Lord God, open our ears, our eyes, and our hearts that we may hear and receive your Word. Amen
This morning’s Gospel reading, just four short verses – a mere 122 words, yet brief, are so much more complex than it appears at first. For one I’m getting mixed messages from Jesus and it isn’t easy to sort it all out.
We just heard last week that eternal life is caught up in the serving of our neighbor in need. Jesus challenged us to serve and be served by people whom we consider somehow outside of God’s care and concern – Go out and be “Good Samaritans.”
Then comes this story, following right on the heels of the “Good Samaritan”. Martha appears to be doing the right thing by serving Jesus. Mary, on the other hand is just sitting and listening. We don’t need much imagination to see that Mary is doing the household equivalent of “walking by on the other side” where the needs of her sister, if not Jesus are concerned.
Jesus has been known to say that he came “not to be served, but to serve” with the instruction along the way to the disciples that Jesus followers are to live likewise. And suddenly Jesus rains on our “loving service” parade. With one statement, he throws the whole system into doubt. And we are left to puzzle out what this could mean.
Superficially, you could simply say that this is a case of work vs. worship and explore that aspect of the story. We could explore why Martha busied herself seemingly ignoring Jesus. Or why Mary on the other hand, as a woman, chose a posture that was itself controversial. To take the place of a disciple by sitting at the feet of the teacher was unusual for a woman in first-century Judaism. Or was Mary just being lazy and selfish in not helping Martha?
And, by the way, what was Jesus doing there in the first place? We are just told that; “As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him.” Was that just a coincident?
Let’s take a quick look at these questions.
It helps to know that this incident takes place toward the end of Jesus’ ministry, perhaps about six months before his crucifixion. By this time opposition to his ministry has hardened into open hostility. Jesus has now turned his face toward Jerusalem and is making a final tour of various towns and villages.
In prior weeks we heard that Jesus went up to the Temple to preach. He would have left the Temple Mount through the closest gate, the Soar gate also known as the Eastern Gate. It is to this same gate that, a short time later, Jesus would triumphantly return fulfilling Ezekiel’s Old Testament prophecy –
Ezekiel said, “And behold, the glory of the God of Israel came from the way of the east; and His voice was like a noise of many waters, and the earth shined with His glory. (Ezekiel 43:2)
To give you some perspective, walking from the Eastern Gate, in 15 minutes time, you come the Garden of Gethsemane. The Mount of Olives, on a ridge just east of Jerusalem, is just a 30 min walk. Bethpage, where Jesus sent the disciples to fetch a donkey for his triumphant return is another 15 minutes, then further on the road is the place where Lazarus is to be buried and finally on to Bethany – a little over two miles from the Eastern Gate.
We’ve heard Jesus frequently visited the Mount of Olives. Last week’s parable of the Good Samaritan might well have been told there. That being the case, for Jesus to be in Bethany was entirely probable if not likely. Especially given the growing hostilities toward him, Jesus would have sought a “safe” place to rest for the night.
That, of course, leads to second question, the Gospel says; “He came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him.”
Who was Martha? Did Jesus know and in fact intentionally go to Bethany to stay with Martha and her sister Mary?
In the Gospels, Jesus encounters Martha and Mary three times according to Luke and John. Martha and Mary are the sisters of Lazarus a man so loved by Jesus that the only time recorded in the New Testament that Jesus wept was at the word of Lazarus’ death, (John 11:35). So in spite of the fact that this is the first reference to them that we have, undoubtedly Jesus knew Martha and Mary,
Which brings us to today’s Gospel.
The story of Mary and Martha has long been one of the most treasured narratives in Scripture. Who doesn’t identify with hardworking Martha, frustrated with her captivated sister at the feet of Jesus? We all know a Martha or two.
About this text itself, I should add that there is nothing particularly difficult about it. The words are straightforward and there are no unusual theological problems. Jesus comes to the home, Martha reacts one way, Mary another, and Jesus comments on the difference. That’s all there is.
Yet this simple story has confused and sometimes frustrated people. Perhaps because of its simplicity, the urge to take sides is almost irresistible. Which sister was right? Was Martha justified in what she said? Should Mary have done more, than sit at Jesus’ feet? And behind those questions are deeper issues involving personal identity, individual preferences, and how we can best serve the Lord.
And who doesn’t admire the single-minded devotion of Mary? Was she so enraptured with Jesus’ teaching or was Mary just being lazy and selfish in not helping Martha.
It is telling that Martha’s name was usually listed first whenever she’s named with her siblings. This implies strongly that she was the elder sister of Mary and Lazarus. And it was Martha who invited Jesus to stay … and it was her house. So we can start to imagine the dynamics of their relationship. Martha as the home owner was clearly the host, Mary the live-in younger sister.
We can only imagine what was actually happening. Scripture tells us that Mary seated herself at Jesus’ feet while Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made.
Ah, but Mary has a history not yet apparent.
It is interesting that on the three occasions when we meet Mary of Bethany in the Scriptures, she is found at the feet of Jesus. First, in this morning’s reading then in John 11:32 he tells of her encounter with Jesus following Lazarus’ death. We are told “When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw Him; she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” And then again in John 12:3 she is found wiping His feet with her hair and expensive burial perfume – considered a prophecy to Christ’s coming crucifixion and death.
So the stage is set, Mary at the feet of Jesus, Martha busily getting a meal together for her guests.
Soon however the picture changes, Martha apparently grew irritable with Mary. I’m sure it’s easy for you to imagine how her exasperation might have grown.
With many attempts to remind Mary that her sister was expecting a little help, Martha’s frustration grew.
In the end, however, she just gave up all pretense of subtlety or civility and aired her grievance against Mary right in front of Jesus. In fact, she complained to Him and asked Him to intervene and set Mary straight. But this older sister, a noble and beloved follower of Jesus, was in for a surprise.
Martha felt so justified in her indignation that she went and talked to Jesus about it. “Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Therefore tell her to help me,” she said to Him.
But, instead of backing her up in her demand, Jesus gently rebuked her! “Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things. But one thing is needed, and Mary has chosen that good part, which will not be taken away from her.”
Jesus’ reply must have utterly startled Martha. Here she was, doing everything in her power to be hospitable and make it good. And Mary just sat there, and to be told that what Mary was doing was the right thing? Shocking! It didn’t seem to have occurred to Martha that she might be the one in the wrong.
We need to look to Jesus’ words to Martha carefully to understand this seeming contradiction. Jesus isn’t saying Martha is wrong to have busied herself preparing for her guests. It isn’t good in opposition to bad; but, of two good ways of serving and pleasing the Lord. He simply implies that her preparations maybe too many, too elaborate causing her to be worried and distracted. So much so that Martha misses an important part of hospitality and that is spending time with and be attentive to your guests. Of the two choices – busy preparations or spending time with your guest – especially when your guest is Jesus which is the better choice, the better part?
Martha is so like those Christians who make such a labor out of their everyday duties that they don’t have time to stop, and hear what God is saying. There is nothing wrong with industry and hard work, but we must not become overwhelmed with the cares of this world. Our salvation does not rest in a frenzy of good works, hospitality and church activities, but in a relationship with our Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ.
Both Martha and Mary were true-hearted disciples, but the one was absorbed in the higher, the other in the lower of two ways of honoring their common Lord. The one represents the contemplative, the other the active style of the Christian character. In the end Jesus tell us which is preferable. He implies Martha’s choice would be taken from her, for her services would die with her; but implicitly says Mary’s will never be taken away, it being spiritual and eternal.
Ask yourself … is your service characterized by your consideration from the heart of others, or do you think primarily of yourself; about how you appear, about your reward, about your standing? When you work hard, especially when others don’t join you or notice you, do you find yourself becoming more critical of others, more judgmental, assuming the worst of their thoughts and motives? Like Martha, do you subtly impugn the goodness of God? If we’re honest, we’ll see that we’re not so different from Martha. We really need to be more like Mary in this regard, fully devoted to Him as a matter of first importance.
We all have a little Martha in us that we need to root out. Martha’s priorities got the best of her. Both Martha and Mary loved and served the Lord but in different ways. These differences are at the heart of last week’s story of the Good Samaritan and this week’s story of Martha and Mary. And, they are polar examples of Jesus’ teaching; “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Mary. Martha.
A Church full of Marys’ would perhaps be as great an evil as a Church full of Marathas. Both are needed, each to be the complement of the other.
We are called therefore to be like Martha and the Good Samaritan in active service to others AND to be like Mary loving the Lord with all your heart .……. Amen.
Preached by Thom Hagerth