On the Road with Jesus: Mary and Martha
Richmond’s First Baptist Church, July 21, 2013
The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
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 few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her” (NIV).
What is that thing they say: “Absence makes the heart grow fonder”? I felt that last Sunday morning. I was sitting in a little vacation cottage in Woodstock, New York, when I tuned into the live webcast from Richmond’s First Baptist Church and there you were! The camera would pan around the room during the hymns, and I would see your faces, and I felt this surge of love like a father might feel for his children.
I know you might wonder about that from time to time. Since I came to First Baptist five years ago I’ve been making changes, some big ones and some little ones, and when I get up to preach I usually challenge you to do more and be more than you already are. You could come to the conclusion that I don’t like the church the way it is, and that I’m not satisfied with who you are, but that’s not true at all. I brag on you all the time, everywhere I go. But it’s possible that I get so excited about what this church can be that I don’t always spend enough time appreciating what it already is. It’s like coaching an athlete who can run a four-minute mile and saying, “But I think if you lifted your knees just a little higher you could run it in 3:59.” So, please forgive me for believing that you can be even more than you are, and hear me say that what you are, already, is amazing, and that was true long before I got here.
Part of the problem, of course, is that I usually preach from the Gospels, and the Jesus I find in these pages is rarely content to leave things as they are. Occasionally he will say something like “Come to me, all ye who labor and are heavy laden,” but more often he will say something like, “If anyone wants to come after me let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and fall in line.” And we can’t just ignore those hard sayings and listen to the easy ones. Following him means listening to everything he says, and trying our very best to do it. I’m not sure everybody knows that. Sometimes in our efforts to get people into the baptistry or into the church we make following Jesus sound easier than it really is. “All you have to do is accept him,” we say. “All you have to do is invite him into your heart.” That may be the first step, it’s only the first one, and Jesus knows it. He knows this is a hard road. He knows not everybody will make it. He says before you start down this road you’d better make up your mind that it’s something you really want to do.
It reminds me of something I heard in seminary once. I think it was the seminary president who confessed that he was often tempted to say to new students, “Look, if you’re only here to get a diploma let me know and I’ll give you one. That way we won’t waste your time and you won’t waste ours. But if you want an education…stick around.” It’s what preachers might be tempted to say to the people in the pews. “Look, if you only want to go to heaven when you die then sign your name on the back of a gospel tract and stop wasting my time. But if you want to follow Jesus…stick around.” And see? This is how much I think of you. I’ve already assumed that you want to follow Jesus, that you’re not just here to get your ticket to heaven. That’s why I started this series called “On the Road with Jesus,” in which we are trying to follow him wherever he goes in Luke’s Gospel and listen to whatever he says, and—to the best of our ability—do it. I want to thank Lynn Turner for continuing the series last week with the parable of the Good Samaritan (which she preached brilliantly). Today’s reading comes just after that, in Luke 10: 38-42, the story of Mary and Martha.
It’s not a very long reading: just five verses. But there’s a lot in those verses and some of it is a little bit troubling. It sounds almost as if Jesus is scolding Martha for wanting to make him a nice dinner and it’s not unusual for women to come away from this passage feeling judged. I once preached a sermon on this text called “The Worst Church Member Ever” which was about Mary, not Martha. Martha would have been the best church member ever: volunteering for every committee, serving at Wednesday night supper, polishing the communion trays. Mary, on the other hand, would have been the worst: always sitting at the feet of Jesus, listening to every word, and never lifting a finger to help. But I can’t imagine Jesus wants us to choose a favorite among these two women and I can’t believe that’s why Luke tells this story. There’s got to be more in there, and as we look for it, it might help us to take this passage apart verse by verse.
It starts with the notice that Jesus and his disciples were “on their way,” and if you’ve been paying attention you know that they were on their way to Jerusalem. Luke tells us so in chapter 9, verse 51, where this “Travel Narrative” begins. He says, “As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem,” and from there through chapter 19, verse 27, he and his disciples are on the way. But on the way they came to a village where a woman named Martha lived, and she opened her home to them. Now, this raises all sorts of questions. Where is this village? Who is this Martha? Is it the same Martha from John, chapter 11, who sends for Jesus when her brother Lazarus becomes ill? She has a sister named Mary, but they live in Bethany, about two miles outside of Jerusalem. It seems strange that Jesus would be so close to Jerusalem so soon after beginning his journey. But how many Marys and Marthas could there be, living in the same house? And speaking of that, isn’t it interesting that Martha welcomes Jesus into her house? It would have been unusual for a woman to own property in those days. Usually the house would have belonged to her husband, or her father.
So, here’s the way I’ve worked it out. I’m not sure it’s accurate, but it seems like a reasonable hypothesis. Let’s test it. I believe that this is the same Mary and Martha from John 11. I don’t know why Luke doesn’t mention their brother Lazarus but I think I know why he doesn’t mention they lived in Bethany: he’s not ready for Jesus to be that far along in his journey yet, and yet he wants to tell this story and for whatever reason he wants to tell it here, in chapter 10. So instead of saying that he and his disciples came to Bethany he says they came to a village, or, in the New Revised Standard Version, “a certain village.” And instead of saying that he was greeted by Martha, the sister of Lazarus and Mary, he simply says that a woman named Martha opened her home to him. It might have been any Martha. And as for Mary, well! It seems that every other woman in the Gospels is named Mary. There may have been one in every family.
But here’s where my hypothesis gets a little less reasonable, because I have a hunch that Mary, and Martha, and Lazarus were cousins of Jesus, and that he used to stay at their house in Bethany every year when his parents brought him to Jerusalem for the Festival of the Passover. I know his mother, Mary, had a cousin named Elizabeth who lived in the hill country of Judea. Maybe she had a sister who lived in Bethany, a sister with three children about the same age as her son Jesus, and when she and Joseph made their annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem that’s where they stayed—with Mary’s sister in Bethany. I picture Martha as the oldest of the three, Lazarus next, and Mary, the youngest. I picture Jesus and Lazarus playing together as boys, becoming best friends, with Martha watching over them like a mother and Mary looking up at Jesus with adoring eyes. So, when Martha’s parents died she would have inherited the house. Lazarus may have gotten married and moved out. And so it would have been just the two of them, Mary and Martha, living at home alone. And when Jesus came to town of course he would have knocked on their door, and of course they would have invited him in—him and his twelve disciples.
As I said, all of this is hypothetical, but this is what you do with a hypothesis: you propose it and then you test it, to see if it holds up. In Luke 10:39 we learn that Martha had a sister named Mary who sat at the Lord’s feet, listening to what he said. That much holds up. That sounds just like the Mary who may have had a girlhood crush on Jesus. And in the next verse we learn that Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made, and that holds up as well. If you were trying to cook supper for thirteen guests who had shown up unexpectedly don’t you think you would be distracted? But it’s this next part that is most persuasive: Martha came to Jesus and said, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her to come and help me!” There is no way that would have happened if Martha were meeting Jesus for the first time. It’s way too familiar. This is the kind of thing you could only say to someone you had known for a long, long time, maybe someone you had grown up with, maybe a member of the family. In John 11:5 we are told that “Jesus loved Martha, and her sister, and Lazarus,” and it’s possible that in the context of that kind of love you could say what Martha said to Jesus here: “Don’t you care that I’m slaving away in the kitchen all by myself? Tell my lazy sister to get in here and help me!”
And what Jesus said in reply suggests that they are old friends. He said, “Martha, Martha.” You can almost hear the affection in his voice. In fact, J. B. Phillips translated these words as, “Martha, my dear,” and Eugene Peterson translates them as “Martha, dear Martha!” Jesus was not scolding her; he just knew her. He’d known her all her life. He knew she was the one who was always trying to take care of everyone else, the one who sometimes forgot to eat because she was thinking of everyone but herself. There’s someone like that in almost every family. There’s probably one in yours. There is certainly one in mine.
When I was on vacation last week I was trying to assure my wife, Christy, that everyone was going to be fine but she so much wanted to be sure that everyone was having a good time she almost forgot to have one herself. There was her mother, Lu, to think about, and then our daughters, Ellie and Catherine, and then Ellie’s husband, Nick, and their two dogs, Bambi and Jackson, and then my brother. Billy, who dropped in for a few days. How do you make sure that all those people and all those pets are getting exactly what they need out of a vacation all the time? It’s a lot to manage. I said, “Christy, Christy…these are all adults! They can take care of themselves! Now, what do you need to get the most out of this vacation?”
She was only thinking of others. It’s what she does. She is one of the most selfless people I know. And if you have ears to hear it that’s all Martha was doing: thinking of others. But Jesus said, “Martha, Martha…look at you! You’re distracted by all that work in the kitchen, and now you’re worried and upset that you won’t get supper on the table, not without some help. But what’s going on here is important. In fact, it may be the most important thing of all. Mary is in touch with that; she’s tuned in. Please don’t take her away.”
It reminds me of something that happened at my house last night.
My brother Gray and his wife, Debby, were in town. They were sitting at the kitchen table with my daughter Ellie, and her husband Nick, who had come to Richmond for a few days to finish up their vacation. Catherine was there at the table and Christy, because she is Christy, was cooking supper for everyone. All she asked me to do was barbecue some chicken on the grill on the back deck. But for most of the time we were all there in the kitchen together, talking, and Nick and Ellie, who live in New York and have what appears to be a very glamorous life, began to make it clear that things weren’t always as glamorous as they appeared—that money was tight, and living in New York was expensive. And then Gray, who is a very successful entrepreneur, began to do some life coaching, talking to Nick and Ellie about how they could improve their situation. Debby would chime in from time to time, offering her thoughts. As they talked Nick began to pour out his heart, and Gray offered up his wisdom, and Debby ladled on the encouragement, and the chicken may have been going up in flames out there on the back deck but I didn’t want to break the spell. And that’s when Christy leaned in close and whispered, “This is a holy moment.”
I think that’s what Jesus was trying to say to Martha, that what was happening in that moment when she came in asking for help was holy, and he didn’t want anything to interrupt it. I’d like to think there was another holy moment a little later, when they all sat down to dinner together and Jesus looked at Martha across the table and mouthed the words, “Thank you.” And then I would guess that he prayed, thanking God for all his goodness, for the hospitality of that home, for the meal that was on the table, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he said, “And bless the hands that prepared it.”
We had a moment like that last night, when that conversation in the kitchen eventually came to an end, and we all served our plates, and sat down together in the dining room. I said, “Let us pray,” and I thanked God for those young people around the table—Nick, and Ellie, and Catherine—for their excellent gifts and their promising futures, and then I thanked God for us old people at the table—Jim and Christy, Gray and Debby—who could offer wisdom and counsel and encouragement to the younger generation and help them on their way. And then I thanked God for the food, and for the hands that prepared it, and said Amen. And Nick, who was sitting to my left, and who has cooked at some of the finest restaurants in the world, picked up his knife and fork, cut into the barbecued chicken, took a bite, smacked his lips appreciatively, murmured his approval, and gave me a thumbs up. “It’s good,” he said, and for me it was a holy moment.
I’d like you to see that this is a holy moment: this one, when we are all gathered together in this place, sitting at the feet of the Lord, and listening to every word he says.
There is something going on here that is both urgent and important, and to take time for it, to make time for it, matters. “Mary has chosen the best part,” Jesus said to Martha. It’s not that all those other things aren’t important. It’s not that they are not urgent. But among the many choices you might make this one—to take some time out of your week to sit at the feet of Jesus, to listen to every word he says, to do your very best to live by his teaching—that’s the best choice of all.
Jim Somerville is pastor of First Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia.