Mary & Martha
September 1, 2019
38 Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39 She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 40 But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” 41 But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42 there is need of only one thing.[a] Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.
As I’ve shared before, years ago I was a mountain guide for a Christian ministry located in the remote coastal mountains of Canada, where we would lead week long backpacking trips primarily for high school students. And as a guide it was my hope to not only keep the students safe and get them up and down the mountain in one piece, but to also make it as fun and memorable of a week as possible. And so, if time allowed, we would take them rock climbing or go rappelling, which is simply a way of, while tied to a rope, descending down a cliff edge without dying. We’d swim in remote alpine lakes, we’d make snow cones on the summit, all sorts of fun stuff. As a guide, I wanted to do whatever I could to ensure that it was a great and memorable week.
And I remember at the end of one trip, we were coming off an incredible week and we had some time to kill before we had to be back at the trailhead, and so we stopped and pulled out some song sheets and started singing a few hymns for maybe 15 minutes of so. And at the time, I thought nothing of it. We get back on the trail and a few minutes later I’m debriefing the week with one of our students and I asked him what his favorite part of the week was … was it the rappelling, the swimming, the snow cones on the summit … what would it be? And then he tells me – it was the singing we just did a few minutes ago. That was his favorite part of the week.
And I couldn’t believe it. I just remember, “Are you kidding me?!” After all I’ve done for you! That little moment was your favorite part?
And then I had a more humbling and sobering realization and that is, this student reminded me that I had missed the forest for the trees. That I had gotten caught up in ultimately insignificant things. That I had made creating a fun and memorable experience the most important value, when all along, this student was reminding me that the whole reason we put on our packs and climbed a mountain that week was to grow closer in our relationship with Jesus and with one another. That the whole reason we were in the middle of nowhere Canada to begin with was to grow in our love and knowledge of Jesus Christ. And in that moment, that student reminded me that I had lost sight of the most important thing.
And in many ways it’s reminiscent of our story today. It’s the classic story of Mary and Martha. Where, while hosting a dinner party, Martha, and more importantly, you and me, are reminded of the most important thing – that is, Jesus himself.
We’re in between sermon series right now, our summer sermon series on the Parables is officially over and next week we’ll begin a short sermon series on the most famous prayer in the bible, that is, the Lord’s Prayer. But for today, we’re going to look at this short and punchy little story about Mary and Martha. And I think this story is the perfect story for us today as we turn the corner to a new school year and get back into our busy routines and rhythms because there’s a powerful message in here about our priorities, our busyness, and keeping the main thing the main thing.
So let’s get started by setting the scene.
Jesus and his 12 disciples have come to the village where Mary and Martha live. And Martha graciously welcomes them all into their home. And so immediately, she’s faced with this task of hosting 13+ people, which as I’m sure you all know, is no small thing. It can be a lot of work to host that many people in your house at one time.
And right away, in these two women, Mary and Martha, we see two different, and in many ways opposite responses to the situation at hand. And this, I think is the fundamental difference between these two women.
Martha, as she sees Jesus, thinks to herself. “Jesus is here, I must “do & give.”
Yet Mary, as she sees Jesus, thinks to herself. “Jesus is here, this is an opportunity for me to simply “be & receive.”
Martha thinks, “I must do & give.” Mary things, “I just get to “be & receive”
We see this is the two women’s responses. Martha, it says, was distracted by her many tasks.” Another translation for distracted is that she was “troubled greatly.” In short, Martha was troubled by all she has to get done. After all, she’s got 13 people in her house. She’s got beds to make, laundry to fold, a table to set, bread to cook, a fire to stoke, dishes to wash, soup to stir, she’s got to make an appetizer, multiple courses, dessert to bake, all of which need to be at just the right temperature at just the right time. She’s got work to do. This woman is busy, busy, busy. You see, Martha looks at the situation at hand and things to herself, “I’ve got to do & give.”
But Mary is just the opposite. Mary, it says, sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what Jesus was saying. Mary sees Jesus walk into the living room and sees this as her chance to learn from the great teacher himself. After all, who knows when she’s going to have this opportunity again? Even her very posture, as she sits at Jesus’s feet, communicates that she wants to receive what Jesus has to offer. It’s a posture of humility that communicates that Mary knows that the best thing we can give to Jesus is a readiness and willingness to receive from Jesus himself. Mary sees Jesus, and thinks to herself, “I just need to be & receive.”
Friends, when it comes to our relationship with Jesus, which of these two ways of thinking do you relate to more? How we answer that question can make all the difference – both in our thoughts and motives but also in the way we live. And in just a few seconds, we’ll see which one Jesus prefers himself.
But first, meanwhile, tension is building in the kitchen, Martha begins to get frustrated. She sees Mary sitting out in the living room, not helping at all, Mary must be having a great time out there. Martha must be thinking to herself, “If only I could be out there too.” And meanwhile, Martha is in the kitchen way over her head. The bread is burning, soup is overflowing, dishes are dirty. She’s frustrated and heads into the living room to find Jesus.
And so she says to Jesus, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” 41 But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42 there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
Now, we’ll break down Jesus’s response line by line here in a minute, but let’s first establish this. This is not a passage against serving. Jesus is not making a statement against working hard. He’s not against good and generous hospitality, or against 5 course meals or against Type A personalities who like to check things off their to do list. He’s not against any of those things.
In fact, every family, every team, every organization, every business needs people like Martha. Or think of it this way, imagine a church with all Mary’s and no Martha’s. That itself creates its own host of problems. Who then would make the coffee or mow the lawn or water the flowers or change the banners or find the greeters or play the piano or balance the budget? Martha’s are invaluable, they’re indispensable. I am incredibly grateful for all the Martha’s here at First Pres and more importantly, Jesus is incredibly grateful too.
So, with that said, what’s exactly going on here, what’s the problem with Martha and why in the end, does Jesus side with Team Mary? And what are you and I suppose to take away from this story?
Well, here are three things I want you to see and we’ll try and tease out some areas for application as we go.
Good service with a bad spirit is bad service
This comes from my preaching professor in seminary, Haddon Robinson, who once gave a sermon on this passage. And one of his reflections from this story was that good service with a bad spirit is bad service.
Now again, we need to reiterate – Martha’s service in and of itself is not bad. In fact, it’s very good. This story comes immediately after the famous Parable of the Good Samaritan, where Jesus tells a story about loving your neighbor through radical, sacrificial service. And Martha here in many ways, is loving her neighbors, in this case, Jesus and the 12 disciples, the best way she knows how.
But notice how Martha handles the situation, she goes to Jesus and says,
“Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.”
Just reading between the lines here it’s clear that Martha is frustrated. Here she is doing all the work, while Mary hasn’t done a darn thing. And she’s frustrated to the point that she decides to throw Mary under the bus in front of Jesus and all his friends. At the very least, she could have taken Mary aside privately and kindly asked her if she could help her out. But nope, Martha goes public with her frustration and the very fact that she’s frustrated and no longer serving out of a place of joy tells us that something in her heart is not right as she serves.
You all, when we serve, are we serving out a joyful and generous heart? Or are we filled with bitterness or resentment or feeling judgmental as we serve? Because the truth is we can be doing the very best things, serving in the very best ways, but if our heart is not right, then it may be sign to stop serving for a while, because if we continue serving for the wrong reasons, it often creates more distance between us and the people we serve. We’re either bitter and think, “They’re having all the fun while I slave away” or we feel a sense of superiority over them because we’re working hard and they’re not. And ultimately, serving one another ought to bring us closer together, it ought to build bridges, rather than driving each further apart.
So if you find yourself serving with a bad spirit, it may be a warning sign to stop and chance to ask Jesus, “Hey, what’s going on in my heart right now?” Now obviously there are limits to this, right. Like Callie and I need to make sure Noah has enough food to eat whether we’re in a good mood or not, but you get the idea.
Good service with a bad spirit is bad service.
Here’s the second thing I want you to see, and that is …
Keep the main thing the main thing
As followers of Jesus, you and I constantly have to recalibrate and make sure we are keeping the main thing the main thing.
Jesus so gently says to Martha …
“Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42 there is need of only one thing.
When Jesus says that Martha is worried and distracted by many things, the implication is that Martha is doing way more than what is necessary for the situation. Martha is going all out, making multiple courses, trying to execute the best dinner party of all time, when in reality a cold glass of water and a hot bowl of soup would have been more than plenty.
And when Jesus says, “Only one thing is needed,” it most likely means that being with Jesus, sitting with Jesus, listening to and learning from Jesus is the only thing that’s necessary in the moment. The meal, the preparations it can all take a backseat. At the end of the day, compared to Jesus, it’s all second place.
Friends, are we keeping the main thing the main thing? Or is our busyness getting in the way of what truly matters?
This applies not only in our walk with the Lord and in life here at our church, but in our everyday lives.
Parents or teachers, imagine those moments when you’re trying to get caught up with the housework, or paying the bills or grading papers or getting ahead of your weekly tasks, and in that moment, one of your kids or students really needs you or has something they’re excited to show, are you there for them, are you fully present in that moment? Are you keeping the main thing the main thing? Or grandparents, when you have the grandkids over for a few days, are they your main focus? Are you keeping the main thing the main thing? I feel this pull when I’m tempted to have yet another meal in front of T.V., tired and not wanting to talk and engage, when in reality it would be better used connecting and catching up with Callie.
And above all, are our schedules so tightly packed, so filled to the brim that it’s pushing the most important things to the margins, time with family, time with friends and time with Jesus?
Friends, are we so consumed with tasks and assignments and to do lists, that like Martha, we’ve essentially kept Jesus at arms length?
Are we keeping the main thing the main thing?
And this brings us to our third and final point, and this is where we’ll finish for today and that is …
With Jesus, it’s better to receive than give
I think, in many ways, what makes this story so troublesome and counterintuitive is because it flips one of our greatest and most favorite truisms upside down.
We all know the phrase well – It’s better to give than receive.
But apparently not so with this story. Apparently that’s not the case when Jesus comes over for dinner.
With Jesus, it’s better to receive than to give. Or maybe the more balanced and complete way of looking at is that we first need to receive from Jesus before we give to others. We first need to let Jesus serve us before we serve one another.
After all, Jesus says,
“Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
You see, Mary, the one who sat and listened and received and in many ways, did absolutely nothing, is the one who chose what was best. And Jesus has no intentions of sending her into the kitchen because she’s right where she needs to be.
Friends, Jesus will gladly accept your food, your hospitality, your hard work, your best efforts, he’s grateful for your ability to get stuff done, but here’s the thing, at the end of the day, what he wants more than anything, more than anything in the whole world, is you. He wants your heart. He wants your worship.
And so friends, are we regularly, intentionally receiving from Jesus? Are we making time to be with him, to pray before him, to read His word, to sit and his feet and worship Him? Are we making time for that? To first receive from Jesus, and then filled by his love and grace going out and serving one another.
This is so important that I want to give you full permission to ask me anytime, anywhere, how I’m doing. And to ask me if I’m setting aside time on regular basis to pray and read and simply receive from Jesus himself? You have full permission to do that. And if you’d like me to play a similar role in your life, I’d be more than happy to check in with you anytime.
Friends, with Jesus, it’s better to receive than give.
The whole scene is kind of ironic in a way …
Imagine Martha, slaving away in the kitchen, making sure that the bread she makes cooks just right while the bread of life is sitting a few feet away in the living room.
Imagine Martha, making sure that everyone has a drink in their hands, handing a drink to Jesus himself, the one who is offering her living water that will never run dry.
And the good news is that the Martha’s in all of us this morning are invited to the communion table, a table where Jesus is the host and we get to be the guest. A place where we simply get to be and receive because Jesus has already done the most important work of all when he gave his very life for us on the Cross.
Friends, as we take communion today, the invitation from Jesus, is to simply, “be & receive.”