Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Mary Listens, Martha Labors

I am a Lay Speaker at our church and last Sunday, I was asked to give the message. This is a modified version of my sermon on Mary and Martha. I know it's long, but I couldn't find a place to cut it down any more without losing the meaning I was trying to present!

Mary Listens, Martha Labors

Luke 10:38-42

[38] As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. [39] She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet listening to what he said. [40] 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!"

[41] "Martha, Martha," the Lord answered, "you are worried and upset about many things, [42] but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her."

Every one of gospel writers, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, had to pick and choose from many incidents and sayings in Jesus' life, and he had to decide just what to include and what not to include. Luke was no exception. So when Luke decided to include six or seven sentences about a couple of sisters named Mary and Martha, we need to ask: Why? What point was Luke trying to pass on to his readers? As I looked at this passage, I couldn’t help but ask myself: What are we supposed to learn from this?

"As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him." (10:38)

Luke doesn't tell us the name of the village, since it isn't important to his point, though from John's Gospel we know it is Bethany, just east of Jerusalem. It was the village where Jesus' friend Lazarus, who is the brother of Mary and Martha, lived, and toward the end of His ministry, Jesus stayed there during the Passover that ended in his crucifixion. Luke simply tells us, "Martha opened her home to him" meaning that she welcomed him, she planned to entertain him as a guest. Jesus' ministry had a person-to-person structure. His pattern was to find a person who would receive him, and then stay with that person while preaching in the village (9:4-5; 10:5-7). If he didn't find a home open to him -- a person hungry enough for spiritual food that he would offer hospitality -- Jesus would go on. He didn't fund a block of hotel rooms for his crusade team in each town on the itinerary. Rather he taught - and waited for an invitation.

Sometimes we get the impression that Mary is the spiritual one, while Martha is not. But Martha's invitation indicates her openness to spiritual things. She, too, longs to be a disciple, and she wants to honor Jesus by inviting him to her home.

"She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet listening to what he said."

Now we meet Mary. While Martha is bustling about the house getting ready for dinner, Mary is sitting at Jesus' feet listening. That Jesus would encourage her to listen to him as he taught in the house was, in itself, radical. Women were openly despised by the Judaism of the time. Women were exempt from the study of the Torah. Many rabbis actively discouraged women from learning.

But Jesus encourages Mary to sit and listen. I imagine the scene with Jesus seated in a place of honor, perhaps in the house's courtyard, surrounded by eager listeners -- his disciples, prominent members of the community, probably Lazarus, and Mary. Jesus speaks, he answers questions, he tells parables, and he teaches. All the time Mary sits and takes it all in. She can't imagine anything better than this!

"But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made."

Inside, Martha is fuming. All these guests, a great deal of cooking, setting the low table where her guest will be seated. So much to do! Dinner will be late unless she can get help. But where is her lazy sister Mary? Sitting outside with the men rather than inside doing the work that needs to get done. How irresponsible!

You probably know exactly the kind of resentment Martha is feeling. Her distraction has been going on for some time. You have to wonder if Martha didn’t wish to hear Jesus too but was prevented from doing so by the pressure of providing hospitality.

"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!’”

Finally, Martha can stand it no longer. She comes to where Jesus is, and seems to interrupt the conversation he is having. She doesn't rebuke her sister in front of Jesus; she almost seems to be rebuking Jesus himself for not caring, for not having ordered Mary to go and help her sister an hour before. She doesn't ask Mary to help her. She commands Jesus, "Tell her to help me!" Her anger and frustration have taken over. Martha is out of line. She is rude to her honored guest.

" 'Martha, Martha,' the Lord answered, 'you are worried and upset about many things....' "

Immediately, Jesus seems to soothe Martha's anger. The repeated name suggests as much. He also identifies accurately how she is feeling: "worried and upset about many things." Martha is feeling like she has more to do than she can do herself.

"... but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her."

What did Jesus mean by "one thing"? Is he referring to the one spiritual goal, or to a single dish rather than multiple dishes that Martha may have been preparing in order to show special honor to her guest? We're not sure.

Personally, I think “the one thing that is needed” was Mary’s choice to listen to the Lord’s teaching. In the final scheme of things, the things Jesus said that day were of much more importance than what He ate. Today, if we are too busy to commune with the Lord; to pray and to study His word; to meditate on life's purpose and to enjoy a peaceful, private time with Him, then there is something horribly wrong with our practice. If our walk of faith consists mainly of going to church and then on with life's busy day then we are not receiving of the goodness that the Lord has planned for us. And if we are so hassled by the routines of daily existence that we find ourselves lashing out at those we love as Martha did on that occasion, then isn't that a good indication that something needs fixed?

Since deciding that this passage was what I would talk about today, I’ve done a lot of thinking about Mary and Martha. I’ve realized that I spend more time with the things of this world than with the treasures that God has placed in the world. (THINGS) The dishes need to be done, the carpet vacuumed, the meals prepared, the windows washed, the rooms tidied up, the floors swept. What is there that does not need to be done? I even make lists of what I still need to do when I know that company is coming. (TREASURES) The most important treasure we have is God's Word. Are we spending enough time in it? Are we filling ourselves up with enough of Christ that we have plenty to give away and share with others? Our God-given treasures need to be cared for too. Children need to be played with and taught, husbands need to be loved by their wives, while many people around us need to be ministered to. If our spirits are running on empty all of the time (from not spending enough time in the Word) - then we will not be able to spend time with and minister to our treasures that God has given us.

"Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her."

Even though it cuts across the grain of social expectations, even though it means neglecting her regular duties, Mary has correctly realized that listening to Jesus and learning his ways is more important than anything -- anything else she can choose. And no one can rip this precious spiritual food away from her.

I don't want to be too hard on Martha, Jesus certainly wasn't. But he tried very gently to explain how Mary's choice was better, and that she shouldn't be deprived of it by having to be marched off to the kitchen by her older sister.

What is it that you are trying to offer Jesus? Your talents and abilities? The open doors and opportunities afforded by your position in the community? Faithful service as a Sunday school teacher even though you might prefer to do something else? All these can be good. And I am sure that Jesus wants each of these from you in their own time.

But the one thing that Jesus seeks above all else is time that you spend time listening to him, "sitting at his feet," as it were. That needs to come first, before all these other things. That is where peace is found. That is the only place of spiritual rest.

While reading about Mary and Martha, I long to be like both ladies. Mary sat at the feet of Jesus, and was made full of the things of God. We can’t share God to others if we have no knowledge of him. Mary was indulging her spirit while Martha was busy working and serving. Can you imagine being busy with housework and serving while the God of the universe was sitting in your house, on your couch? If in the same situation as Martha, would we neglect the Lord, to take care of our things? Unfortunately, many of us are guilty of this very thing - I know I am! The God of the universe is still here with us today, and reveals himself to us through His Word. Are we neglecting Him (our Bibles), leaving him alone on the couch, or on a nightstand, or on a bookshelf. Or are we sitting at the feet of our Master? While reading this story - I realized that I am too much like Martha, and not enough like Mary. The Lord wants us to have a balance of these two ladies.

The good news is that Jesus the host grants permission for all distracted, frantic people to sit down and eat their fill of word and promise. When we join them and nourish ourselves at the table, we’ll be ready to put hands and feet, hearts and minds to work.

"Martha, why don't you take off your apron and sit down for a few minutes. Dinner can wait. There's something very dear to my heart that I'd like to share with you -- you personally. Do you have some time right now?"


Lillie Ammann said...

A very good reminder for me! Thanks.

Barbara said...

A wonderful post! I want to learn to be more like Mary.