poor about ourselves, and not quite as smug about our concept of mission. 

When I was a kid I remember hearing the story of Mary and Martha--two sisters who were part of Jesus friend/disciple group--and a dinner party they threw for Jesus.  They lived in a town called Bethany, which was not far from Jerusalem.  Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem for the last time.  I've read some passages of the Bible where it talks about how he "set his face toward Jerusalem," which was an ancient way of saying: "He knew what was ahead of him, and he went there anyway."  What was ahead of him that would cause him to "set his face?"  Well only Betrayal... Arrest... Mock Trial... Execution...

So Jesus stops in Bethany on his way to Jersusalem and he stays at the house of Mary and Martha--two sisters who also had a brother named Lazarus, who Jesus merely raised from the dead.  They owed Jesus a great deal, in other words.  And Martha (whose name means "sovereign lady" or "ruling lady" in Aramaic) decided to put on a great feast.  We can tell by her name and by the way she bustles in the house that Martha is the Domestic Diva of the Martha-Mary-Lazarus household.

Jesus sits in the common area of the house with a number of the disciples and Mary plops herself down at his feet.  Meanwhile her sister the Domestic Diva is banging pots and rushing around in the kitchen trying to get dinner ready--the kind of dinner fit for the person who had raised her brother from the dead.  As the story goes, she finally reaches the breaking point and rushes into the room where Jesus is and asks him would he mind telling Mary to get off of her fat butt and come into the kitchen where she belongs.  Jesus sort of rebukes Martha and tells her that Mary is right where she is supposed to be, and that there are some things more important than busy-ness.

EVERY SINGLE sermon, Sunday school lesson or youth group talk that I have ever heard on this topic had the same punchline:  Martha = Bad Christian, Mary = Good Christian.  The main point that all of the pastors/youth leaders/Sunday school teachers of my youth made when they told this story was:  You should spend all of your time thinking and dreamily sitting at the feet of Jesus rather than being busy doing "works." Or to put it another way: You can do all of the good deeds you want, but if you don't spend time with Jesus you might not really be a Christian.  Or how about this:  Any Christian denomination that talks about good works might not necessarily be a Christian denomination.

Maybe I was reading into it a bit...  But there was definitely a bias toward Mary against Martha. 

Funny thing.  When you actually read the passage, it says something completely different.  Here it is:
38As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. 39She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet listening to what he said. 40But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, "Lord, don't you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!" 41"Martha, Martha," the Lord answered, "you are worried and upset about many things, 42but only one thing is needed.[f] Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her."
Okay.  Jesus didn't say: "Martha, you works righteousness, do-gooder.  What in the name of Me do you think you are doing?  Mary is obviously the far superior disciple--if I had to choose between the two of you.  She gets that Bible memorization and holy living are the ways to Heaven."

Quite the contrary, Jesus speaks to Martha in the kindest way possible.  And he tells her, "You are so upset, and you are busy with so many things."  Martha's heart was in the right place.  And, as we'll see in a minute, so was the rest of her--at least according to her culture.  But Martha was missing something that was very important.  Even though Jesus would have been grateful and thankful for the big dinner and all of the trouble it caused her, what he really wanted was to spend some time with his friends.  After all, he was about to go through hell for them.

All of the things that Martha was doing were good things.  They were honorable things.  As the matriarchal head of her household, they were also the "right" things, culturally. lt was considered an honor and a privilege to serve one's friends--to show hospitality.  As a woman, Martha's role was very clearly defined, and she obviously took a lot of pride in it.  There was no shame in it, and everyone in the room would have thought her beef against Mary was a valid one.

Mary, on the other hand, is not where she is supposed to be.  For a woman to be sitting at the feet of a rabbi would have been fairly shocking to the men in the room.  Here's what some of the Jewish teachings of the day asserted:
“If any man give his a daughter a knowledge of the law.  It is as though he taught her lechery.” - The Mishnah

Here's the thing...  Mary was in tune with what Jesus wanted right then.  I don't know a lot about Mary, to be honest with you.  Maybe she was a screw up.  Maybe Martha was the good daughter, who always did what she was supposed to do (likely) and Mary was the one who was always in trouble, always off picking flowers, flirting with boys, pretty much just doing what she wanted to do.  In this one moment, though, she just did what Jesus wanted her to do.

This really makes me think long and hard about all of the stuff that I do for God.  Am I really doing what Jesus needs me to do in the moment?  Have I bothered to ask?

I was reading today about all of the crazy tour riders that bands and artists demand before they will do a tour.  Aretha Franklin requires $25,000 in cash.  Beyonce needs her dressing room kept at 78 degrees.  Jay-Z requires that his be at 72 degrees. Celine Dion requires that her audience have really soft chairs to sit in, which is thoughtful.  However, when you consider the advanced age of her audience, you realize she's doing it out of self-defense.  The boys from Rascal Flatts require the services of a female masseuse for several hours before the show. The worst one I could find was Christina Aguilera's.  It's several pages of demanding, pointless crap that she "needs" before she will perform. 

How much of my service to God is predicated by my demands?  "God, I'll serve you if this is done, and this is the case, and if this happens..."  Even the really good things that I do so often are done on my own terms.  And if my requirements aren't met, then I take my toys and leave, or I complain... a lot. And I hardly ever really just stop and ask what Jesus needs

What would it look like if I did?

You know there may have been moments in Jesus ministry when Martha could have been doing exactly what Jesus needed her to do by being busy and not sitting at his feet.  But at that moment when he knew that time was short, all he wanted was to be with her. 

The Church needs to be willing to listen more carefully and prayerfully for the voice of Christ.  And we all need to make our acts of service about God and not about us.


  1. Well said! I always declaired I was Mary until about the hundredth time I read the story. It ocurred to me that Martha was focused on serving her Lord. I continually have to refocus and ask God to show me what he wants...good thing he knows our hearts.


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