As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But 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!”
“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38-42)
If you were to walk into our house at any given moment, you would most likely be met by tufts of dog hair blowing across the floor, toys of all sizes scattered everywhere, random pieces of toddler clothing tucked away in the corners, and a kitchen sink that is overflowing with dirty dishes. To put it simply, you’d find a mess.
We aren’t complete heathens; we do clean up, quite frequently actually. We do the dishes, pick up the toys, vacuum the carpets, and mop the floors. We try to stay on top of our laundry and even fold it and put it away as often as we can. If you’ve been a guest at our house you probably thought we were generally clean people (though admittedly we have grown quite adept at the art of quickly shuffling clutter into our “office”, also called the junk room, to make our house “presentable” when we have company). We may not do all this cleaning as often, or to the extent that some people feel we ought, but in general, we do try to keep a tidy house.
And yet, despite our efforts, our two little boys manage to create complete chaos in our home. As much as we try our house always seems to be in a perpetual stay of disarray.
So we are left with two options, either work ourselves ragged trying to keep our house in pristine condition, or accept the fact that our house is going to be messy, and enjoy life.
A lot of people unwittingly choose the first option. Women especially (though men can certainly be this way too) often feel that it is their responsibility to their family to keep the house as clean and tidy as possible. It’s as if they think they are failing as a wife or a mother if the home isn’t free of dirt, grime, dust and clutter.
Don’t get me wrong, it is very admirable for a wife (or husband) to want to serve their family in that way. It is certainly a good thing to want the best home for your family to live in. Such an act of love is never to be condemned or sneered at.
But at what point does love and service, become an obsession with an unattainable perfection?
How many mothers miss their child’s first steps because they were busy scrubbing the toilet? How many wives don’t have energy to truly engage with their husbands because they spent all day vacuuming the entire house? How many parents don’t have the capacity to enjoy their fleeting precious minutes with their children because they were up until midnight the night before washing dishes?
How many marriages suffer because one spouse doesn’t feel the other is pulling their weight with the housework? How many fights have broken out because the laundry still hasn’t been folded and put away? How many arguments have been had about the socks in the middle of the bedroom floor? How much unspoken tension has been embroiled over the coke can left on the coffee table, instead of being thrown into the recycling bin?
You might say that I’m being overly dramatic, but something as seemingly simple as housework has broken many families. Dividing the house chores is probably second only to finances as the biggest instigator of marital conflict. It is a serious thing.
When faced with these questions I can’t help but think of the classic Biblical tale of Martha and Mary entertaining Jesus in their house. It’s a well-known story, and most everyone understands the moral: focus on Jesus first. We all understand that, and we judgmentally condemn Martha. I mean, common, how can she be so busy, working, working, working, when she has the actual flesh and blood Jesus in her home. Common Martha! Get your priorities in order!
But how many of us are Martha’s?
The point of the story is that they only had Jesus with them in the flesh for a limited amount of time. It wouldn’t be too long before He would be crucified, raised from the dead, and the lifted up to heaven, and while He would send His Holy Spirit, he would no longer be there in person. Mary realized that she was given a gift that so few people in the history of the world were ever given: to be in the actual physical presence of Christ, and she was not going to let that moment slip by.
What about us? I think about me personally, with my wife and children. I have been given a truly unbelievable gift. I have the most incredible woman to go with me through this journey of life, but I don’t know how long we have together. She or I could be taken away to be with the Lord at any moment. Together we were both blessed with the most precious gifts we could imagine: our children. They won’t be children forever. We have but a few moments while they are still little, and God help me, I will not let those moments slip by because I’m too busy sorting through laundry.
I understand that some people have it ingrained into their nature to want to live in cleanliness. Being around clutter stresses them out. They can’t go to sleep with a dirty dish still sitting in the sink. The idea of pulling a wrinkled shirt from the laundry basket is completely absurd. I’m not wired that way, but I get that some people are.
But let me ask that person, is it worth it?
Is it worth all the time that you spend making sure that there is a place for everything and that everything is in its place? Is it worth having floors that always sparkle and shine? Is it worth having perfectly ironed underwear that is neatly folded in your dresser drawer?
Yes, I’m sure all those things are nice and they make you feel more comfortable, but are they worth the cost? Are they worth a marriage that is on the rocks because your spouse feels they can’t let their hair down when they are at home? Are they worth children who feel like they can’t be kids because they are afraid of throwing off your Feng Shui? Are they worth the arguments because your spouse doesn’t live up to your expectations for how much they should be contributing to the work?
I know you feel completely justified in your feelings. I know you wonder, what kind of animal would want to live in such filth? Why don’t they understand that it’s important to keep everything in order? Why can’t they just get off the couch every once in a while and help you sweep and mop?
Martha felt completely justified too.
To be fair, Martha’s point of view isn’t completely crazy. She knew she had someone of real import in her home, and she had to make sure that it was all just right for Him. Her motives were pure. She wasn’t being selfish, she was pouring herself in service to Jesus, doing what she felt she was supposed to do.
But as pure as her motives were, the stress of all that she was trying to do caught up with her. Before she knew it her pure motives gave way to contempt and anger toward her sister. She was so clouded by her busyness that she missed the point. She missed the fact that Jesus was right there in her home and being with Him was so much more valuable than simply serving Him.
Serving Jesus is good, but relationship with Jesus is better.
When Jesus softly chastises Martha, He wasn’t saying that what Martha was doing was bad. He was saying that what Mary was doing was better.
It’s not bad for you to want to have a clean house. It’s not bad that you want to serve your family by working hard to keep the house in order. In fact, doing those things is important and necessary. I’m not suggesting that we all just give up on cleaning, and general house work. Our homes would quickly devolve into something completely unlivable.
But when dinner is over and my two and half year old son is calling for me to come play “Lions” with him, I realize that those dishes can wait. When the kids are in bed and my wife needs me to cuddle with her on the couch so that she can feel close to me, I realize those toys can be picked up tomorrow. When my son is begging for me to give him a ride on my back around the house, I realize that having that laundry folded and put away is an unnecessary luxury. It’s not worth it for me or my wife to stay up until all hours of the night getting the house in order if we don’t have energy to enjoy our children the next day. Yes, that means that a lot of the time our house looks like a complete mess. I’m OK with the mess. If it means that I keep my sanity and I don’t collapse into a heap of exhaustion at the end of every day, then it is worth every bit of dirt, clutter and chaos.
So to those that are struggling to cope with the chaos and craziness and the long “To-do” lists with not enough hours in the day, my advice is this: Be OK with the mess. Don’t be worried or upset about many things, when only a few things are needed. Having a clean house is good, but having a happy family is better.
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