I’ve been thinking about margin this week. Initially, it was because my pastor preached this past Sunday on the importance of margin, but mainly, it’s due to the tension I feel between knowing the value of margin and yet continually living without it.
Margin has been defined as “the space between our load and our limits” (see Dr. Richard Swenson’s excellent book Margin). No margin, therefore, means no extra space–that our load exceeds our limits. Overload is the obvious–and inevitable–result.
I know the tremendous value of margin, both theoretically and experientially. (It’s a topic I’ve read about and taught repeatedly.) I long for margin, because I see the positive effects in my own life and relationships. I fear overload, because I see the negative effects in my life and relationships. Yet more often than not, I find myself in a place of overload rather than margin. Thus when I hear a sermon on the importance of margin or read an article on the dangers of overload, I feel drawn toward what I know to be true and valuable, yet at the same time I experience some pushback against what often feels like a simplistic solution to a complex concern.
The question I’m currently wrestling with is this: How does someone with a personality like Jesus’ hospitable friend Martha gain margin? In all that is written and preached about Mary and Martha (see Luke 10:38-42), usually Mary is the one held up as the shining example of devotion, and Martha is looked down on as the one who is too busy to spend time with Jesus. But let’s not be too quick to throw Martha under the bus and condemn her for her busyness and lack of margin.
Martha’s hospitality and devotion to serving Jesus is certainly laudable. Especially in the culture of her time, it would be unthinkable and shameful to not provide lavish hospitality to a guest coming into her home. That kind of hospitality requires work. Martha willingly gave of her time and energy to do the work of serving her guest appropriately. And in fact she was absolutely right that there was more work on her shoulders because of Mary’s choice to sit at Jesus’ feet. Therefore Martha’s lack of margin is not due to a selfish squandering of her time or a lazy disregard for proper self-care.
The solution usually offered, which makes perfect sense to everyone except Martha, is that she should simply stop her serving and join Mary in sitting at Jesus’ feet. But as I look at Jesus’ response in the passage, I’m not sure if that is what He is saying to her. Certainly there is no direct admonition to cease serving. Jesus’ gentle reprimand may simply be a response to Martha’s angry demand of help from Mary. He validates Mary’s choice, but does not give a reciprocal command that Martha follow suit.
In other passages in the Gospels, Jesus definitely places very high value on sacrifice and service (see John 13:14-15, Mark 10:45, and John 15:13, among others), setting Himself as the model for that kind of service. Prior to His death, He tells His disciples, “…let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves.” (Luke 22:26-27, italics added) So in His reply to Martha, I’m wondering if Jesus is in some way also validating her heart of service, while at the same time helping her see the bigger perspective–that one day even her gracious gift of serving will come to an end.
It seems to me that the solution for Martha is not just that she stop serving and start listening to Jesus, but that she receives help in her serving in order to then carve out margin to listen to Jesus. How could the story have been different if Mary first helped her sister get the appropriate serving accomplished, so that both sisters could then sit at the feet of Jesus? Martha–and people with a similar personality today–need others to come alongside to help them carve out margin in ways that honor their God-given bent toward sacrificial serving. Margin for a Martha requires teamwork. Because God has gifted her with an eye that notices all that needs to be done to make others feel at home and a heart that finds joy in carrying those details out, she will find it almost impossible to simply stop serving and start listening to Jesus. Instead, she needs someone who knows her well to come alongside and work with her to accomplish what needs to be done so that both in turn can then turn their attention on the One who matters most.
Obviously, Martha does still need to learn to be satisfied with serving that falls short of her high standard of perfection, so she is still responsible for her choices that make margin difficult. However, I think we do a disservice to her (and to others who share that kind of personality) when we assume a simplistic solution that squelches a core expression of her devotion and love. Therefore, I believe teamwork is vital if Martha is going to have a chance at carving out margin in her life.
[to be continued…]