This is the sermon that I gave at the Church of the Saviour Episcopal Church in Clermont, Iowa on July 18, 2010.
I want you to note right at the beginning of this sermon the context in which Luke records this incident in the home of Martha and Mary. Luke places it immediately after Jesus has taught the parable of the Good Samaritan. I think that is significant because in that parable the ‘religious people’ are condemned for not doing the practical thing of helping the man lying injured by the roadside. This incident in the home of Martha and Mary seems to teach the very opposite. The context is important because it helps us to understand the meaning and purpose of this story in the Gospel of Luke and in our lives today.
Martha and Mary, along with their brother Lazarus, are close friends of Jesus. Their home at Bethany, some two miles from Jerusalem, was a familiar place for Jesus and his disciples to rest and relax. Their home would also be the scene of the miracle of the resurrection of Lazarus from the dead. So their home is a place often visited by Jesus. Luke tells us that while Jesus was ‘on the way’ – meaning he was heading for Jerusalem, he is invited by Martha to come into her home. Luke tells us in verse 38 that she ‘opened her home.’ This means much more than inviting him in for a cup of coffee and a chat. It speaks of hospitality, which in the time of Christ was heavily regulated by the custom and social expectations of the day. Luke goes on to point out that Martha has a sister called Mary – so we are introduced within three verses to the three main characters in this little story. From the context it would appear that Martha is the older sister and that she is in the role of host.
Luke immediately tells us that Mary sat down at the feet of Christ to listen to what he was saying or teaching. By sitting at his feet Mary is assuming the role of a disciple. We might think nothing of that but such an action was socially unacceptable in its day. No woman could become a disciple of a rabbi or religious leader in the day of Christ. It was just unheard of, in fact it was a scandalous thing for Mary to do and even more so for Christ to allow her to do so. Mary has crossed and broken clear social boundaries and by so doing is in danger of bringing shame upon her household and her family.
All the while Martha has been doing what is socially acceptable and expected of her – preparing the meal for her guests. Look at what is said of Martha. Martha was distracted by her many tasks.’ You know when I sat down and turned that sentence over in my head I was left thinking ‘How was she distracted by all the preparation?’ I mean if you are cooking dinner you usually focus on what has to be done. And then I began to wonder if the distraction was not actually in her heart. Her heart’s desire was to be like Mary, to be where Mary was – sitting at the feet of Jesus – but her sense of duty, her sense of what others expected and others would think made her stay in the kitchen. I just wondered if she was constantly nipping in and out of the kitchen trying to hear what Christ was saying and all the time her frustration levels just grew and grew until finally she let it all out. Note what she says to Jesus; ‘Lord, do you not care…’ That hit me like a thunderbolt. How could she ask such a question of Jesus? But then I thought how often I actually ask that question of Jesus. How often in my heart and my mind I ask that question when my frustration level grows. Sometimes I even find myself saying it out loud; ‘Lord, don’t you care…’ Martha then makes a telling statement – ‘…that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself.’ When I read that phrase I realized that there must have been some point at which Mary abandoned the kitchen, abandoned Martha, abandoned the preparation and went and sat down at the feet of Christ. There must have been some point at which Mary decided that being at the feet of Jesus was more important than the roast lamb or whatever was being cooked. Mary had made a conscious decision that at this, God-given, moment being at the feet of Christ and listening to him was more important than anything else and Martha resented her decision. Martha resented the fact that Mary had left the preparations and gone and sat down at the feet of Christ. Martha wants Christ to tell Mary she was wrong and to commend Martha for her hard work. Now let me ask you a personal question; ‘Are you a Mary or a Martha?’ The truth is that there are some of you here and you are definitely ‘Marthas.’ You are doers, and there is nothing wrong with being a doer, except when it keeps you from the feet of Jesus and when it leads you to criticizing a brother or sister in Christ. Some of you may have that ‘Martha syndrome’ you want everyone to know how much work you have been doing while others sit around listening. Your frustration grows until you lash out at others. Yet Martha goes further than just a complaint, she then commands Jesus to ‘tell Mary to help.’ Do you see progression here – Martha gets busy preparing the meal, living up to the expectations of the day as a host, she gets distracted by all the preparation when really she wants to do what Mary has done – sit at the feet of Jesus and listen to him. Her frustration overflows into anger and bitterness and she questions Jesus’ concern for her and demands he tells Mary to help. If I have to work and not sit at your feet then I demand she has to work also. Ever found yourself in that situation? Have you ever felt yourself asking God that other people do what you are doing? Go through what you are going through? Martha had the gift of hospitality but she wanted Mary to exercise it as well. She didn’t want Mary to enjoy the teaching if she had to work in the kitchen at the same time. But you know the really telling thing about this story – nowhere do you read that Jesus asked Martha to prepare a meal. Nowhere do you read that it was anyone other than Martha who had placed such expectations on herself. If only Martha had realized – it was herself who had fed the distractions which led to the outburst.
This morning maybe, just maybe you need to hear what Jesus said to Martha in response. Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. I can hear the sympathy in the voice of Jesus as he repeats her name; ‘Martha, Martha…’ You have heard it in the voice of others. I can imagine Christ standing arms open, ready to embrace Martha. Martha standing at the door, tears streaming down her flustered cheeks, whilst all around eyes are looking at the ground in silent embarrassment at her outburst. And then she hears that gentle voice call her name ‘Martha, Martha.’ Christ goes on to point out to her how she has allowed her heart to be distracted by many things – he tells her she is ‘worried and upset by many things.’ You know that phrase is similar to the one Christ used when speaking about the seed falling on thorny soil and when it grew the thorns and weeds (which are the worries and upsets of this world) choked it and it died. Christ says the same thing to Martha – Martha don’t allow the worries and upsets of this world to choke the seed of Life in your life. Mary has chosen the ‘better thing.’ But please note that Christ did not say Martha had chosen the wrong thing and Mary had chosen the right thing. The things which Martha had been doing, hospitality, were good things but it was a lesser thing than at that moment sitting at the feet of Jesus and hearing the Word of God. I found quite a challenge in those words of Christ. I was challenged by how often I find myself doing things, which are not wrong, but which can distract me from listening to the Word of God. How easily I find myself in Martha’s shoes when I really ought to be in Mary’s shoes. How often I find myself distracted, worried and upset, by many things and neglect the better thing. Is that true for you this morning? Do you find yourself distracted in your heart because you want to be at the feet of Christ listening to his Word but you are distracted living up to the expectations of others around you? Of course you do. Friends I think we all need to hear Jesus speaking to us this morning – it is time to come and sit at his feet and to listen to him speak. It is time to put aside the distractions of a divided heart and to make that time to hear him speak.
I want you to hear what I am saying here. Mary did not sit forever at the feet of Jesus. The next day he would leave and be on his way to Jerusalem. Yet Mary would be able to ponder in her heart what she had heard while sitting at his feet. Mary would be in the kitchen preparing food, doing housework, sharing the workload of preparation but she refused to miss this God-given opportunity to hear Jesus speak. Friends I want to say to some of you here this morning that is God’s word to you today – don’t miss the opportunity to hear God speak. It is time to set aside that God-given opportunity to hear him speak to your heart. It is time to be like Mary and to come out of the kitchen and just to sit for a while at his feet and listen to him – bible study and prayer, fellowship with other believers. The work will be there when you return. He is not saying neglect your duties – what he is saying is ‘get the priorities right.’ There are so many people whose priorities are not right. They are busy doing many things, even things for God and the Church, but they can't even remember the last time they opened their Bible to hear God speak. They can't remember the last time they took time out from their schedule to pray or to have fellowship with other people.
Let me finish with Christ’s final statement to Martha Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her. Do you hear what he is saying hear to Martha and to Mary and to all gathered in that home in Bethany? He is saying that what Mary has heard while sitting at his feet is of eternal value – it will not be taken from her. Sitting in his presence, listening to his voice, hearing the Word of God – it will not be taken from her. Martha you cannot take it from her. No one will be able to take it from her. Martha not even death will take it from her. Now ask yourself – what in my life is of eternal value? What in my life will not be taken from me? How often I hear people say ‘what I would give to be able to go back and …’ Now I don’t want to get to the end of my life as a Christian and wish, with all my soul, I had spent more time in his presence and less time being distracted by the worries and upsets of many things – the expectations of others and the things of the world. Do you? You know I believe it was because Mary spent time at the feet of Jesus. She did not worry what anyone else thought. It would not be taken from her. I believe also it was because of time spent at the feet of Christ, listening to his voice, that enabled Mary and Martha to be at the foot of the Cross as he died. So what if it was not the social norm or expectation. So what if people talked about them – it would not be taken from them.
Today let me leave you with that challenge – are you going to be distracted by the worries and upsets of many things and miss out on the better thing – sitting at the feet of Jesus and hearing his voice?