The text before us today is a simple one. It is not full of complicated metaphors we need to decode and unpack if we are to make sense of it. There is not even much in the way of a crucial cultural nuance that we need to wrestle with before we can begin to appreciate this Word. No, it is a fairly straightforward accounting of an exchange between Jesus and a woman named Martha and her sister Mary. In context, this story takes place immediately after the parable of the Good Samaritan, which we discussed last week. Our Lord has set his face toward Jerusalem, and along the way, He stops in an unnamed village where a woman named Martha invites Him into her home. Once inside the home, Martha’s sister, Mary, sits at the feet of our Lord listening to Him teach. Meanwhile, Martha is distracted with all the duties which come when you invite someone into your home. So, we read in the text how Martha, “Went up to Him and said, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.’”
The typical move here is to establish a simple dichotomy in the text. That is, we set up Mary and Martha as two opposites, two ways to respond to the presence and blessings of Jesus. You may very well have heard a sermon along these lines. Shoot, I think I have preached a sermon along those lines. Instead of being consumed with the things of this life, the work and worries of today and tomorrow, we ought to be concerned with the things of God, with His Word, gifts, and presence, but I do not know if this is really fair to the text, or fair to Martha. In a way, such a dichotomy misses the real thrust Luke wants us to encounter in his Gospel. This text deals with discipleship, with love, with kindness, and with generosity. Besides, it would not do much good to substitute one list of things to do, like going to work or taking care of the duties of the day, with another more spiritual list, like reading your bible or spending time in prayer.
Just think about the Old Testament lesson assigned for today. Genesis 18 is about Abraham hurrying off to serve God who has come to visit. His faithful words may very well be found on the lips of Martha. He says, “O Lord, if I have found favor in Your sight, do not pass by Your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash Your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree, while I bring a morsel of bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that You may pass on—since You have come to Your servant.” And Abraham is not rebuffed for this service. In fact, it is in the context of God eating this meal with Abraham that the promise is given about his wife Sara bearing a son. His work is not ridiculed as unimportant and, for that matter, neither is Martha’s.
This text is intimate. It does not happen out in the public square but in the home of Martha, where Jesus was pleased to dwell. It deals with the intimate realities of being a follower of our Lord. At times, we can think the Church is supposed to be a perfect harmony of the fellowship of God’s people. We get the idea there will always be unity, peace, and joy in the fellowship. But the reality is much more difficult. It is fraught with a lot more tension than we often confess. Martha is not wrong because she is busy with many things. She is also not wrong for wanting to provide for our Lord in the best way she knew. And Mary is certainly not wrong for sitting at His feet. She is not wrong to jump at the opportunity to learn from Jesus Himself. The issue seems to be that Martha wants to leverage Jesus to get her sister to help out with the work. She want’s Mary to feel guilty for not making her job easier. She wants Mary to serve as she serves.
The reality is this is the ongoing tension among the people of God. All of you are both Mary and Martha. In fact, if you were placed on a sliding scale, I would say you are much more in the vein of Martha than Mary. I mean have you ever actually met someone who is fully in line with Mary, just content to sit at the feet of our Lord. No, everyone of you likes to focus on the service you do. Sure, you may not be able to open up your home and invite Jesus into it. And if you did, most likely you would have certain rooms, certain areas closed off, things you do not want Jesus to see. But as a disciple of our Lord, you will serve Him. Yet, you serve in your own way.
On Thursday, I had a great discussion with my good friend, Pastor Tim Barkett, about tithing, or as he liked to call it, percentage giving. We discussed at length how part of the gifts, part of the freedom of the Christian life, is found in the giving of a percentage of what you have been blessed with to others. And I suppose that is part of the clarification we need to make as well. Since the ascension of our Lord to the right hand of the Father, our service to Him is actually service to our neighbor, service rendered to one another. It could be one who gives a percentage of their time to volunteer to care for a struggling sister in Christ who can no longer make it to church on their own. It could be those who give a percentage of their income to maintenance and running of the church. It could also be the brother who gives a percentage of the wisdom they have mastered to instruct the youth. Such committed giving brings order to the chaos of our lives. It channels our energy and puts it in to service. Such service is good, godly, and needed.
But such service is not uniform. At various times in your life, you are able to serve differently. At different stages the percentage you are able to give can increase or decrease. And the danger which can come to our intimate fellowship is we may begin to see our particular service at a particular time as the best, the one everyone should emulate. So, we begin to leverage Jesus to get the service of others to fall in line with our vision, our plan, our design. Martha’s service is wonderful. It is gracious and kind, like that of Abraham. The issue is she wants to make a law out of it, or even worse, she wants to make Jesus the lawgiver to force others to do what she is doing. She wants to be the determiner of what is faithful, what is acceptable, and what is good. Churches do this all the time. Christ dwells in our midst and we want to argue over how to best serve.
The real danger of this, the evil which lurks beneath it, is how such tension seeks to pull people away from the one necessary thing. “Martha, Martha,” Jesus says, “you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.” What I love about this text is how Mary seems to be quite oblivious to the whole situation. Her role is the heart and soul of discipleship. It is not defined by her service, by her work, or by what she offers, but only by what she receives. In this text, we see the one necessary thing renders her completely passive. She receives form the Lord His Word, His instruction, His promises, and it will not be taken away from her.
I love that. There is no surprise ending, no final moment where her service will be the determining factor of her salvation. This is the one necessary thing. This receiving is all that is necessary. So, in our life together, in our fellowship right here and now, you are called back to the one thing. Before you give out of your abundance, you receive. You receive the living Word of God, a Word which declares you are forgiven, a Word which calls you His brothers and sisters, heirs of eternal life. You receive His body and blood given and shed for you. You are given all that is necessary for eternal life. Then, in that confidence, in that gift, you are free to serve. You serve out of what you have first received from the Lord. Therefore, we are all blessed by having both sat with Mary and served with Martha.