Mary and Martha: “That Good Part”

Sermon preached on Luke 10:38-42 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 12/8/2013 in Novato, CA.

Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
Luke 10:38-42

Mary and Martha: “That Good Part”

We continue today our sermon miniseries through key women of the Bible. Last week we looked at the story of several women who were blessed by Jesus’ ministry. Women such as the unnamed women at the end of Luke 7 that anointed Jesus’ feet with oil. Jesus said she showed such love to him because she had been forgiven of so much sin. A main point from last week’s message was that we should love Jesus for forgiving us of our sins, and such love should be expressed in tangible ways. It’s not just love we keep hidden and buried deep in our hearts. Its love that we find tangible ways to express. The women’s anointing of Jesus was one such tangible way. And the other women we read about last week expressed their love and gratitude to Jesus by providing for him in his travels and itinerant preaching. Surely that would include showing Jesus hospitality as well.

And so then, this passage for today brings us to the lives of Martha and Mary. And it is a fitting follow up to our message last week. Last week we learned about expressing our love and gratitude to Jesus in tangible ways. And yet this passage shows us that there is nonetheless an important principle that needs to guide all such expressions of loves. Let’s dig then into this passage to learn this principle about what should govern all our expressions of love for Jesus.

Let’s begin then with some brief background to Mary and Martha. We learn about these two women here, and also in John 11-12. In John’s account, we learn that they also had a brother named Lazarus. We don’t know if Lazarus was at this meal in our passage for today, or if maybe he was away at the time. According to John’s gospel they lived in the town of Bethany, about 1.5 miles outside of Jerusalem. In John’s account, we see that Mary is one who also anoints Jesus with a pound of very expensive fragrant oil after Jesus raised her brother from the dead. There we see Martha mentioned as the one “serving” again, as in our passage for today. And so Mary and Martha appear to be both Jesus’ friends and his disciples. Furthermore, in John’s account, which likely happens chronologically after this passage for today, we see both Martha and Mary expressing a real faith in Jesus, and also some good theology. I point this out, because today’s passage will paint Mary very positively, and Martha in a much more critical light. But we would do well to remember, that though Jesus admonishes Martha here, this is just one incident in their lives. What is clear in the bigger picture, is that they are both faithful disciples and friends of Jesus. For example, Martha in John 11, expresses in words a clear faith in Jesus and in the resurrection. And Mary in John 12 is praised by Jesus for how her anointing of him with oil anticipated his death and burial. In other words, the larger picture of Mary and Martha shows us that they are faithful followers of Jesus. The lesson Martha needs to learn from Jesus then in this passage is part of his discipling of her. And that is a good thing.

So then, let’s begin by seeing Martha’s role in this passage. Verse 38 begins by informing us that during Jesus travels, surely his preaching travels, he is welcomed by Martha into her home. That is a very commendable thing, of course, as we mentioned in last week’s passage. A preacher like Jesus, traveling around from town and village, is going to rely on people like Martha willing to open up their homes and provide hospitality. Hospitality is a godly act of service. Martha is to be commended in this act of service.

And yet there was a problem with Martha’s act of service here. It’s listed in verse 40. She was distracted in this service, because she was doing “much” service. Too much service, in other words. In verse 41, Jesus points out her concerns for many things. So, she had her noble idea to serve Jesus, and probably his disciples too, though we are not told for sure. It was a godly thing to show such hospitality. But she had so much planned in this service, that she was distracted by it all. The idea of being distracted here is that you are being drawn away from what you should be focused on. In other words, we will see that she was so preoccupied by this service, that she missed what her time with Jesus should have really been all about. About time with Jesus!

Well, not only was she distracted, but Jesus describes her in two more ways in verse 41. He describes her as worried, and as troubled. About her worry: in other words, she is full of anxiety. All her plans for how to make this a wonderful meal has surely left her stressed out. She’s greatly concerned about all the many details of the event. The Bible speaks against worry in general, and so this is not good in general. Jesus talked about how people worry about tomorrow, but he points out how the current day has enough troubles already to deal with. But for Martha, it seems she had unnecessarily imposed extra troubles upon herself. In other words, she seems to have planned a far more extensive service for Jesus than was needed. We could speculate on her motivations for this, was this a real heartfelt desire to do something nice for Jesus, or more of a pride thing for Martha — it was her image on the line as being a star of hospitality. We could speculate on such motivations good or bad — but we are not told. So, keeping to the text, we observe that she had allowed herself to be anxious about all of this, and it was based on her putting too many things on her plate.

But Jesus also calls her troubled here. This is the sense of being upset. She’s upset in general, but she also seems to be upset with two other people too. She seems upset at her sister Mary for not helping her. But she also seems upset at Jesus; that he doesn’t seem concerned at all that Mary isn’t helping her. This comes out in verse 40 by Martha’s words to Jesus. They seem to accuse both Mary and Jesus, and she is even ordering Jesus around, telling him to command her sister to help her.

And so this is the picture of Martha that we see in this passage. She begins with a commendable desire to show Jesus hospitality. But for whatever underlying reason, she sets out to do too much. The result is that she becomes distracted, anxious, and upset. In contrast to this picture, is her sister Mary. Let’s spend a few moments now looking at Mary. Jesus refers to what she’s doing as Mary’s “choice”, and Jesus commends that choice. So what is Mary doing? Verse 39, she is sitting at Jesus feet, and hearing his Word. Of course, this is a commendable thing. By the way, this is not something to take for granted at that day and age. Evidently many Rabbis would not have allowed a woman to do this, because it would mean she was acting as his disciple. And many Rabbis would not have women disciples. Jesus obviously did not carry such restrictions. The New Testament points out many women followers of Jesus, and in many ways, they show themselves to be the most faithful and commendable of his followers. And so this is what Mary is doing. She’s acting as a disciple here. She’s learning from him and listening to him. Jesus says that she has chosen that “good part,” and that this won’t be taken from her.

To clarify, what Jesus calls her as this “good part” that Mary has chosen, is surely more than just choosing to listen to Jesus, instead of helping out in the kitchen. It surely is something more fundamental than that. You see, in general, we have two good things in front of us here. It is a good, godly, thing to show hospitality, especially to religious teachers. That is on the surface what Martha was trying to do. It is also a good, godly, thing to be learning from a religious leader, particularly the Messiah. But likely the “good part” that Jesus mentions here is more than just the simple act of listening to Jesus. It’s about putting Jesus at the center of what you are doing. It’s not simply about prioritizing one good thing over another good thing. It’s about prioritizing Jesus. It’s about Jesus being the focus of it all. It’s that whether you serve, or learn, that Jesus is center-stage.

This is what verse 42 tells us. Jesus tells Mary, “But one thing is needed”…. This is in contrast to her many things which were distracting her. Distracting her from what? From Jesus. From what it’s really all about. We’ve said it. Hospitality is not wrong. But her many things of hospitality had distracted her from what was really needed. From what her hospitality should have been about, but evidently was not. Now, yes, I do acknowledge there’s a point here regarding priorities. Martha had put elaborate hospitality over the simple primacy of hearing Jesus’ message. Yes, there’s a truth that her priorities were not right. There’s an application here for all of us to not let elaborate hospitality, or any elaborately executed good deed consume our time so that we can’t enjoy the most important thing — communion with the Lord that hears and enjoys his Word. Along these lines, some people have suggested that this is what the “one thing” reference here is all about. That’s it’s Jesus saying that one dish is all that is necessary. I can appreciate that line of thinking. But it doesn’t seem the best read of this passage. The one thing is really Jesus. It’s what’s really needed. Jesus front and center. All in all. If you have Jesus, then you have everything.

Another way to think about this is in light of the criteria theologians have used to identify if something is truly a good deed or not. Theologians have tended to identify three things. First, You need your good deed to be according to the right standard — God’s Word. Second, you need your good deed to be according to the right conviction — in other words you really need to be convinced in faith that you should be doing what you are doing. Third, you your good deed to be done for the right goal – to glorify God. It’s this third criteria that seems to be heralded again here. Our good thing needs to be done for God; for his glory; it needs to about him. And since we know God through Jesus, that means our good thing will have to be about Jesus. By exalting Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior. By doing everything in service for him.

I suspect Martha did not start off the day with her welcome to Jesus to make her hospitality something other than about Jesus. I’m sure she intended it all to be for Jesus and about Jesus. But somewhere in the course of her service, she got distracted. Distracted by those many things of her good service. Pulled away from that one good thing which is truly what she needed, and what her service was supposed to be about. And when that happened, her good service was no longer good. That left her inwardly fuming and stressed out, and led her to outwardly to turn against Jesus and against her sister, blaming them both.

Well, we thank the Lord that the Lord intervened in Martha’s life that day. He so lovingly confronted her distraction, and anxiety, and unjustified anger. I love how he speaks her name twice in a row, verse 41. “Martha, Martha,” He calls to her. So loving. So warm. Such a shepherd. He speak his word to her. And she heard it. Now she experiences what Mary had been experiencing. And it is what she needed. Christ. His service to us, even the service of his life changing words.

Brothers and sisters, this is the only thing that is truly needed for us as well. Jesus. Our Lord and Savior. In our justification, he’s what we need. We put our faith in him to be justified, and that says it all. It’s our plea to God that God would look upon and see Christ and his righteousness. But this is also true in our sanctification. That Jesus needs to be the strength behind all our good deeds. He need to be the reason for all of them. He need to be the focus and the priority whenever we serve. And of course, Jesus is the end goal. When we get to glory, it’s about finally turning our faith to sight. When we will see Jesus face to face. Then we will truly be made like him. Then we will fully reflect his image. Again, it will all still be about him. To God be the glory in Christ. And so for us, Christ is the one thing needed. This is what we proclaim here each Lord’s Day. He is what you need in all that you do and think and hear.

And so Christian, I bring you the encouraging word of the Lord today. Surely, each of us, even as followers of Christ, have fallen prey at various times to this sin. Into this distraction. Even as we set out to serve the Lord, we fall prey to sinful distraction. We lose the right focus. The encouraging word of the Lord to you today is expressed in this loving admonition by Jesus to Martha. As much as Jesus called out to her, “Martha, Martha,” our loving Lord calls out to you again today by his Word. See the one thing that is needed. Let this be the guiding principle in how you express your love to Jesus. That it always stay about him! Jesus calls you again today to this foundational principle, so that you would know how to love him more and more. In the best way. Jesus lovingly shepherded Martha that way in our passage for today. He’s doing the same to you this morning.

And surely Martha did grow. I love how we see her in action later in John 11. Shortly before Jesus would go to the cross, her brother Lazarus died. Jesus eventually came to see Martha and Mary. And while Martha had a whole house full of people, what did she do? John 11:20 says that as soon as she heard Jesus was coming, she went to meet him; even before Mary who was still sitting back in the house. Martha left her home and her guests and she went out to speak with Jesus and affirm her faith in him. She affirms to him in grand confession there in John 11:27 “Lord, I believe that You are the Christ, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.” There, Martha had the right focus.

But again, it doesn’t mean you can’t express your love for Jesus in tangible ways. He just needs to remain the focus. I think again of Mary here. In John 12, after Lazarus is raised from the dead, I mentioned that she anoints Jesus with this expensive oil and wipes his feet with her hair. That was a very tangible service to Jesus. Jesus commends her act. In commending her act, Jesus said that she had kept that expensive oil for his burial. Commentators often ask how could Mary possibly have known about his death. There is no record of him telling her about this. Well, there is the record of our passage for today. Where she took the time to sit at Jesus feet and hear his teachings. I have no doubt that she could have clearly known about Jesus just as well as his twelve disciples, if not even better! That’s the picture we have of her. A student of Christ hungry to learn. But also someone who loves Jesus, and here expresses that love in a physical, tangible, way.

I hope you see the point. Martha in our passage missed the one good thing by being too caught up with her physical service of hospitality. But physical ways to serve are not wrong in themselves; rather they are godly acts. But the focus needs to remain on Jesus. Mary shows in John 12 that you can express you love for Jesus in physical, tangible, ways and keep the focus on Jesus. And Martha shows in John 11, that she had in fact come to learn that lesson too. That in all things, Jesus is what it’s all about. He’s what we really need.

And so, again, this is the encouragement saints of God. You’ve come to love Jesus. You’ve come to realize that he has saved you. That he has forgiven you of your sins and is bringing healing into your hearts. Our Christ-centered living can still fall off track at times. But be encouraged that our shepherd even today is guiding you back on track. He’s speaking to you to remind what it is all about.

So then, let us take this to heart that we would grow in this by his grace. The reality is that we live in so many ways in a Martha-world. It’s a fast paced, go-go-go world. It’s so easy to fall prey to many distractions and anxieties. The world pressures us to do more and more; to accomplish; to be productive; to rise to a certain standard and appearance. Add into that our own temptations toward pride, and we know how easy it is to lose the right focus. Too easy to serve God in ways that normally are good, but we make them bad by making them about something else. Like Martha, it can have ramifications for us internally, for our relationship with others, and in our relationship with Christ. Martha was left inwardly worried and troubled. We too can suffer that. Martha was left blaming her sister. We too can blame others, especially if they won’t follow us into our distracted service. And we can ultimately blame Christ, when he doesn’t bless what we’re trying to do.

So then, let us look to apply some Christian wisdom in all of this. It seems that we would be wise to recognize some common pitfalls on this. We see some of those in this passage. You see, our goal is to express our love and gratitude to Christ in tangible ways. To love him whether it be through sitting at church and hearing his word, or actively serving in things like hospitality, or whatever it may be. We recognize that when we host saints in our home, they’ll need to eat. There is a way to provide for them and serve them without falling into the Martha trap. We’ve said this today. We need to keep Christ as the focus; the all in all. But this passage also hints at some things that might tend to make us lose that focus. Three things stand out to me in this.

One, is to take on too much. Martha took on too much. Have Christian wisdom and prudence to set limits on what you take on. In the case of hospitality, we can think of how easy it is to set up too much to do, to meet a certain standard that maybe isn’t necessary.

A second thing that can tend to have us lose focus, is to be too concerned about how others are serving Jesus. Martha got further off focus when she became concerned about what Mary was doing, in contrast to what Martha thought Mary should have been doing. It’s too easy in that to start comparing how you are serving Jesus versus how others are serving Jesus. But do you see how that could easily make your service to lose the right focus?

A third thing that will certainly make us lose focus, is if we never set aside time for doing the equivalent here of sitting at Jesus’ feet and hearing his Word. Mary did it, and it was so good. Martha finally heard Jesus at the end, and she was blessed. We too will lose focus if we go-go-go in ministry and work and family responsibilities, but don’t make time for hearing Jesus. I mean the private study of his word, and the study of his Word with your family, and the public study of the word at church. And of course, add in our response of prayer. We can’t really have Jesus as our core and everything, if we never set aside time for such communion with the Lord. But be careful going about this too. The Martha within us all will too quickly be glad to turn this into just another thing on our to-do list. Make and eat breakfast: check! Do laundry: check! Quiet time: check! Beware losing the right focus by just making this another thing to do. But at the same time, realize, this is so important to do!

We thank the Lord then for this passage today which reminds us again, that it’s all about him. Let us rejoice as we see him growing us in this focus. And let us look forward all the more to the day when we will be perfected in this focus — on the day of Christ. Amen.

Copyright © 2013 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.


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