The story of Mary and Martha gives us a fitting picture of giving and receiving hospitality.
You know the story. One sister bustles around the house doing all the things, her hands full, her mind distracted, while the other sits by Jesus and hangs on His every word.
As a woman and a mother, I am accustomed to the role of doer — the perpetual Martha, constantly at work with the cooking, cleaning, and serving. When my husband (and Jesus) urge me to rest, I retort that the work won’t get done unless I do it. Any attempt to be like Mary finds me frantic and jittery, counting minutes until I can get up and busy my hands once more.
A grace-filled change arrived recently in the form of a spontaneous trip to visit friends overseas. A nine-day trip, alone, chiefly occupying the role of visitor. To my friends, I was the one who paid for a plane ticket, who gave up my time to visit them, so I was lavishly spoiled as a guest.
But I found the change of position problematic.
During the trip I pondered the paradox of my life — that although Martha was busy and possibly overlooked what her Lord was up to, she got stuff done. Suddenly, on my trip, my hands were empty of tasks and requirements. Imagine how bare and useless I felt as I moved through people’s homes and sat around their tables with nothing to do.
As difficult as it was at times being Martha, being Mary was harder.
With every meal cooked for me, every museum ticket or dinner paid for, I kept a mental tally in my head of how much I owed my hosts — how they had sacrificed time and money for my visit, how they cooked and cleaned to show me a good time. Many times I had been on the giving end of this transaction, and it was by far the easier place to stand. By the end of the trip I was mentally scrambling to find a way to “pay back” the hospitality that was shown to me during my visit.
In my newfound role as Mary, I heard God’s whisper: Let it be.
Let my hosts sit on the giving end of the table.
Let them share. Let them sacrifice. Let them give freely because they appreciate me.
The parallels between my hosts and Jesus Himself were too pointed to ignore. If I was so terrible at receiving a few meals, some shared groceries, and a guest bed, how much less was I receiving God’s most precious gift? How much was I hustling for my own salvation?
My Martha-ness showed even more starkly. Martha wasn’t just worried about getting stuff done; she was trying to show Jesus how well she managed the situation, how much she cooked, cleaned, and served, how many things she accomplished by her own efforts.
He watched patiently and then urged her to choose the better thing: to sit and receive, to allow hosts to share their gifts, to swim in the ocean called grace and soak up generosity.
As we move through life together, we all take our turns at opposite ends of the table. Sometimes we are the ones cooking an extra meal or folding additional loads of laundry, driving out of our way to do a friend a favor, or committing countless, unseen acts of service. For most of us, this is the more comfortable thing to do.
Know that the tables will turn. You will need a friend to babysit, change your tire, or share their spare room for seemingly endless days. Your hands will be empty, and you will feel the weight of a debt.
Those are the moments to force ourselves to be Mary, to graciously say thank you, to know that we were lovingly served, to let it pour over us and simply receive, which, in a different and beautiful way, is also an act of service.