Is busyness a bad thing? Rev. David discusses his insights to living with busyness with the account of Mary and Martha, and the importance of observing the Sabbath.
by Rev. David Lee
“Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her (Luke 10:41-42).”
Martha had invited Jesus to her house. Ironically, instead of enjoying the time with her special guest, she was “drawn away” (that was how Luke described it in Greek) with much serving. To make matters worse, her sister Mary was oblivious to her plight, choosing to sit at the feet of Jesus herself, listening to His teaching. Feeling indignant, Martha wanted Jesus to reprimand Mary and order her to give Martha a hand. But to her surprise, Jesus gently rebuked Martha for being distracted and commended Mary for making the right choice.
Is Jesus implying there is no place for busyness in the life of His disciples? Are we to choose a life of quietness and restfulness (like Mary), over a busy and demanding life (like Martha)?
In the Gospels, Mary appeared to be the more contemplative and quiet of the two sisters. On another occasion, their brother Lazarus had fallen ill and subsequently succumbed to the sickness (John 11). When Jesus finally arrived at Bethany four days after Lazarus had died, it was the more aggressive Martha who went out to meet Jesus, while the more reserved Mary stayed at home until she was called for. Jesus went on to raise Lazarus from the tomb. Nevertheless, in spite of her quiet and reserved personality, Mary was someone who readily expressed her love for Jesus in very radical ways. At a subsequent dinner reception for Jesus, Mary anointed Him with ointment made from fine nard and cleaned His feet with her hair (John 12:1-8). Despite the disciples’ disapproval and indignation, Mary poured out her love and gratitude for Jesus unreservedly.
As we survey the Scriptures, this willingness for radical service is a common trait in the life of Jesus’ disciples. Paul claimed that he worked harder than any of the apostles by the grace of God that was within him (1 Cor 15:10b). In his own words, Paul was the least of all the apostles, indeed unworthy to be one because he had persecuted the Church of Christ. But it was perhaps this deep sense of unworthiness which gave birth to the depth of gratitude, compelling him to labour with all his might in his service to the God who had forgiven him in Christ.
Not just His followers, our Lord Jesus Himself worked tirelessly during His time on earth. On one occasion, thinking He was out of His mind, His family came intending to take Him away from ministry by force. The reason – He was pushing himself and His disciples too hard! They were ministering to the crowd to the point where they did not even have time to eat (Mark 3:20-21)! This must have been a pattern that His family had observed rather than an isolated incident to prompt them to act so drastically. Indeed, we recall in John 4 that Jesus skipped lunch, yet again, to minister to the Samaritan woman by the well. When His disciples returned from their lunch break, Jesus remarked to their embarrassment, “My food is to do the will of Him who sent me and to accomplish His work.” Jesus had been passionate about His Father’s business since He was a boy (Luke 2: 49). This zeal for God’s house never waned throughout His life (John 2:17). And we see this same zeal in the lives of His followers.
How then are we to understand the account of Mary and Martha? It would be strange for Jesus to frown at busyness, himself being a hard worker as we had seen above. Busyness, in and of itself, is not a bad thing – a lack of focus and devotion is. Jesus probably had the words of Psalm 16 in mind when He noted that Mary had chosen the good portion. Mary’s focus and single devotion was her Master. She refused to be drawn away from Jesus. He was her portion. Martha on the other hand, was pulled on all sides into her serving and away from Jesus. When she lost sight of her Lord, her initial enthusiasm at hosting Jesus quickly descended into unhappiness and grumbling against those around her.
God is well aware of our propensity to be distracted and to be carried away by our busyness. In His wisdom He had given to His covenant people a remedy.
“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God (Exodus 20:8-11).”
Note that we are to labour for six days on the work that God has entrusted to us. But the seventh day is to be set aside as a Sabbath day. The Sabbath is not just a day to rest but to set aside for the Lord. It is a time to be like Mary, sitting at the feet of Jesus, listening, delighting, contemplating. A time of intimacy with the Lord. The Sabbath reminds us of the reason for our diligence and labour. It reminds us that God is our portion, that it is Him we are serving.
Much more can be said about the Sabbath which this short article does not afford us. Suffice to say that this rhythm of working and resting in the Lord is perhaps the most important discipline we need to recover in our generation. If we are being pulled on all sides like Martha, taking a long vacation or switching to a less demanding job is not our solution. The one thing that is needed, as Jesus reminded Martha, is to make a choice – carve out that space in our daily and weekly schedule; cultivate a new rhythm of working and “sabbathing”. Only then will we be able to say with the Psalmist “The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot. The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; I have a godly heritage (Ps 16:5-6).”
Rev. David is married to Veronica and they have two lovely daughters, Alethea and Clara. He is currently serving as the Vicar of Chapel of the Resurrection.