A sermon delivered by David Hughes, First Baptist Church, Pastor, Winston-Salem, Nc., on July 25, 2010.
On my fortieth birthday, Joani and I went to see the blockbuster movie, City Slickers. The movie stars Billy Crystal, playing the role of a 39-year-old-man who is stressed out with life, and decides to go to a dude ranch out West with two friends to “find himself”.
One day Crystal is riding a horse alongside a weathered old cowboy named Curly, pouring his heart out about his life struggles and questions. When Curly’s heard enough, he pulls up his horse, and with a cigarette dangling from his mouth he asks Billy Crystal, “Do you know what the secret of life is?”
Holding up one finger, Curly says, “This.”
“Your finger?” asks Crystal.
“One thing,” answers Curly. “Just one thing. You stick to that and everything else doesn’t mean (expletive).”
“That’s great,” says Crystal. “But what’s the one thing?”
Curly responds, “That’s what you’ve got to figure out.”
I can remember watching that scene, and feeling just as frustrated as Billy Crystal that Curly didn’t reveal the identity of the “one thing.” See, I had been pastor of this church just over a year, and frankly I felt as stressed out as Billy Crystal. Like Billy, I was hoping somebody could tell me what that “one thing” was. Unfortunately, in all the craziness of my life at forty I had forgotten that none other than Jesus reveals the one thing in the poignant story of Martha and Mary recounted in Luke 10:38-42.
As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her door to him.
“Jesus and his disciples” could refer to Jesus and the Twelve disciples in his immediate circle, or Jesus and the seventy-two disciples he commissioned for ministry at the beginning of Luke 10. Whether or not these disciples accompany Jesus in this particular episode is unclear. Rightly or wrongly, I am assuming Jesus is momentarily without his disciples in this story.
The village that Luke refers to is almost certainly Bethany, located just two miles outside of Jerusalem. And Martha is almost certainly the sister of Mary and Lazarus. It seems these three siblings are very good friends of Jesus. In fact, one day Jesus will raise Lazarus from the dead. Since Bethany is located so close to Jerusalem, we can surmise that Jesus was probably a frequent visitor, and may have even used this home as a retreat center, a safe place to be refreshed and rested from the rigors of ministry.
Perhaps because Martha is the oldest she plays the role of official host. The rules of hospitality in the Ancient Middle East demand that the host provide food and lodging for a guest. Apparently, after greeting Jesus and inviting him to make himself comfortable, Martha did what any respectable female host of her day would do, busying herself in the kitchen to prepare a sumptuous meal for her guest.
So far, so good. But then the story line goes off the beaten trail—big-time! (Martha) had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. It’s hard to exaggerate how radical and far-reaching this statement is!
In the first place, Mary would normally be expected to join her sister in the kitchen to prepare the meal. Not joining her sister breaks every rule in the hospitality book, and for that matter, every rule in the gender book. Some would even say that Mary’s apparent lack of hospitality could bring shame on her family.
But there’s more—much more! To be sitting at the feet of a rabbi is the traditional position for a disciple of a rabbi. So, for example, the Apostle Paul says in Acts 22:3 that he studied literally “at the feet of Gamaliel,” a famous rabbi of the day. That Mary is sitting at the feet of the greatest Rabbi who would ever live speaks volumes. It means Jesus recognizes a woman as a bona-fide disciple, implying that women are on equal footing with men in his sight. Such treatment of women was unheard of in the Ancient Middle East!
Occasionally I get angry emails and phone calls from television viewers who are scandalized that our church allows women to lead in worship, and God forbid, even preach! To those viewers I ask, “Why should Christians treat women any differently than Jesus, who didn’t just allow but invited women to sit at his feet along with men to learn from him and minister for him?”
Now the irony is that if Martha, Mary’s sister, had been alive today she might be one of the angry emailers or phone callers.
Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. The Greek word for distracted literally means, “dragged about in many directions.” Can you identify with Martha? Do you ever feel dragged about in many directions by your obligations and responsibilities? Today we call it “multitasking.” But “routinely distracted” might be more accurate.
She came to (Jesus) and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”
Family systems theorists would call this move “triangling.” Triangling is when you’re mad at someone, and you appeal to a third party to get involved in your conflict.
No question—Martha is mad at her sister Mary. Mary is not pulling her weight in the kitchen. Instead, she’s acting like a man, sitting at the feet of Jesus soaking up his presence and his teachings. It’s not fair, and Martha will not stand for it.
But I wonder if Martha is not even more put out with Jesus. After all, he’s encouraging—we might even say “enabling”—this irresponsible behavior by inviting Mary to sit at his feet. While Mary is listening to Jesus, Martha is giving Jesus a piece of her mind, and telling Jesus in no uncertain terms what to do.
Martha’s meltdown, precipitated by her many responsibilities, reminds us of a teaching of Jesus that appears just two chapters earlier in Luke 8. In telling the Parable of the Sower Jesus mentions the seed that fell among the thorns. This seed, he explains, stands for those who hear, but as they go on their way are choked by life’s worries, riches, and pleasures….In other words, they are distracted. And they do not mature (v. 14).
Martha is distracted in the presence of Jesus. And such distraction, we learn, is deadly because it stunts the growth of our souls.
Notice how Jesus responds.
“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered. Later in Luke 22 Jesus will call Simon Peter by name twice. Jesus does this when he wants to chide those he loves so dearly in order to make an important point.
“Martha, Martha…you are worried and upset about many things.” Literally, the Greek reads that Martha was anxious, or “pulled in two” by many things. Again, we know how Martha feels, don’t we? Even while we sit in this sanctuary/auditorium to worship God, our minds may be anxious, pulled in many directions.
“But,” Jesus continues, “few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken from her.
Now, the history of interpretation of this story is very clear, and regrettably, very misleading. Since the early church, and especially since the Middle Ages, the standard interpretation of this story is that it confirms that contemplation is vastly superior to action. Jesus chides the activist, Martha, while he affirms the contemplative, Mary. But this interpretation is too simple, and misses the deeper meaning of the story.
For one thing, we would be sunk without our Marthas! Immediately before this story in Luke 10 we read the famous parable of the Good Samaritan. When a lawyer asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life, Jesus invites him to recite the Law on the matter—Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus agrees, and says, “Do this, and you will live (vv. 27-28).
When the lawyer asks for a definition of neighbor, Jesus tells the story of a man who was robbed and left in a ditch to die, and would have had it not been for the Good Samaritan who rescued him. The Good Samaritan is an example of a disciple who discerned in the moment that now was not the time for contemplation but action. He loved his neighbor, and so fulfilled his call to discipleship.
Make no mistake about it. Active service is critical to being a Christ-follower. As Max Lucado writes, “Every church needs a hundred Marthas. Sleeves rolled up and ready, they keep the pace for the church. Because of Marthas—the church budgets get balanced—church buildings get repaired and cleaned—babies get bounced on loving knees in the nursery.” You get the point. Without Marthas we can’t do church.
What’s wrong with Martha, some say, is not her service. It’s her attitude. She’s resentful about the heavy burdens she carries, and wants others to feel sorry for her. I agree Martha’s attitude stinks. But I think her bad attitude is a symptom of an even bigger problem.
In short, Martha is guilty of bad timing resulting from faulty discernment. The Son of God, Savior of the world, has just dropped by for a visit. And Martha decides it’s time to prepare her best casserole. What Mary sees, and Martha misses is the magic of this moment. This is an opportunity to spend time with the one who created you, and loves you, and knows you better than yourself.
Mary sits down to soak up the love and wisdom of Jesus while Martha gets out the pots and pans. Martha lets her need to work for Jesus distract her from her even greater need to simply be with Jesus. What this moment required was not action in the kitchen but contemplation at the feet of Jesus. Mary correctly discerns what God is doing and calling for in this moment. Martha is blind to the needs of the moment, and wonders why Jesus isn’t thrilled that she’s slaving for him in the kitchen.
And this leads us to the one thing in life that followers of Jesus should know. The secret of life for a disciple of Jesus is knowing when it’s time to sit down at the feet of Jesus, and refuse to let any other responsibility interrupt that time. That’s a secret I wish I had better understood at forty when I was so busy in the kitchen trying to get this church straightened out that I forgot to make time to sit at the feet of Jesus in silence and solitude, in prayer and meditation upon scripture.
In just over a month, our congregation is hosting our second church-wide spiritual formation retreat. Our Spiritual Formation Team prayed and pondered about what we needed most in this next retreat. And they decided that what we need most is a refresher course on the Sabbath and our need for rest.
In other words, they decided we need to focus less on work in the kitchen, and more on sitting at the feet of Jesus in that sacred rhythm called the Sabbath. Why would they make this choice? Because to love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind means first and foremost to sit at the feet of Jesus. And until or unless we get that down pat, nothing else really matters.
I opened today’s sermon with a scene from a movie. Now I close with an excerpt from a poem. Mary Oliver writes in The Summer Day:
“I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?”
“Martha, Martha,” the Lord said, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed, only one. Mary has chosen what is better….
And what one thing will you choose?