Mary & Martha
Is it hard for you to focus on just one thing at a time? When was the last time you gave someone your undivided attention? When you pray and talk (or listen) to God, the Creator of the Universe, are you often doing other things at the same time? Join us this week as we revisit how to tune in to the Ultimate Source of life, joy, freedom and wisdom.
Alright, we’re going to look at two characters today from the story in Luke 10.
Let’s start by reading it — Luke 10:38.
As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said.
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!”
“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
the world into just two kinds of people.
* There are those who divide the world into two kinds of people, and those who don’t.
* There are people who love Star Trek and people who hate Star Trek.
* There are people who wake up in the morning and say, “Good morning God.” And there are people who wake up in the morning and say, “Good God it’s morning.”
* There are cat people and dog people.
* There are throwers and savers.
* Thinkers and feelers.
* Conservatives and liberals.
* There are people who like chic flicks, and there are normal people.
But one of the ways to divide the world in two is — Mary types and Martha types.
Mary types are kind of quiet.
* They’re reflective and deep.
* They have a strong, natural pull towards the value of contemplation.
* They agree with the ancient wisdom that says, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
* These people are often type B personalities.
* They wonder why other people are in such a rush.
* They like to ponder great thoughts.
* And they want to experience life with mindfulness and depth. And then there are the Martha types — busy, active, achievement oriented.
If this is you, you love the challenge of accomplishment. You actually enjoy being pushed to the limit.
This is normally the Type A personality.
Martha is kind of the patron saint of multi-tasking — trying to simultaneously get a meal ready, get a house cleaned, listen to spiritual teaching and telling someone else what to do. If you’re a Martha type you think this is just the way life ought to be lived.
If this is you, you often walk out of church with sermon notes and a “to do” list on the same piece of paper. You’re probably working on your grocery list right now. Now for a long time, the passage we just read has been used as a kind of picture of two different temperaments.
In the Middle Ages, it was taken as a paradigm and as a reflection of these two basic ways of life — the contemplative way and the activist way.
And it was understood to demonstrate the superiority of the contemplative way.
And it’s still sometimes understood that way. Now this is why all of you Mary types in the room were secretly glad when this text was read today — especially if you’re sitting next to Martha.
Because you were thinking in your own sweet, unhurried, contemplative way, “Today Martha is going to get hers.”
Because from this text we learn, and Luke makes it very clear that Jesus is not into doing. He’s into being.
* He’s not into task.
* He’s not into a “to do” list.
* It’s better to sit quietly in the living room than work laboriously in the kitchen.
Just cease all this striving and effort. Let go, let God, stop doing, just be. But there’s a problem with that.
There are all these pesky places in Scripture where Jesus has quite a lot to say about doing.
Jesus often told stories about workers.
In one of the them, it’s the high achievers who get commended. The laid back, passive guy is called “wicked and lazy.” In Matthew 28:21, Jesus tells this story where a father says to his two sons, “Go, work in my vineyard.”
And there’s a son who decides, “I don’t want to work. Work is doing. I just want to be.”
That son doesn’t fare so well in Jesus’ story. Jesus said of himself in John 4:34:
My food is to do the will of him who sent me and finish his work.
Jesus told us to pray that the Lord of the harvest would send workers to the field. Jesus said in John 9:4:
As long as it is day, we must do the work of him who sent me.
The last thing he told his closest friends was, “Now hit the road. Go tell everyone in the whole world the good news and make disciples, baptizing people, teaching them to do everything I have commanded you.”
And that turned out to be a lot of work. Just look at one of his followers — Paul. Paul says of his own life in 2 Corinthians 11:
I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again.
Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move.
I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers.
I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.
Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches.
2 Corinthians 11:23-28
Now, does that sound like a type B, laid back kind of lifestyle?
Paul uses metaphors like, “I poured out my life as a drink offering.” “I fought the good fight. I ran the race. I kept the faith.”
Not only that, but under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Paul commands this kind of life for us in 1 Corinthians 15:58:
Stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.
1 Corinthians 15:58
Now if Luke 10:38-42 demonstrates the superiority of being the Mary type, that it’s better to sit quietly in the living room than to be busy in the kitchen, then why does Martha keep reappearing throughout the New Testament? Well, I believe that properly understood, this story is not really about Mary types versus Martha types at all. That’s not the point.
* It’s not about activism versus contemplation.
* It’s not about doing versus being.
Managing the pace of your life is a real important thing. Recognizing your temperament, the way you’re wired up, is a real important thing. But this story is about something more fundamental than that. So let’s walk through the story.
As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him.
Now, when the text says, “She opened her home to him,” the implication is that he would be spending some time there, staying some nights there.
The obligation to provide hospitality in the Middle East in those days was very strong.
There was no Hilton, or Marriott or Shalom Inn in those days.
Travelers were dependent on the hospitality of private homes.
And this home belonged to a woman named Martha.
Now, this is quite an amazing thing that Jesus is willing to be entertained and put up in a home headed by an unmarried woman, Martha, that includes another unmarried woman — her sister, Mary.
That’s unprecedented behavior for a rabbi in that day.
We’ll come back to that.
Luke is going to tell us about both of these sisters.
First he tells us about Mary. Verse 39.
She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said.
Now the key phrase here is the phrase — “who sat at the Lord’s feet.”
We need to understand this is not just a description of her whereabouts in the room.
Let me give you a little background to this expression.
In Acts 22:3, Paul is giving an account of his life to the Jews in Jerusalem so they would understand what he was talking about. This is what he says:
I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in Jerusalem, at the feet of Gamaliel, receiving strict instruction in the law of our ancestors.
Now the phrase that Paul uses there — at the feet of Gamaliel — was a technical term. It indicates that he was a disciple of the rabbi, Gamaliel.
It’s a little bit like in our day when a graduate student might say, “I’m studying under” then name whoever their dissertation advisor is.
So when Luke writes that Mary was sitting at Jesus’ feet, the point is not that she was slacking off on her dinner duties.
The point is not even that she preferred quiet conversation to the act of helping.
The point is she had signed on to be a disciple of Jesus. And she’s now doing what it is that disciples do.
That’s the point of his description of Mary — she sat at the feet of Jesus to become his disciple. Luke kind of sets this story up in chapter 8, verse 19.
He gives what might be taken as a definition of a disciple.
Now Jesus’ mother and brothers came to see him, but they were not able to get near him because of the crowd. Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to see you.”
[And then he makes a striking statement, a striking definition of family and community.]
He replied, “My mother and brothers are those who hear God’s word and put it into practice.”
Now back to Luke 10.
When Jesus says in verse 42, “Mary has chosen what is better,” this is the choice he’s talking about — Mary has made the choice to be one who hears the word and puts it into practice.
And Luke underlines this with his use of titles.
You notice he doesn’t write, “Mary sat at Jesus’ feet.”
He writes, “Martha had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet.”
This is a relationship now between Lord and disciple; master and disciple. Another real striking thing — prior to Jesus, guess how many rabbis in all of recorded history had a female disciple?
Take a wild guess.
It never happened before.
Anyone in the first century who read this story would have been shocked. They would read this not as a story of an activist versus a contemplative. They would read this as the story of a rabbi with a woman disciple. And I’ll tell you, as the father of two daughters, I am so grateful for Jesus’ heart for women. And for his courage. I long for the day when the way Jesus honored and ennobled and included and gave opportunities to women is embraced and is as prized in his church as it was in his life.
I long for that day. Mary now is a disciple of Jesus. * Anyone now can become a disciple.
* Anyone can sit at his feet and learn.
* Anyone can put what he teaches into practice. Meanwhile, Martha is in the kitchen, and Luke gives this key information about Martha’s condition when he says in verse 40 that she is “distracted by all her preparation.”
But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made.
Notice he doesn’t say she was too busy or she was over-committed.
The word he uses — “distracted” — was a word that was used in a physical sense to be “pulled” or “dragged away” from something.
And the implication behind Luke’s words is that Martha had wanted to hear Jesus. That was her initial intent, but she allowed herself to be prevented from doing that by the pressure of providing hospitality. She felt like she could not sit at Jesus’ feet because of all she had to do. Now the question is — who said she had to provide this high level of hospitality?
It wasn’t Jesus.
Where did this voice come from that said, “You have to do this”?
* Maybe it was her culture.
* Maybe it was the stereotypical role of women in her day.
* Maybe it was a little voice inside her head.
* Maybe it was her mom inside her saying this.
* Maybe it was her reputation, what she was known for. The name Martha comes from the Aramaic term “mar,” which meant “mistress” — mistress of the house or hostess.
Maybe that’s what she was known for — being Martha.
Maybe her last name was Stewart. At any rate, she’s in the kitchen. She doesn’t have to be in the kitchen. Jesus doesn’t want her in the kitchen, but there she is — distracted by pride or fear or ambition or envy or anger.
She’s obeying some other voice. Now, she’s certain that after exchanging a few pleasantries with Jesus, Mary will come and help her.
But Mary doesn’t come.
So Martha’s work undergoes what might be called “the amplification phenomenon.”
You know how this goes.
You’re emptying the dishwasher and your spouse or roommate is sitting on the couch reading or watching TV — doing nothing.
At first you don’t mind, because you’re sure they’ll hear what you’re doing and join in to help you.
But they don’t join in — and so you start to get mad.
As you get madder, you start to bang the plates on the counter with a little more authority. You start to slam cabinet doors so the sound is clearly audible over the sound of the TV; whose volume keeps getting turned up louder and louder.
And you want this other person to recognize their laziness and self-centeredness and feel their guilt and fall at your feet and learn from your work ethic. And if that other person has a high guilt tolerance, it’s going to be a pretty noisy house. You may wonder how it is that I know about this kind of thing in such detail.
It’s because sometimes this is me.
And it takes a lot of discipline to stay on the couch. By this time, Martha is banging the dishes around pretty good, and nothing is happening.
You know what’s going on in her mind?
She’s saying to herself, “The Master is here, the guy who teaches about serving all the time. And who is serving? Is it Mary? No! I get sick and tired of being the one who always does all the work. Pharoah freed the slaves all right. All but one.” But that’s not all that troubles Martha. Mary is doing something no woman is supposed to do.
There’s another train of thought running through Martha’s mind:
“No other rabbi has a woman disciple.
* What will people think?
* What’s going to happen to Mary’s reputation?
* What’s going to happen to Jesus’ reputation?
* What’s going to happen to my reputation?
* Who will ever marry either one of us if word of this gets around? And it will get around.
* Doesn’t Mary know where a woman’s place is?” Finally, Martha can’t take it anymore.
Now understand, she is absolutely certain she is in the right on this one. She’s going to do a little Matthew 18 conflict resolution to get things back on track with the man who spoke Matthew 18.
But she doesn’t go directly to Mary. She doesn’t even refer to Mary by name. She goes over her head on the org chart — directly to Jesus.
“Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”
Notice she’s not just critiquing Mary here. Who else is she critiquing?
“Don’t you care, Mr. Compassion?” There’s a little pressure going on here.
“If you’re compassionate, make this other person do what I want them to do.” And Jesus replies in verse 41, I think with some affection — “Martha, Martha.”
Now occasionally he does this.
He repeats someone’s name twice, usually when he’s particularly trying to get their attention:
* “Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you.”
* “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
We do the same thing sometimes to get someone’s attention. It’s kind of a loose association, but if you remember the old television show “The Brady Bunch” — I watched The Brady Bunch growing up as a kid.
If you’re too young to know the show, there’s a middle sister named Jan and when she’s trying to correct her older sister, she always says:
“Marcia, Marcia, Marcia.”
Well, that’s kind of a quote from Luke. Jesus is kind of saying, “Martha, Martha, Martha.” Then he diagnoses her condition with surgical precision. Her problem is not so much busyness or not having a lot of things to do. Jesus often had a lot of things to do.
It’s being distracted from doing the one thing God wanted her to do. Jesus puts it like this:
You are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed.
“Only one thing is needed” — only one thing.
In that moment, the one thing needed was to sit and listen to his teaching.
But Martha refused to let go of her own agenda and do that. You notice Martha wasn’t doing bad things.
* She wasn’t breaking the Ten Commandments.
* She wasn’t gossiping about her neighbors.
* She wasn’t sinning.
* She was doing good stuff.
* She just wasn’t doing the one thing that was needed. Now in this case, the one thing needed was to get out of the kitchen, let go of her need to be the perfect hostess, and sit at the feet of Jesus and learn. On another occasion, for Jesus’ disciples, the one thing needed would be to grab a towel and wash dirty feet.
On another occasion, the one thing needed would be to go from one village to another preaching the good news of the kingdom.
On another occasion, the one thing needed would be to endure beatings and rejoice that they had been counted worthy to suffer for Jesus. Always Jesus asked, and he asks still, for his disciples to discern and do the one thing needed.
It’s what Martha did not do.
And therefore, Jesus says she found herself “worried and upset about many things.”
And those are always the symptoms of what might be called the “Martha Syndrome.”
Being distracted from doing the one thing God asks you to do always results in being worried and upset about many things. Someone asked Dallas Willard, one of the wisest people in the last century about spiritual life: “How do you gauge your spiritual well being? How do you get a read on your spiritual health, your heart?”
And he said he asks himself two questions.
The first one is, “Am I getting more easily discouraged these days? Am I worried about things?”
He said, “That’s an indication that I’m not walking in a close connection with a powerful God.”
The second question he said he always asks himself is, “Am I getting more easily angered? Am I upset or irritated where God wants me at peace?”
You are worried and upset about many things.
That’s a diagnostic indicator of someone who is NOT sitting at Jesus’ feet. I find if I’m worried and upset over many things, almost always it’s an indicator that something is distracting me from the one thing needed. Jesus says:
Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.
There’s a little play on words here.
“Better” could be translated “better portion.” It’s a term often used to describe a portion of food — a dish at a meal.
Jesus is saying, “The truth is, Martha, the real banquet going on here is the one I want to serve you. Mary has chosen the best dish of all. She has chosen the feast.
“What kind of host would I be if I grabbed the meal out from underneath her in the middle of the meal? I’d never do that, and I don’t think you really want me to. So Martha, come to the table, won’t you? Let go of all this stuff you’re worried and upset about. Come to the table and do the one thing needed.” See, the point of this story is not about two different temperaments, or two different types, or contemplation versus activism.
The point of this story is to be a disciple of Jesus who chooses each moment to do the one thing needed.
I think we make discipleship far more complicated than we need to.
Generally it involves going from one moment to the next, doing the one thing needed in that moment.
As a family, we’ve been watching classic 80s and 90s movies with our teenagers this summer. One on our list is a movie called “City Slickers.” If you’ve seen the movie, the character played by Billy Crystal is distracted by all that has to be done in his life.
And Jack, the old weathered cowboy, gives him a speech.
I have the slightly edited version of it.
He says, “You city folks are all the same. You spend 50 weeks a year getting knots in your rope and think two weeks out here will untie them. The problems you’re so worked up over don’t amount to a crock of tapioca. “You’re worried and upset about so many things. You know what the secret of life is?”
And then he just holds up a finger.
Billy Crystal says, “The secret of life is your finger?”
Jack says, “No, it’s one thing — just one thing. You stick to that and nothing else matters.”
Billy Crystal says, “What’s the one thing?”
Jack says, “That’s what you have to find out.” Jesus says, “One thing, Martha.
“What’s the one thing?
“My brothers and sisters are those who
Hear God’s Word and put it into practice.
You know, I’ll bet everyone here today who has made the decision Mary made can remember when you made that decision.
You probably remember the day that you were overwhelmed by the thought that this amazing Jesus invites you and invites me to be his student, his follower.
And maybe you said like I said, “From this day forward my whole life is going to be about one thing — not about money, not about success, not about pleasing other people.
“My whole goal in life will be to hear his Word and do it. Whatever he asks, I will do. Whatever the cost, I will pay it. That’s my goal.” And I just want to ask today, “Is that still true? Are you still sitting at his feet?
“Are you really?” * He asks you to forgive. Do you do it, or do you hold on to resentment?
* He asks you to give. Do you do it? Do you really? Or are you clinging?
* He asks you to pray and keep praying. Do you do it? Do you really? Or are you too busy?
* Have you gotten a little distracted by fear or worry or pride or ambition or doing well?
You see, for followers of Jesus, every moment has its duty, and all he asks his disciples to do is the one thing needed in this moment.
All I can do in this moment is one thing. Right now the one thing is to sit there and listen — not just to a human speaker, but listen to God.
Say, “Lord, I’m wide open. What do you want to teach me? What do you want me to learn?”
That’s all you have to do right now.
* You don’t have to figure anything else out.
* You don’t have to solve anything else.
* You don’t have to accomplish anything.
One thing right now — listen to God. The deep secret to the life of following Jesus is learning to simply identify and obey the one thing you need in each moment.
And you can do that. All day tomorrow, you can just ask him this one question: “Lord, what’s the one thing needed this moment for me to live as your disciple?”
And then do it. Sometimes it will involve stopping and asking God for help, so stop and ask.
Often it will be to truly listen to someone. God may give you that task. And it may be the one thing that you normally don’t do very well.
Sometimes it will take a little discernment. One night last week one of my kids had done something she was particularly proud of, and she said to me, “Dad, come and see this.”
But that was going to take time, and it was a busy week. I was worried and upset over many things. My initial response was, “I can’t do this.”
I was distracted from being with my child because I had a message I had to prepare about the danger of turning into a Martha type.
So I had to decide will I finish the message or will I be with my child? Alright, so let’s pray as the worship team comes back up. To be a disciple of Jesus really is quite a simple thing, and you really can do this. You really can.
You just go through life saying, “What is the one thing needed in this moment?” Jesus talked about this in the Sermon on the Mount. “Each day has troubles enough of its own.”
Just this day, just this moment. It’s like manna, you just gather it for the day.
“What do you have for me this moment, God? What’s the one thing needed right now?” Maybe you’re sitting next to someone who has been worried and upset, and the one thing needed is for you to listen to them and pray for them and encourage them for a few moments before you leave this room. Will you do that? And if you’re not exactly sure at any moment what the one thing needed is, then just pray and make the best choice you can. And when you get to the end of the day, do what Jesus does with Martha in this story. Do a little debrief of how things went.
And expect that when you make a mistake — and you will make mistakes — Jesus will keep teaching you, just as he does Martha.
And where you got it right that day, thank Jesus for a chance to sit at his feet. Jesus tells some rather sobering stories about this. At the end of the day, the world will turn out to have been made up of two kinds of people.
People whose ultimate goal is to hear and do the will of God, and people whose ultimate goal is anything else.
People whose ultimate goal is not just what they say it is, but really whose ultimate goal is to follow Jesus; and people whose ultimate goal is anything else.
And it’s such a simple thing to go through a day asking God, “What’s the one thing needed that you have for me in this moment? What’s the one thing?”
Then you need to do it.
And you can do this, whoever you are, whatever your job, whatever your background — starting right this moment you can do this. This is the real Mary type — one who sits at his feet.
That could be you and me. Alright, let me pray for you as the worship team comes to lead us in one more song.
Blue Oaks Church