Learn AND Serve
9th after Pent., C
38 As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, He came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to Him. 39 She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet listening to what He said. 40 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!" 41 "Martha, Martha," the Lord answered, "you are worried and upset about many things, 42 but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her."
The thoughts for this message will engage us in a sort of personality study of the two ladies, Mary and Martha, spoken about in the Reading from Luke chapter 10. Three episodes from their lives appear in the Bible that give a picture of some consistent characteristics of the two, and they’re both obviously quite different. Mary invariably ended up at the feet of Jesus, listening a lot and not having much to say. Martha was always busily bustling about, preparing and serving food to guests or running out to Jesus, impulsively telling Him whatever was on her mind, a bit like Peter!
THE THREE EPISODES
The First Episode, Martha seems to have been a perfect hostess. Jesus had come to the village of Bethany, where Martha immediately welcomed Him into her house. Having done so, she busied herself with much serving while her sister Mary sat quietly at the Lord’s feet listening to Him teach. It bothered Martha, so she barged in where the two of them sat and blurted out her discontent and desire for some assistance. Martha served and spoke her mind. Mary was content to listen to what Jesus had to say, and we see that there was no stinging reply from her.
The Second Episode, Lazarus, the brother of these two ladies, had become ill and died. Though the sisters had sent for Jesus during the illness, Jesus delayed His coming until finally four days after Lazarus was placed in a tomb. Martha rushed out to meet Jesus and once again blurted in her outspoken way: “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died.” There’s a ring of faith in her words, though, especially as she went on to say: “Even now I know that, whatever You ask from God, He will give You.” And it’s climaxed with the beautiful statement of faith: “I believe, Lord, that You are the Christ, the Son of God; He who is coming into the world.”
But where was Mary during all this? While Martha went out to meet Jesus, she sat back in the house quietly grieving. Then, when Martha called and told her that Jesus was asking for her, Mary quickly left the house to find Jesus. When she did, she typically fell at His feet and said much the same as her sister had. Both sisters followed their own predictable patterns.
Now the third report about these two with Jesus: It was 6 days before the Passover. A supper was prepared in the house of Simon the Leper, and who should be serving again but Martha? Mary was of course at the Lord’s feet again, but this time anointing Him with the costly ointment whose fragrance filled the whole house, and wiping His feet with her hair. Again we see each sister going about things in her own way.
Who was the more right? Mary seems like she was a quiet and reflective sort of person and Martha an activist. Mary was a good listener; Martha always serving. Mary was absorbed with thinking about things; Martha was involved with the practical. Mary spent her money on the perfume to anoint Jesus, while Martha cooked and set out food to serve Jesus. Mary is often thought of by the casual Bible reader as the ideal, and Martha as the “heel.”
THE LORD’S PERSPECTIVE
John’s Gospel makes a decisive statement concerning it all: “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister…” He LOVED them BOTH: Mary as the one always sitting at His feet, and Martha as the impulsive one who always served and said what she thought!
Yet Mary got criticized by her sister for just sitting there: “Lord, don’t You care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” When we get right down to it, Martha was criticizing Jesus Himself in what she said. Later Mary was also criticized by Judas and some of the disciples because she used all that good perfume on the Lord’s feet when the money it had cost could have been given to the poor. (That was a lie in Judas’ heart, as we well know!)
In each case Jesus rose to Mary’s defense, as He first told Martha: “Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” And second, to Judas and the others grumbling about her extravagance: “Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to Me. For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you will you can do good to them; but you will not always have Me.”
Jesus defended and commended Mary for what she did, but as for Martha, nowhere did He actually condemn her act of serving! It was the anxiety attack, adopting a martyr attitude and judging Mary as being lazy that prompted the Lord’s rebuke: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed.”
Jesus loved them both, and as St. Paul once wrote: “God set the members every one of them in the body as it pleased Him … Many members, yet one body.” Listening to God’s Word but never doing anything for Him can be as useless as always doing without listening for God’s guidance and direction. The one COULD sometimes be laziness, and the other USELESS “activism.” A Psalm aptly says: “Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain that build…” Martha should have traded some of her “do-goodism” for the quiet and teachable depth of Mary’s spirit; and just maybe Mary could have learned from her sister to be as expressive of her faith as in the one time we know that she anointed the Savior’s feet.
THE LESSON FOR US
All this brings us to the climax that first priority DOES go to receiving the guidance and life-giving grace of God’s Word for all we believe and do, though. Just barging ahead and ‘doing one’s own thing no matter what’ can be particularly misguided and selfish, to the point where it can become expressed in things like chronic dissatisfaction and irresponsible living, and by expecting unreasonable favors. The Lord’s guiding Word is still the “one thing needed” and the “better” thing that “will not be taken away.” The Lord can get along quite well without our service, but our need for HIM is constant. And it’s only as we receive His teaching that any activity or service gains practical and lasting, eternal value!
Like the two sisters, Jesus loves each of us. He loved us all the way to the Cross! He gave His head to the crown of thorns for us, His face to be spit on, His cheeks and beard to be pulled. He gave His back to the lash for us, His side to the spear, and His hands and feet to the spikes for us. He gave His blood and life for us, taking our sins to Himself. THAT’S how He’s given His love to us, in spite of all our faults and what we’ve been!
The “better” thing therefore needs to come first, as we neither lose our heads in the clouds nor bury them in our own good deeds, but clearly learn first from Jesus. He tells us all: Believe in Me. Your faith has saved you. Go and sin no more. Go and serve with gladness!
We need the time with Jesus and His teaching for the happiness His words of forgiveness bring, for strength to resist and prevail against temptation, to become qualified as His servants, to be sustained and comforted in depression, trial and sorrow, and especially for the strength and courage to one day face our deaths. We need Jesus constantly so our hope of Heaven will always remain secure! We need Him for life itself!
Jesus never did try to change the personalities of Martha or Mary, although He did rebuke the wrong and approve the right. Both women still served, and both were enabled for richer service by the Lord’s life-giving words. It was one of their own episodes in which He claimed to be the very “Resurrection and the Life,” and He went on to prove how great His power is by raising Lazarus back to life. Martha did possess the faith to reply: “Yes, Lord; I BELIEVE…” And Mary’s more serene kind of faith led her to do something truly beautiful for Jesus.
We know that the Lord made each of us unique, giving us varied talents and personalities. And He does want us to serve Him, but always with the awareness of what He did for us when He gave His life! He may therefore rightly expect that we listen to Him day after day, faithfully DOING “the one thing needed.” And as we do, He fills us all the more with what He’s done for us!