Saying “No” to Good, Saying “Yes” to Best
by Marc Wallis
Many know the story of Martha & Mary, or at least a version of it. It’s a tale of two sisters who host Jesus and his followers for a meal.
Martha is busy cooking, cleaning, serving (basically being a good host) while Mary sits listening to Jesus.
Martha complains that Mary isn’t pulling her weight and that Jesus should command her sister to help her in the kitchen.
But instead, Jesus gently rebukes Martha and commends Mary.
The typical takeaway is Martha’s need for better work / life balance – to be more like Mary who’s able to sit and relax and just be with Jesus.
Don’t get me wrong – that’s super important, but there’s a deeper truth we often miss, hidden in the ancient context, that’s incredibly powerful for us now…
Two crucial things to know…
1. Scriptures say that Mary… “sat at the Lord’s feet listening.“ In First Century Israel this was a weighty phrase. Every Jew knew it was reserved specifically to describe a “disciple.” An honored student. An apprentice. One who would carry on the work of their Master. “To sit at the feet” of a Rabbi was a mark of honor, and a place, position and power reserved only for chosen followers and leaders-in-training.
2. First Century AD Women were not supposed to “sit at the feet” of Rabbi. Women were not allowed to be anyone’s “disciples.” In fact, women were not even supposed to be in the same room as men when a Rabbi was teaching.
So if you read Luke 10:38-42 with those two things in mind the narrative takes on a whole new meaning.
Martha isn’t mad primarily because she’s left alone to do the work – but because her sister is breaking the rules. Mary’s not staying within the BOUNDARIES of culture and “good” society. She’s not staying in her lane.
When Jesus responds to Martha’s complaints he does not reprimand her for working hard or being a dedicated host. Instead he gently corrects her for being “worried and upset.” Martha is worried about what people will say, about her sister breaking the rules, about being left out, about so many other things.
But Jesus says… “few things are needed – or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.“
Boom. Mic drop Jesus. Way to focus in on what’s really important.
It reminds me of a Steve Jobs’ quote that says, “People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not it at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas out there. You have to pick carefully…Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.”
Mary demonstrated this fact beautifully. She made healthy boundaries for herself so she could break unhealthy ones. She said NO to letting others’ opinions dictate her actions. NO to letting culture keep her from her Christ. NO to many good things so she could say YES to the best; to sitting at the feet Jesus. YES to pouring all of herself into her goal being a Disciple – to learning from the Master, to experiencing his presence and intimacy so she could grow and develop and do the work that was prepared for her.
In light of this historical context it is utterly fascinating to me, and, frankly, a little scandalous that Jesus did not rebuke Mary for being where she was not “allowed.“
In those days Jesus had the right, and likely the obligation, to correct Mary…to punish her presumptions, to chide her pride (rhyme boom), and make an example of her.
Yet he did none of those things. He did not embarrass, callout, correct, punish or belittle Mary…nor did he remind her that she was in a “man’s” place. He didn’t Mansplain and he certainly did not tell her to stay in her lane.
Instead he commended her.
He declared to all present that Mary, the boundary-maker and the boundary-breaker, had chosen what was better, and that that would never be taken from her.
Crazy stuff! Jesus is so compelling to me. Calling him “Progressive“ just doesn’t do it justice and misses the point. He goes far beyond the imaginary boundaries we create…and calls us to follow.
I pray that God’s Spirit gives us the courage and self-control to create healthy boundaries and say NO…not just to the bad, but to the mediocre – and even the good – so that we can say YES to what is truly important, to what is best – to sitting at the feet of the Master.