The Gospel lesson this morning tells the simple and brief story of two sisters, Martha and Mary. Mary and Martha, and their brother Lazarus, are unique in all of the New Testament. They are the one family, aside from that of Jesus Himself, for which the New Testament gives us a picture – in fact several pictures. Jesus particularly loved them. Although this most famous story of Mary and Martha here in Luke 10 is very short, our Give Us This Day today is very long, because their lives are so seminal.
Apparently the three siblings were single and all lived together in the same home. It was a special home in the city of Bethany. It must have been wealthy, judging by the number of people who came concerning Lazarus and the fact that it was capable of hosting crowds. It was particularly blessed because the Lord Himself made it His special dwelling place when He was in Judea. The Lord loved them so much that He made a point of resurrecting Lazarus, not long before His own death and resurrection
Mary and Martha are particularly and famously a study in comparison and contrast.
It will probably surprise most of us that in all of the passages where this blessed family appears, it is Martha who appears first. In verse 38 of Luke 10, it is particularly Martha who received the Lord into her house. Perhaps she was the older sister, for she seemed in general to be more highly esteemed.
Martha is especially hospitable, receiving Jesus into her home. And so we find in verse 40 that Martha was encumbered with much serving. She is fully aware of the practical demands of managing a, perhaps, large household and having the additional responsibility of entertaining guests.
We can imagine her having made all of the preparations necessary for entertaining such an all-important guest – filing away all the old editions of the Bethany Gazette, getting out the dusting feathers and the Dust Buster, carefully Lemon-Pledging all of the furniture, knowing full well that Jesus was a carpenter who knew His furniture. You get the idea.
In John 12:2, when Jesus spends time with the Bethany family, just six days before the Passover which would mark His death and resurrection, we find Martha again serving the Lord, having made a supper for Him. Surely Martha had the heart of a servant.
For all of her troubles and servanthood, we are sometimes left with the impression that Martha was not a spiritual person. It is true that Jesus rebukes her for worrying so much about what Mary is doing. It is true that she was unnecessarily encumbered and worried about her practical things. But we should nevertheless affirm the character of Martha as being a godly one.
We find Mary, as well, to be an excellent woman. Yet there are important differences between Mary and her more earthy, practical sister. We saw that it was Martha who was more of the initiator, the do-things, be-busy kind of person. While Martha is busily engaged in the affairs of the household, we find Mary engaged in a very different kind of pursuit. We find her sitting at Jesus’ feet and hearing His word.
Martha is upset at her sister who has left her to finish all of the menial tasks which must be done – to do nothing, apparently, but sit and listen to Jesus. Martha therefore asks Jesus, who she knows to be a just man who knows all things, to tell Mary to help her.
Perhaps you can see Martha’s point. I know I can. I remember the days when Jackie and I spent several months frequenting the Banek household after Sunday worship (Fr. Walter Banek was our rector at Good Shepherd Reformed Episcopal Church in Tyler, Texas). Usually Jackie would bring some food over and help Nelda (Mrs. Banek) with the preparations. I, on the other hand, being the male, waited in the living talking to Walter.
It would not have seemed improper if at some time Jackie asked me to help her prepare things with Nelda rather than simply talking with Walter (she never did).
But Jesus, instead of rebuking Mary, speaks to Martha. It is not a stern rebuke she receives. We can see, even though we only hear the words and not the intonation, that Jesus is looking with mercy and care upon Martha, who is, to put it into 21st C parlance “stressed to the max.”
On the other hand, he upholds Mary’s actions. He tells her that she has chosen the one thing that was needful. He further tells her that the good portion she has will not be taken from her. What high words of blessing!
For Mary, you see, understood the spiritual needs of man, especially of her own soul. She is commended by Christ because in her listening at Jesus’ feet she has fulfilled the first and greatest commandment, to love her God with all her heart, soul, strength, and mind. She understood here, and when she anointed Jesus’ feet, that we must adorn the Body of Christ, which is Jesus Himself, with the most beautiful and excellent things we have. Mary understood that it was worship which is to stand at the center of our lives. All else, including Martha’s industrious deeds, are to flow out of our worship, which is primary.
Mary and Martha may, therefore, be seen as a picture of how we are to love. We must first love God, which means worshiping and obeying Him. We must also love our neighbor as ourselves, which means serving them. Only if the worshipful, contemplative life is a sister to the active, practical life will we have a complete spirituality, that is, one that is wholly pleasing to the Lord.
But there are few worshipers and contemplatives left. Where have they gone? They’ve been sucked up into the American dream of hard work and self-reliance, self-esteem, and self-sufficiency. It’s not that Martha’s service was unimportant but that Martha had her priorities wrong.
Mary and Martha serve to illustrate an important point I picked up from Stephen Covey’s First Things First. It is the idea of the four quadrants of life. Imagine that there are four quadrants, much like a Cartesian plane in the dreaded high school Geometry class. In Quadrant 1 are the things that are both important and urgent. In Quadrant 2 are the things that are important but not urgent. Quadrant 3 contains those things that are not important but are urgent, while Quadrant 4 contains those things that are neither important nor urgent.
For most responsible people, Quadrant 1 things will get done because of the potent combination of their importance and urgency. Quadrant 4 things are more of a spiritual problem than they used to be because there are so many ways to amuse ourselves to death today, and each one is whispering, singing, or shrieking your name. Few mature people confuse them with things that are truly important, but we also have more immature adults than we used to have.
However, when we come to Quadrants 1 and 2, we have the very noble error of having the wrong priorities. Quadrant 2 is the stinker. Our contemporary gods cry out to us with ever-increasing volume and pitch: you don’t have to seek them, for they will hunt you down. There are so many things we feel we must do, and all of them claim to be both urgent and necessary.
This is where poor Martha made her mistake, for while waiting on her guests was indeed important and needed to get done within a certain amount of time, in front of her was something of even greater value: the Pearl of Great Value, the riches of heaven, God incarnate Himself!
And like Martha we make our lives and live in them in such a way that the things that scream “Do Me!” will get done (though there are now so many of them they never all get done). But the thing that whispers “I am your life” gets ignored.
Perhaps the most obvious example of this, and one you should take with you today, is the case of prayer. We know that prayer, our sitting at the Lord’s feet, is important, but outside of the walls of the church, it rarely seems urgent. There are always good things to do before we do this one necessary thing.
But the true man of God will pray and sit at the Lord’s feet, without neglecting to serve.
And so today we have both Mary and Martha, servants of God who show us how best to serve Him in our own day.
MARY AND MARTHA
There were times when Lazarus wished he were dead
back in the childhood years,
when Martha wrestled with Mary’s head
and Mary bit her sister’s ears:
life must be more in Bethany
than to be his sisters’ referee.
Now Martha was a pair of hands
that labored until they nearly bled.
She conquered all domestic lands
and baked for them a house of bread.
How hard it was for Mary to listen
to the music in her sister’s kitchen!
For Mary was a singing heart
whose voice beat paths to highest heaven;
with perfumed breath and incensed art
her prayer rose like laughing leaven.
How often Martha seemed to wait
for Mary’s dreams to clean her plate.
“Score one for Martha,” Lazarus quoted
within his book of philosophy.
“For the first thing that our Savior noted
was Martha’s hospitality.
From this I glean without dispute
that practical matters are our first pursuit.”
“But lo! What’s this before me now?
Lazy Mary reclining again!
But Jesus sees this as a bow
before His rainbowed throne in heaven.
Our Master takes her side of the debate:
‘They also serve who only stand and wait.'”
In the end, Lazarus had to die
to give them stereoscopic sight,
While Mary marked the dusk with a cry
Martha tarries for the dawning light.
Each now saw the other side
of that one talent which is death to hide.
After resurrection had been heard
Martha prepared the Lord’s meal;
Mary anointed the living Word:
together, the mystery was revealed.
Martha loved God by loving man,
but Mary’s part was God’s first command
Prayer: I bow my knees before you, Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of Your glory You may grant me to be strengthened with power through the Spirit in my inner being, so that Christ may dwell in my heart through faith – that I, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that I may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to Him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that I ask or think, according to the power at work within me, to Him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen. (Ephesians 3:14-21.)
Points for Meditation:
- Are you more of a Mary or a Martha? What are the temptations you particularly face as either a Mary or a Martha?
- What would it take to make sure that you have time each day to sit at Jesus’ feet?
Resolution: I resolve to set aside a special time today to sit at Jesus feet (ideally a time that could become a habit).
Christ with Mary and Martha – in U.S. Public Domain