Jesus, Mary and Martha

Jesus, Mary and Martha from Stephen Sizer on Vimeo.

Please make yourself comfortable.  Now please cross your arms. Not hard was it? Glance down and notice the position of your hands and arms.  O.K. Relax, unfold your arms. Now I’d like you to do it again. But this time, put the arm that was underneath on top and the arm that was on top underneath.

In other words, reverse your arms. Got it? I can see some of you are having difficulty. It wasn’t as easy to do this time, was it? Did it feel awkward? Uncomfortable? You really had to think about it. The first time it was natural, it didn’t require any thought, because that’s your preferred way of doing it.

We each cross our arms in a certain way, and no arm crossing technique is right or wrong, good or bad. They are just different.  And arm crossing is typical of just about everything we think and do.  That is my first point this morning.

1. Recognise in one another our unique God-given personalities

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.” (10:38-39)

Martha is feeling a little tense. You would too. Thirteen hungry men have just showed up unexpectedly.

Martha was grateful that the Master felt at home with them. It was an honour and privilege to host Jesus and his friends. But Martha was irritated as well. It was not that she did not have enough food, but that her sister was not helping her serve. Mary and Martha had very different personalities. Mary’s tranquil composure vividly contrasting with Martha’s busy fussiness. Mary was totally absorbed as she listened to the Master. She eagerly drank in his every word. The uppermost question in her mind was “How can I enjoy him the most? What can I learn from him today?”

Martha was no less happy to have Jesus in their home. But she did not enjoy it completely. Her thoughts were constantly on the detail and the secondary issues. She was eager to serve,  anxious to please and irritated with her sister all at the same time. I wonder if you can identify more with Mary or Martha?

Your God given personality reflects the way you prefer to relate to the world around you. You have been created with preferences – choices you make when you relate to others. Whether they are programmed into our genes or represent learned behaviour is irrelevant. You are more comfortable relating in some ways than in others, and that gives you energy. When you are forced to relate to people in ways that are not natural for you then you feel drained.  We function much like a battery – we have to be charged up to be useful.

A battery can only give until it is empty. Once its empty its useless until its recharged again. The question is: what gives you energy and what drains you? Some things will charge you up other things will drain you. Are you aware of what energises you? Do you find people or tasks more fulfilling? Both are needed. God has created some of us with an orientation to people and others to accomplishing tasks. Martha was more task orientated than Mary.  For Martha, it was getting the house ready and preparing a meal that energised her. For Mary it was sitting at the feet of Jesus contemplating his words that energised her.  Although sisters they were very different but in the words of the Psalmist, “fearfully and wonderfully made”.  So my first observation is that we must recognise in one another our unique God-given personalities.

2. Respect in one another our different God-given preferences

“Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”   (Luke 10:40)

Martha didn’t seem to care that she was accusing her sister in the presence of her guests. She was also questioning Jesus, implicating him in the accusation. And that is not all.
She was ordering Jesus to make Mary come and help her…

When ever I read this story I find myself sympathising with Martha. Perhaps because I identify with Martha in her frustration.  It is typical of the activist, who likes to fill every available moment. Miserable at having nothing to do, yet complaining of a lack of help. Why can’t people be more like me?  Jesus was not criticising Martha for being the person she was but for her bad attitude to her sister.  Martha did not respect the person God had made her sister.  Martha was upset with Mary because she just wanted to sit and listen to Jesus when there was the food to prepare and the table to get ready. Martha was upset with Mary for not being like her, for not sharing her priorities. In this story Jesus affirms them both. There is both affection and a gentle rebuke in his reply to Martha. He was not going to side with her as she wanted even though he would like to eat later.

We may smile yet most of us still do this.  We wonder why people can’t be more like us, why people don’t share our values, or feel the same way about the world as we do. We get frustrated when what appears obvious to us is not obvious to them. For example, in our house I like the shoes to be in the coat cupboard not spread around the house. Not only that I like them to be in neat rows in pairs, with the largest pairs of shoes at one end of the cupboard and the smallest at the other end. Life would be so much less stressful if the shoes were kept in the cupboard in that way.  Its so obvious. But in our family I am outvoted five to one and the only shoes in the cupboard are the ones they no longer wear…  Because other people are not like us we have a dilemma.

The temptation is to look down on people and treat them as unspiritual or worse.  The other trick we play is to find people sympathetic to our point of view to put pressure on people to see things our way. Just as Martha tried to get Jesus to side with her against her sister. Instead Jesus gave Mary permission to be herself, permission to be different since God had made her unique, special, different, in order, like us, that we compliment each other. So, first we must recognise in each other our unique God-given personalities. Second we must respect in one another our different God-given preferences.

3. Relate to one another serving with a God-given devotion

The voice of the Master, which had kept the listeners spellbound, stopped abruptly.

“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.” (10:41-42)

In these words, Jesus implies a whole lot more. There is a warning here. Gien Karssen suggests Jesus is saying,

“Martha, how can you mingle the primary and secondary issues…? How can you become lost in things of minor importance while I am in your home? Martha, don’t you understand that I came in the first place to serve? Not to be served? Don’t you see that I am much more interested in you than I am in food? I do appreciate your hospitality, but my first concern if for Martha, not the hostess. Martha, you are so efficient and wise – why must you do everything, even the smallest detail by yourself? Don’t you understand that I would prefer a simple meal and have more time with you and Mary? Mary does not need to receive correction, just the reverse. Be careful about judging others. Leave that to me.”

Mary of Bethany appears three times in the Gospels.
On each occasion, she is in the same place: at the feet of Jesus. She sat at His feet and listened to His Word (Luke 10:39),  She fell at His feet and shared her grief (John 11:32), and she came to His feet and poured out her worship (John 12:3). It is interesting that in each of these instances, there is some kind of fragrance: in Luke 10, it is food; in John 11, it is death (John 11:39); and in John 12, it is perfume.  Mary and Martha are often contrasted as though we must make a choice: be a worker like Martha or a worshiper like Mary. Certainly our personalities and gifts are different, but that does not mean that the Christian life is an either/or situation. It’s all a question of timing. And on this occasion, Mary was doing the right thing. Charles Wesley said it perfectly in one of his hymns:

Faithful to my Lord’s commands,
I still would choose the better part;
Serve with careful Martha’s hands,
And loving Mary’s heart.

The Lord wants each of us to imitate Mary in our worship and Martha in our work. Blessed are the balanced!  Consider Martha’s situation. She received Jesus into her home but then neglected Him as she prepared an elaborate meal that He did not need!  The personality of the guest is more important than any entertainment. What we do with Christ is far more important than what we do for Christ. Again, it is not an either/or situation; it is a matter of balance. Mary had presumably done her share of the work in the kitchen earlier and then had gone to “feed” on the Lord’s teachings.

Martha felt neglected after Mary left the kitchen, and she began to complain and to suggest that neither the Lord nor Mary really cared!  Few things are as damaging to the Christian life as trying to work for Christ without taking time to commune with Christ.  Mary chose the better part, the part that could not be taken from her. She knew that she could not live “by bread alone” (Matt. 4:4). Whenever we criticize others and pity ourselves because we feel overworked, we had better take time to examine our lives. Perhaps in all of our busyness, we have been ignoring the Lord.

“Only one thing is needed”  Martha’s problem was not that she had too much work to do, but that she allowed her work to distract her and pull her apart. She was trying to serve two masters. If serving Christ makes us difficult to live with, then something is terribly wrong with our service. We can be so absorbed with work of the Lord that we neglect the Lord of the work. The difference between Mary and Martha that concerned Jesus had nothing to do with their personalities or preferences. The key had to do with their priorities: “Only one thing is needed.” Jesus Christ first, then others, then ourselves. It is vitally important that we spend time “at the feet of Jesus” every single day, letting Him share His Word with us. The most important part of the Christian life is the part that only God sees. Only one thing is needed.  Unless we meet Christ personally and privately each day, we will soon end up like Martha: busy but not blessed. In my pastoral ministry, when people come with serious problems, I first ask whether they are eating, sleeping and exercising properly. If not then I’m not surprised. I don’t look for a spiritual solution to a physical problem.  But if they are eating, sleeping and exercising and still have the problem, then I ask about their devotional life.  Invariably the response is an embarrassed look, a bowed head, a quiet confession, “I stopped reading my Bible and praying a long time ago.” And they wonder why they have problems. The solution? “Only one thing is needed”

First we must recognise in one another our unique God-given personalities. Both Mary and Martha had excellent qualities.

Second we must respect in one another our different God-given preferences. Thank God for the Mary’s and Martha’s in our church family however unlike us they may be.

Third, relate to one another serving with a God-given devotion.  Martha was focussed on her own goals.

So busy being gracious and polite and a good hostess she had no time to be with the Lord. We too may say that all we have, our time, money, talents belongs to the Lord, but does he have our undivided attention? “Only one thing is needed”  I believe Martha learned her lesson, for two chapters later, in Luke 12:1-2 she prepares a feast for Jesus, the Twelve, and her brother and sister—that’s fifteen people—and there is not a hint of a word of complaint! She had God’s peace in her heart because she had learned to sit at the feet of Jesus. What is Jesus saying to you today? “Only one thing is needed”
Charles Wesley summed up this story beautifully in his verse,

“Oh that I could ever sit
with Mary at the Master’s feet.
Be this my happy choice.
My only care, delight and bliss,
my joy, my heaven on earth, be this,
to hear the Bridegroom’s voice.”

I am indebted to Bruce Bugbee’s, “What you do Best in the Body of Christ”, Gien Karssen’s “Her Name is Woman”, and Warren Wersbie’s commentary on Luke for material used in this sermon.