Embracing the Unfinished Journey: Insight from Martha & Mary

Embracing the Unfinished Journey: Insight from Martha & Mary December 17, 2023

Embracing the Unfinished Journey by Jeff McLain. Photo by Steffen Lemmerzahl on Unsplash.
Embracing the Unfinished Journey by Jeff McLain. Photo by Steffen Lemmerzahl on Unsplash.

Sometimes when I come home and look at the many repairs that I need to do on my house, I become defeated by the overwhelming amount of work that I think needs to be done. There are other moments in which I wake up and think about the many projects that I need to get to, but truthfully I never seem to be able to complete all of them. Many weeks, I am transparently overtaken with anxiety about what I have not yet accomplished, acquired, and/or achieved in my life. For some reason, there is something inside me that believes those things that I have not yet accomplished, acquired, and/or achieved define me in some negative way. It can be hard to embrace the unfinished journey, but embracing the unfinished journey can also be the step that gets us to the next level in life. Perhaps that feeling of not being enough is a sense of shame, guilt, or lack of honor or it could be a false narrative of failure by cultural standards, I don’t always know, but this sense of not being enough can become very overwhelming in very real and heavy ways. To top it off, in those moments, life and my social media feeds seem to have an uncanny and unique way of showing me the way everyone around me has seemed to accomplish, acquire, and/or achieve those things that I feel remain out of my grasp.

In contemplating the overwhelming myriad of items in my thoughts, as I wrestle with what embracing the unfinished journey means, I am reminded of the story of Martha and Mary in the scriptures. Let me preface such a reflection by saying that there are seemingly some scriptures that just get overly preached, idealized, or romanticized, and when they are mentioned we almost become triggered or disassociated from the moment. For me, and perhaps for you at times, such is often true about the story of Mary and Martha found in Luke 10:38-42. It has been overly done, and at times with an improper hermeneutical approach. As a result, I too often find myself slowly drifting away and disassociating from the moment. However, I must be honest, though this story and its imagery have been overly-used, it does not negate its truth and intent. In this passage, Jesus uniquely speaks to a life that is overtaken by a consumeristic expectation to accomplish, acquire, and achieve.

Martha Invites Jesus Into Her Home

In Luke’s story, it is Martha who invites Jesus into her home. I can relate to Martha, not only in her love for Jesus and her desire to bring him into her sanctuary and life but also because she wants to have the practice of hospitality at play in her life. The New International Version says Martha opened her home to Jesus. The King James Version says she received him. The word we translate for this act of opening and receiving Jesus is ὑποδέχομαι, and it is a word of personal responsibility to hospitality. Martha saw Jesus as under her personal care as he was in her home. I suspect having Jesus come into your home is a whole other level of stress. Though I love having individuals in my home, I always get stressed before and after they come. I am keenly aware in those moments of all that is wrong with my house, and how it is not as good, clean, or fancy as I wish I could offer. Suddenly, I realize how little I have accomplished, acquired, and achieved. Honestly, I am sure Martha felt some of those same realities as Jesus walked into her house.

Martha Balances Responsibility and Expectation

It is evident to me that Martha takes her responsibility as a host with great intentionality and commitment. I can picture Martha cleaning all day before Jesus arrives, placing little treats in the gathering space, pouring drinks as people arrive, and quickly throwing any remaining laundry and other piles of mess into the closet. I love her commitment. Hospitality is life-giving and stressful at the same time, it takes commitment. However, in this story, Martha succumbs to the stress and personal responsibility of hosting. I suspect that she almost has a mental break as she feels the weight of the responsibilities she has placed on herself. In my moments of anxiety about unaccomplished goals, I become distracted from the present. I can only suspect Martha too was feeling the weight of wishing she was more accomplished, acquired, and achieved to better receive her guests. Somehow she became distracted from the present by her anxiety, and she ended up missing out on not only what truly mattered, but also the way she was treating those around her. In her busyness, and her desire to accomplish, acquire, and achieve more for good reasons, she ends up missing out on what it means to be a host and even inflicts damage on those with whom she has a relationship. Sadly, she ends up harboring anger and judgment with her sister (and perhaps others as well), because she chose to see the moment through her lens of pain and anxiety. She tries to triangulate Jesus, the Son of God, and her guest, to move on her behalf and make her sister act according to the expectations of her pain in that moment. Thankfully, Martha is not able to triangulate Jesus into action.

Jesus Calls Martha To Not Be Divided Into Parts

Rather, than moving in a way that Martha expects Jesus to act, Jesus responds to the consumeristic craving in Martha. Jesus answered to Martha, in Luke 10:41-42, “Martha, Martha…You are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed – or indeed only one.” Similarly, Eugene Peterson, in The Message, his adaptation of the scriptures conveys Jesus’ response as “Martha, dear Martha, you’re fussing far too much and getting yourself worked up over nothing. One thing only is essential.” It is too easy to get ourselves worked up over things. I want us to not be quick to jump to the rightness of Mary’s example in this story. Just consider what Jesus charges Martha with. There is a sense of heartwrenching compassion and care in his voice. There is also seemingly an unmatched divine ability to see what truly was weighing on Martha at that moment, and I think it was so much more than Mary not pulling her share in hospitality. Looking Martha in the eye, Jesus compassionately tells Martha “You are μεριμνάω (divided into parts) and​​ τυρβάζω (disordered and confused) about πολύς (a multitudinous amount of things). Jesus tells Martha that she has become so disassociated from the moment, the hospitality she invited Jesus into, and that happened because her mind had succumbed to all that which she had not yet accomplished, acquired, and achieved all that she wanted to. The anxiety of the moment had inhibited her from living one moment at a time in a logical or orderly way. One thing triggered another, and her whole mind had become subject to her shame, guilt, comparison, and feelings of dishonor. The pain of life had filled her lens and paradigm, and she saw everyone and everything through the expectations of her pain which only caused greater pain, division, and confusion in the moment. That pain even tried to get the Song of God to act in the way she thought God should act, and I am sure when Jesus did not act accordingly, at first, looking through her pain, she considered it unfair. Perhaps doubt crept in.

Seeing Myself in Martha

In the echoes of Martha’s struggle, I recognize a familiar nagging belief that what I have not accomplished, acquired, and achieved somehow defines me negatively. All too often I find myself disassociated from the present in anxious moments. I miss all that I do have to be thankful for. I can easily find that my lens is overshadowed by my pain. In those moments, perhaps I too allow my anxiety to affect my relationships, and in those moments I am sure I have tried to triangulate God into moving in the way my pain expects God to move. When God does not move the way I expect, I resort to feeling abandoned or full of doubt. The way life wins at keeping us busy pursuing what it means to be accomplished, acquired, and achieved, the more we will experience what it means to be divided into parts, disordered and confused about a multitudinous among of things. Somewhere along the way, we will lose ourselves, we lose our relationships with others, and we lose connection to God’s presence in the moment.

The Whirlwind of Comparisons Fueled By Social Media

In the societal whirlwind of consumeristic tasks and comparisons, the story serves as a gentle reminder to seek fulfillment in the present, aligning our pursuits with what truly matters. I am not what I have accomplished, acquired, and achieved. More importantly, I am not what I have not accomplished, acquired, and achieved. Though others may also try to judge me by such criteria, I cannot let it define me. Instead of being the sum of what I have and do not have, I need to remember I am the sum of my values, the kindness I extend, and the love I share with others. I am defined by the way I am present in the moment with others. I am defined by the way I sit in the stillness with Christ, in my heart, Christ’s home.

Seeing is Believing

In recognizing that my worth transcends material possessions and unmet desires, I free myself from the shackles of consumeristic cravings and defeating comparisons when I believe what I see in my life. How I see myself, is what I ultimately will believe about myself, and so seeing is believing. It is in the depth of my connections, the empathy I show, and the moments of stillness that I find my true essence. Embracing the truth that I am not defined by external measures, I step into a realm of authentic self-discovery. Each day becomes an opportunity to cultivate a richer, more meaningful existence—one where the pursuit of quieter greatness brings forth a profound sense of fulfillment that extends far beyond the superficial markers of success.

Closing Thoughts

As I said earlier, in the societal whirlwind of consumeristic tasks and comparisons, the story of Martha and Mary becomes a compass guiding us through the maze of accomplishment and anxiety. Much like Martha, I am often grappling with the weight of unmet expectations, feeling defined by what I haven’t yet achieved. It’s easy to get lost in the pursuit of accomplishments, to become divided, disordered, and confused about a multitude of things. Yet, in the midst of this societal chaos for bigger and better, the essence of this story whispers a gentle reminder from God’s Spirit, take inventory of the many things that are dividing and distracting you, and become aware of how they are affecting you. To see what is there, to believe it is affecting you, is the first step in overcoming it. To prioritize Jesus’ presence in those areas of your life, instead of the desires you want to do for Jesus, is the second step in winning against the overwhelming anxiety of unachievement. As I continue to reflect on living out 1 Thessalonians 4:11 well, I realize the significance in keeping our minds from being overly focused on what we have not yet accomplished, acquired, or achieved. The visionary integration of 1 Thessalonians 4:11 into our everyday lives is essential, this scriptural exhortation to lead a quiet life and attend to one’s affairs, provides a practical guide for maintaining a balanced perspective amid societal pressures. It’s a paradigm and posture that seemingly Mary got, but Martha did not. In the pressures of today, we must find ways to stay present with Jesus, to allow him to remind us that we are not the sum of our achievements or the voids left unfilled.

About Jeff McLain
Through Lead a Quiet Life, Jeff McLain explores his pursuit of simplicity in a tumultuous world as he serves as the Director of Pastoral Ministries at Water Street Mission and as pastor at River Corner Church. Jeff's commitment to Jesus has been shaped by an unconventional journey from activism to hitchhiking, which is reflected in his academic pursuits and throughout his involvement with various initiatives. Residing in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Jeff, along with his wife and three daughters, embraces family moments outdoors, while his love for baseball, boardwalks, beaches, and books adds depth to his vibrant life. You can read more about the author here.

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