Sermon preached on Luke 10:38-42 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 03/13/2022 in Novato, CA.
We come to another beloved and memorable passage that only Luke’s gospel has preserved for us. It is the story of Jesus and his disciples paying a visit to the home of Martha and Mary. John’s gospel tells us more of these two along with their brother named Lazarus, and the close relationship they developed. It may be that this is the first time Jesus visited them. But in this brief but beautiful passage we see matters of hospitality and discipleship raised and compared.
In our first point for today, I want to begin by affirming the godliness of hospitality.
Realize that when Jesus makes his pronouncement here to Martha in verses 41-42 it could be understandingly misunderstood to think Jesus is speaking against any and all hospitality. But this is classic teaching style for Jesus where he makes some broad absolute-sounding statement that needs to be carefully considered to understand its nuance and actual application. Consider similar absolutely sounding statements Jesus makes elsewhere. When Jesus taught “Judge not, lest you be judged,” we know there are lots of times where it is appropriate to judge; Jesus rather was addressing a certain form of sinful judging. Or when Jesus said not to take oaths, he was addressing a practice of sinful oaths, not all oaths. At the end of last chapter we saw those proverbial statements about discipleship, and we noted how they taught certain things but shouldn’t be taken in a wooden absolute way like to mean that you can’t go to your parent’s funeral. Jesus so often taught with these bold, enigmatic, almost proverbial, statements that sounded so absolute, but needed to be more carefully thought through to understand them and apply them. In all such cases, it is the context of Scripture, both the immediate passage’s context, and the whole Bible, that helps us rightly understand what Jesus did mean and what he must have not meant in those bold pronouncements. Our first point today will then give us the context to know that Jesus isn’t absolutely forbidding hospitality and surely it would be good and right for both Mary and Martha to show a righteous form of hospitality in this passage.
So then on this point, we can start by letting Scripture interpret Scripture and go to the broad context of the whole Bible. Romans 12:13 commands Christians to “seek to show hospitality.” Hebrews 13:2 commands us to “not neglect to show hospitality.” 1 Peter 4:9 says we need to “show hospitality to one another without grumbling” – a particularly relevant passage to speak to Martha’s concern here. In 1 Timothy 5:10, there is a short list of commendable traits to describe a godly woman and it lists that she should be someone who has shown hospitality. And while that especially highlights that role in a woman, hospitality is not exclusive to them, because 1 Timothy 3:2 lists being hospitable as one of the requirements for being an elder in the church. The Bible is clear, that there is a positive duty of godliness called hospitality that is about the proper welcome, reception, and love that we are to show to guests and strangers.
But we don’t have to go to all those other places in Scripture. This very chapter shows Jesus himself commending hospitality. He commends it both in general and especially when it comes to showing it to Jesus and his disciples. What do I mean? Well, look back at verses 5-8. That’s when Jesus is talking about sending out his disciples two-by-two into the towns and villages with the gospel of the kingdom. His instructions to his messengers are to rely on hospitality. They are to rely on being welcomed and received into peoples’ homes. They are to rely on those hosts feeding them. Jesus tells them to not feel bad about receiving all that hospitality because the “laborer deserves his wages.” In other words, they are serving the Lord in their missionary work and so such hospitality is how God will provide for their physical and material needs while on the road. God will care for his missionaries through the gracious hospitality of his people.
So, Jesus commends hospitality here especially as something for himself and his missionaries to be receiving as they go about proclaiming the kingdom. But Jesus also in a more general way commends it in this chapter through the Parable of the Good Samaritan in verses 25-37. Remember, there Jesus commended the law of God, especially highlighting the idea of loving your neighbor as yourself. Hospitality falls under the idea of loving your neighbor. And the most literal meaning of the word for hospitality is about showing love to strangers. Isn’t that exactly what the Good Samaritan did in the parable? It’s literally what Jesus just said in the verse right before today’s passage. Speaking of the kind of mercy the Good Samaritan showed, Jesus literally said, “You go, and do likewise.”
So then, the immediate context for today’s passage shows that Jesus teaches that hospitality is a good and godly duty. However we understand his critique to Martha then, it must not be to deny the good of hospitality. If you’ve had trouble with this verse thinking it was saying that, get that out of your mind! What then is Jesus meaning to say here? Well, this shows that this passage with Martha and Mary is to add nuance and clarification about how we are to understand what Jesus envisions for such hospitality. That’s surely why Luke includes this all right here together in his book. Hospitality is a good thing, but yet there is a way that it can be perverted and no longer be the good that it should be.
That leads us to our second point for today to assess the nature of Martha’s hospitality to Jesus. Let us begin by noting some good things here about Martha’s hospitality. In verse 38, we see that Jesus and his disciples are on their way and they come and enter this village where Martha and Mary live. In other words, it’s the familiar setting of Jesus and his disciples going from town to town in his teaching ministry and needing to rely on people to open up their homes to them to house them and provide for them. So then in verse 38 it goes on to say that Martha welcomes him into her house. That’s a good thing, to welcome Jesus and his disciples into your home. Nothing should be taken away from that. It’s exactly what Jesus had said at the beginning of this chapter to expect and look for. It’s the thing at the end of the previous chapter which that one Samaritan village failed to do. Martha welcomes them into her home. Notice it doesn’t credit Mary for welcoming them. I’m not saying she wasn’t also welcoming, but let’s give credit where credit is due – it credits Martha specifically for the righteous welcome that she gives them into her home.
So then, Martha begins with a commendable act of hospitality. But then that is where the text begins to show how she began to perform that good duty in a flawed way. First, verse 40 shows that she was distracted by much serving. Then word for distracted refers to being overly burdened. It literally describes being dragged all around. I would note that the word for serving is the general word in Greek for serving. It is generally used in a positive way. It’s the same Greek root from where we get the word for deacon in English. It is not bad to be serving, especially to be serving Jesus. But she isn’t just serving, she is doing much serving, and not just much serving, but to the point to where she is overwhelmed by it. It has gotten beyond what she can properly handle. Let me note something here about positive duties. Positive duties in the Bible are different than negative duties. Positive duties are things commended to be done. Negative duties are things prohibited. When God’s moral law forbids certain things, we should always seek to not do those things. But realize how that is different when it comes to how God’s law commands us to positive duties. Generally speaking, you can’t do every single positive duty all the time at every moment. For example, the Bible says a positive duty is to work. But if all you do is work and never rest or spend time with family or do any recreation then you’ve taken a positive duty and lived it out in an inordinate way. There are many positive duties that can be done in excess, and sometimes it is because you heart has the wrong focus. Like if you are a workaholic it may be because you are really a lover of money. In this passage, one thing we can say about Martha is that here she took the good positive duty of hospitality and took on too much. If you’ve shown hospitality before, you can appreciate how easily it is to fall into this trap. You may want to really bless your guests, but ultimately go overboard in your service.
A second failing of Martha here in regards to her hospitality is what we see going on in her heart because of it. Jesus assesses her heart in verse 41. He says that she is anxious and that she is troubled. Those both speak to what’s going on inside her at this time. The word for anxious here refers to how she is overly concerned about something. It describes an inordinate concern to the point of worry and stressing yourself out over something. Similarly, the word here for troubled refers to being emotionally in an uproar. She is unsettled and shaken emotionally by her overwhelming labors of hospitality. This is not the sort of emotional state Jesus would have us to be in when we serve him. We see how her inner state then results in her essentially lashing out at others. When she comes to Jesus in verse 40, she basically chides both her sister Mary and Jesus at the same time. She says to Jesus, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone?” We see here that there can be a connection between stress and anger. Martha has stressed herself out and it has led to some unrighteous anger.
So then, Martha’s hospitality in today’s passage is a textbook example how a good positive duty can be perverted into something bad. Jesus ends up confronting her on this in verse 41. I love how he addresses her, “Martha, Martha.” I know you can’t hear tone in writing, but I interpret the fact that he begins by using her name twice in a row as a gentle tone. He is surely not harshly rebuking Martha here. Surely he is giving her some mild and loving correction. He points out to her how she is concerned about many things, but only one thing is necessary.
Let us then turn in our third point for today to think about that one thing that is necessary as we consider Mary’s choice which Jesus commends. Let me begin by noting that some people interpret Jesus’ words here about the many things versus the one thing as simply a reference to food. When Jesus says that only one thing is needed not many things, some interpreters think Jesus is saying, Martha, you are trying to make too many dishes of food. We don’t need so many different dishes, just one dish of food is fine. I don’t think that’s what Jesus is referring to here. Probably Martha was making lots of elaborate dishes as well as having many other details she was trying to get just right in showing hospitality to Jesus. She certainly had too much she was trying to do. But surely the one thing that is necessary isn’t a reference to food – at least not physical food. Rather, it is about what Jesus goes on to describe in verse 42 about Mary’s choice. Jesus says that Mary has chosen the good portion. Mary had chosen to prioritize listening to Jesus’ teaching. That was Mary’s ultimate focus and Jesus surely has that in mind when he says that only one thing is ultimately necessary here. Again, I don’t think that is to completely disregard any acts of hospitality here, but it does serve to put those acts in their right place.
Let’s observe a little more closely about what Mary was doing here. Let us begin first by saying that we shouldn’t assume things about Mary here that we aren’t told. For example, some people just assume Mary did absolutely nothing to help show hospitality to Jesus. But the text doesn’t tell us that, and assuming the best of others, I would be surprised if she hadn’t in fact helped in the act of hospitality. Let me remind that you we saw last chapter something which was likely common for Jesus – that he sent messengers ahead of him to the places where he was hoping to stay, chapter 9:52. That would allow his messengers to arrange in advance with a host so that such arrangements would be ready when he arrived. That would also give his hosts a time to prepare in advance for his arrival. Should we assume Mary didn’t help Martha in all the preparations in advance of Jesus’ arrival? I would assume she had helped. Even Martha’s words in verse 40 leave open this idea because Martha says that Mary “has left me” suggesting that before Jesus’s arrival she had been with Martha and preparing things with her. Again, we can’t be dogmatic about what we aren’t told. But that means we ought not to assume the worst of Mary and think she hadn’t in any way sought to be hospitable to Jesus.
What we do see said of Mary here is two related things. This is in verse 39. She sat at the Lord’s feet. And she listened to his teaching. To be sitting down is obviously to not be standing up and working with Martha to serve them. But what may be of more interest is to say that this is the posture of a disciple. A disciple sat at the feet of his teacher and listened intently to their teaching. That is what we see Mary doing. That is the good portion she chose. It is what Jesus says he won’t take from her.
I would note that if Martha in any way thought that the woman’s place was in the kitchen and not as a disciple, then she would be mistaken. I’m not saying that Martha thought that, because again, we can’t say more than what Scripture tells us. But certainly, there have been people who have thought that. But Jesus didn’t think that. While surely Jesus enjoyed the service of many women who showed him hospitality, he obviously didn’t exclude them from being students and followers of his teachings. In fact, here he commends it. Here, Jesus says it is all that was ultimately necessary that day.
Again, this doesn’t mean that Jesus and his disciples didn’t need to eat. We’ve tried to unpack and apply Jesus’ absolute sounding words here. The point that comes out of this is that the main reason for Jesus coming through that town was to be teaching and preaching. Everything else is secondary. If Jesus hadn’t come there to teach, then he wouldn’t need anyone’s hospitality. So, everyone’s priority and actions needed to reflect that purpose. Or let me say it another way. Jesus’ ministry of the Word was supposed to be the magisterial thing here. Hospitality would have been ministerial to his magisterial ministry of the Word. Hospitality was to serve and support the ministry of the Word, not the other way around. When thinking about positive duties today, we need to have this perspective. We need to realize what is of chief importance and what is secondary. We need to recognize what is magisterial versus ministerial and make sure we don’t try to flip those around. Martha might have thought that Jesus’ main reason for coming to her home was to get a meal and for a place to sleep. But Jesus’ main reason for coming there was to feed her and Mary and give them rest for their souls. Yes, both can be accomplished; but both are not of equal importance. Martha needed to learn from Jesus what he came to teach her.
This was not a lesson ultimately lost on Martha. Our passage ends this scene rather abruptly here, but we know more about their continued relationship in John’s gospel. Late in Jesus’ ministry he is there with Martha and Mary when their brother Lazarus had died. There in that chapter in John 11, we see Martha making some amazing theological statements with faith in who Jesus is. She affirms that Jesus could receive anything he asks from God. There, she professes that Jesus had the power to have kept Lazarus from even dying. There, Martha confesses that Jesus was both the Christ and the Son of God. There, Martha also shows that such words were not just academic truths to parrot, but the real faith and hope of her heart. Because when Jesus asked her to roll away the stone from Lazarus tomb, she obeyed even though her natural instincts wanted to stop her. How could Martha know and proclaim and live out such theology? Well, she too must have ended up sitting at Jesus’ feet and listening to his teaching as a student and disciple of Christ.
Trinity Presbyterian Church, we are reminded today what our church’s mission and ministry must ultimately be about. Our focus as a church needs to be on proclaiming the Word of God, and through that facilitating our worship of God and our relationship with him. Chief among God’s Word for us is the gospel that tells how we can be forgiven of our sins and have eternal life as we put our faith in Jesus Christ. Let us remember then to be disciples who sit at Jesus’ feet and learn from him. This needs to be the focus of church. Everything else is to serve that end.
I could give so many specific example applications here, on things that are supposed to be ministerial but tempt us to have them supplant or upstage what is supposed to be magisterial. Let me list a few examples:
- It’s why we have a prelude before worship to let you know that it’s time to stop whatever good things you are doing like fellowship or going to the bathroom and sit down and get ready to hear God’s Word.
- It’s why we ask that you don’t get up before the closing benediction to start getting snacks ready if its your turn for snacks.
- It’s why we have to remember that while it is super exciting to finally have our own church building, that its not about the building but about the ministry. The building is to serve the ministry, not the other way around.
- Taking application to your personal and family life, do you find you are so busy through the week with various positive duties that you rarely find time for being in God’s Word and in prayer?
- Or when you are at church, are you really mentally here, or is your mind still consumed with thinking about all the things you need to get done back at home or at the office?
Again, the examples abound. Yes, the ministerial duties do need to get done in their proper time and way. Let us not neglect them. Maybe that is the opposite temptation for some people, that if they could do it, they’d just sit listening to sermons all day long and never attend to those ministerial duties. But if everyone did that, then we’d eventually not be able to do the magisterial work of the church anymore. Yet, the concern of today’s passage is to not let good ministerial duties have us lose focus on what we should be all about as the church of Jesus Christ. Too often today people have made church about other secondary things: community, music, events, social clubs, humanitarian aid, and more. Good things, but none of them are to be the purpose of the church.
Copyright © 2022 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.