Familiar passages may seem too easy to us, O God, but as we hear your Word fresh and new, may we understand what you would speak to our hearts this day.
GOSPEL LESSON Luke 10:38-42, NCV
38 While Jesus and his followers were traveling, Jesus went into a town. A woman named Martha let Jesus stay at her house. 39 Martha had a sister named Mary, who was sitting at Jesus’ feet and listening to him teach. 40 But Martha was busy with all the work to be done. She went in and said, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me alone to do all the work? Tell her to help me.”
41 But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things. 42 Only one thing is important. Mary has chosen the better thing, and it will never be taken away from her.”
SERMON Martha & Mary of Bethany
It’s a familiar story, but it’s not the only story in which these two sisters appear. Not everything I reviewed this week made sense to me. One of the Bible studies had events out of order or made assumptions for which I couldn’t find a basis. That’s part of the problem when we consider familiar stories. We get to the point that we don’t remember for sure what the original story was and where the embellishments were added. Some of that will come up as we consider Mary and Martha today. But we also want to consider what lessons they have for us these 2,000 years after their stories took place.
As I pondered their story after my coaching call on Friday, I realized we often interpret Mary and Martha’s story in Luke 10 as Jesus scolding Martha for choosing the wrong thing. It suddenly occurred to me that the text doesn’t actually say that. Jesus doesn’t make any judgment on what Martha does best, her hosting and serving duties, running the household and especially the kitchen. What Jesus does chide Martha for is her expectation that Mary should be more like Martha. Truth be told, “should” is not a polite word applied to ourselves or to anyone else. It is a word of judgement, and you already know the Bible teaches that only God has the right to judge humankind. Jesus recognizes that Martha is distracted by her to do list, by her should list. I think it might make Jesus sad that Martha is so worried about serving her company that she can’t take time to enjoy her company, but he doesn’t scold her for it. Where he draws the line is when Martha wants to deny Mary that privilege. Jesus has welcomed Mary into the conversation circle usually occupied only by men in that culture and time. Mary is seated in a place where her love and respect for Jesus is obvious, at his feet. Jesus won’t let that spot or opportunity be taken from her.
Each woman honored Jesus and demonstrated their love and devotion for him, according to her own personality. Martha was a doer; Mary was a listener. Both are significant. Both are needed. Each of us needs to find a proper balance for listening and doing in our own lives. No matter how much you love to study or meditate, sooner or later you have to do the dishes and take out the trash. No matter how well you keep your house or cook, you need to find some time to read your Bible and pray. But we generally lean in one direction or the other. I think Jesus accepted that in these women and wanted them to accept that in each other.
While we are visiting their home as we ponder this passage, let’s take a look at the family. We have three siblings who apparently live together. Martha and Mary are named here. In John’s gospel we also find Lazarus as their brother. Parents and spouses are never mentioned for any of them, so it seems a fair guess that their parents are no longer living, and none of them have married. We do not know the ages of the family members, but John McArthur speculates they are younger than Jesus which would put them in their late 20s perhaps, since his ministry began at 30.
Martha appears to be oldest, the Head of Household, because the scripture indicates that this is her house and that she is the one who extended the invitation to Jesus. Like the women we mentioned last week who supported Jesus out of their own funds, we have another woman with the means to sustain herself, even a family and offer hospitality to guests. Interestingly, Martha’s name in Aramaic means Lady or Mistress, so it suits her well as the householder and head of the family.
We don’t know how this friendship began, but one author suggests it started with Martha extending an invitation to dinner at her home. Since Bethany was only a couple miles outside Jerusalem, it became a place Jesus and the others could visit when traveling there. I can picture Martha, perhaps all three of them, being part of a crowd that heard Jesus speak. Perhaps Martha was inspired then to seek Jesus out and make the offer of a meal at her home.
I can imagine that, because it reminds me of the first time I heard Luminate in concert at Cornerstone Music Festival and found the courage afterward to approach Sam and invite the whole band to our campsite for supper with the rest of my group. That began a friendship lasting many years, feeding them when they were at venues within driving distance and praying for them. We even hosted one concert here. The last few years Deb and Bonnie went with me to their concerts, added to the food supply and talking with them backstage. Perhaps Martha and her siblings’ relationship with Jesus and the disciples went something like that.
The Mary Marthas, my Saturday morning group that takes its name from this very story, are doing a study from Max Lucado and Randy Frazee called “Making Room for Neighbors.” Yesterday’s lesson was on hospitality, looking for ways to make time and opportunity to get to know the people around you, the people passing by, especially in your neighborhood. One gentleman did this by changing one simple habit. After his daily bike ride, he always took a glass of water out to the backyard to relax and cool down. He didn’t change his schedule, but he moved his cool down to the front driveway and put a second open chair next to his. Now he could see others walking by and share a greeting, but the chair also offered welcome if anyone wanted to sit and chat a bit. I thought of the neighbor whose kitchen was always open to youth and adults with coffee or milk and her famous chocolate chip cookies. I’ve heard others talk about growing up in a home where a pot of coffee was always available for whoever stopped in during the day. While some people have a certain gift for hospitality, any of us can develop a hospitable attitude by adding a welcoming gesture or phrase somewhere in our daily routine.
As Lady of the house Martha fulfilled the many clearly defined duties of a woman in her day:
- grinding grain to mix, knead and bake bread,
- prepare meat either from the market or livestock,
- card, spin and weave thread to make clothes and linens,
- draw water not only to drink but for household chores of cleaning, washing dishes or clothes and bathing,
- and caring for family members. (from list by Jean Syswerda in Women of the Bible, p. 193)
We said in class Wednesday, that in our own day we haven’t changed those expectations all that much. Gender roles are far more open to shared duties or reversed roles than they once were. We have conveniences Martha didn’t, but we women still place many such expectations on ourselves whether or not others impose them on us. When we also work outside the home pursuing a career or to pay the bills, we just add that on top of the rest of what we think we “should” do. Rather than living overwhelmed by that weight of responsibility and guilt for not meeting such expectations, we have to prioritize. Mary demonstrates one needed priority.
Martha’s focus is on her duties, her kitchen, serving her guest, but do you see how that word “her” is always there? Martha’s focus is on herself. Mary sits by Jesus, listens to Jesus, worships Jesus. Mary’s focus is exclusively on Jesus, and there is the difference. Why is Mary credited with the better part? Jesus knows where Mary’s heart is turned, fully in his direction, while her sister has Jesus on the periphery of her “should” list revealing a subtle form of pride at its core. I couldn’t help but compare these sisters then with the sacrifice of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4. I never understood why God chose one offering over the other, until I caught the word “best” in the story. Cain gave some grain from the field; Abel gave the best parts of the first born of the flock. Cain did his duty; Abel gave his best. There are plenty of days I only do my duty, and other days when I give my best. How about you?
I think Mary knew how to live out Psalm 46:10, “Be still and know that I am God.” She brought that stillness as a gift of her devotion to Jesus. Martha’s gift was hospitality, but the danger she and we face is this, to become so busy for God, that we essentially ignore God.
Now we come to two more stories of Martha and Mary in John chapters 11 and 12.
Lazarus, who is the brother of Mary and Martha, becomes quite ill. Jesus already has a strong relationship with this family; this happens late in his ministry. The sisters have sent a message to Jesus; basically, Lazarus is on his deathbed, and Jesus knows it.
It’s risky for Jesus to come near Jerusalem, because by this time the Jewish leaders are out to get him. Jesus waits a few days for his own reasons. Just as a side note: when Jesus plainly tells the disciples that Lazarus has already died, they are still lacking in faith and understanding, but they are strong in loyalty. When Jesus does finally arrive, Martha and Mary are receiving friends and neighbors who are there to mourn with them. Martha, ever the hostess, comes out of the house to greet Jesus. Martha’s deep faith in who Jesus is can be heard in what she says, “Lord, if only you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask.” (John 11:21-22) As their conversation continues, we see that she believes as some Jews did, that the dead will be raised on the last day. Then Jesus makes the claim quoted often at funerals, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me will have life even if they die. 26 And everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” (John 11:25-26) He asks if Martha believes this. She responds with a faith statement that is the foundation of Christianity. “Yes, Lord!” … “I do believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.” Peter has said this earlier; now Martha also declares that Jesus is the One God has promised all along.
It takes courage to make that statement of faith in the midst of a crisis or tragedy. Martha isn’t a fair-weather follower of Jesus. She proclaims her faith even in deepest sorrow. Some give up with life gets rough, but others of us know that is when we need our faith in Christ the most, when we need to stake our lives on the promises of God, when we have to trust that we are not alone, not ignored, not without hope. Our faith grows not on the easy days, but on the tough ones. Martha’s faith grew deep when Jesus came to mourn her brother’s death, and that faith would find relief.
Mary has remained in the house all this time until she is told that Jesus is asking for her. Martha had gone outside the village to meet Jesus as he came to town. Mary now took her turn to go out and greet him. She and the mourners who followed her are all crying. Through those tears, she says as Martha had, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” (John 11:32) Jesus weeps with her as he asks to be shown where Lazarus is buried.
I heard Martha’s comment as a statement of faith, because she went on to say, “even now….” I hear Mary expressing her broken heart, and with it asking the question we all want to ask at such a time, Why? Why was he taken from us? Why did he die so young? Why didn’t you come sooner? Why? It’s a question we ask when we are in pain. But putting it that way reminds me of a favorite verse in Psalm 147. “He heals the brokenhearted, binding up their wounds.” Jesus doesn’t abandon us in our sorrow; Jesus brings comfort and healing in his own way and time.
Lazarus is buried in a typical cave like tomb of that day with a large stone in front of it. Sound familiar? What is about to happen will bring comfort indeed to the sisters, but Jesus is also taking this opportunity to demonstrate God’s power and foreshadow what will happen for himself in days not too far ahead. When Jesus asks them to move the stone, practical Martha is worried about the stench, but Jesus offers them a miracle, calling Lazarus out of the tomb, alive once again.
In the next chapter, there is a banquet at the home of Simon who was once a leper. Perhaps Jesus is the one who healed him. Perhaps they are celebrating Lazarus’ resurrection. The text tells us that Martha is serving the meal; she is once again using her gifts, to help a friend and honor Jesus. We are told Lazarus is there eating with Jesus and the disciples. Mary comes forward to show her love and devotion to Jesus in her own way. She has a jar of very expensive perfume, pure nard, which is an essential oil from the spikenard plant that grows in the Himalayas. Imagine the expense of bring it from India or Nepal to Judah! Washing your guests’ feet is standard hospitality in that time and place, but Mary has taken it a step further, anointing Jesus’ feet with this precious oil and wiping them with her own hair.
This same story is told in Matthew 26 and Mark 14 but with some differences. Mary isn’t named, nor are Martha or Lazarus noted as present. But it is in Bethany at the home of someone named Simon who has had a skin disease and takes place near the end of Jesus’ ministry. I think it is the same story in these three cases. The other difference is that Matthew and Mark say she pours the perfume on Jesus’ head (a common act of hospitality) whereas John echoes another story saying she anoints his feet. I’m not too worried about that detail.
As we said with Mary Magdalene, don’t get this story confused with the sinful woman. That happened earlier, in a different home, and that woman is never named. However, being a friend and attentive student of Jesus, Mary likely knew that story. Perhaps she wanted to express her love and gratitude for Jesus who brought her brother back to life. She wasn’t gifted in the kitchen or serving at table as Martha was, but this story gave her an idea of what she could do. She owned this precious jar of perfume. It was the best gift she had to offer. So, she replicated what the other woman had done.
This time it’s one of the disciples who is outraged, Judas Iscariot. She shouldn’t have wasted that money, it could have been used to help the poor. Another side note: Don’t be fooled by Judas’ words. This is where we are told that he used to help himself to the ministry funds in his care. Jesus defends Mary and foreshadows what is to come by saying, “Leave her alone. She did this in preparation for my burial.” (John 12:7) This dinner party takes place, the day before Jesus enters Jerusalem for the last time, riding a donkey, greeted with palm branches and shouts of “Hosanna!” His burial is coming soon.
I like Elisa Morgan’s take on this Mary. “Mary of Bethany understood who Jesus was, she somehow got that he was the Messiah, …And in this moment, she did what alone she could do, she gave to Jesus what she could give.” (Twelve Women of the Bible, Study Guide, p. 103) Mary did what she could, and so can we. If the big picture is overwhelming, we can’t do everything, but we can do something. The kitchen was not Mary’s forte. That’s okay. What Mary could do was share her precious perfume. That’s probably not something Martha could offer. It’s not something Lazarus had available either. But Mary could, and she did.
When you get to the point of saying, “I can’t do it all.” Ask yourself, what’s the one thing I can do today? What’s the one thing I can do for my friend, for my neighbor? What’s the one thing I can do for Jesus? When we as the church reached the point of admitting, “We can’t do all the things we used to do.” It became important for us to ask, “Okay, what is it that we still can do?” We will have to ask ourselves that question periodically as we move forward, because the answer will continue to change over time.
When Mary and Martha welcomed Jesus into their home. Martha was distracted and worried, as Jesus said, about many things. Mary simply sat at Jesus’ feet and listened. From Martha’s perspective Mary was doing nothing. But sitting at Jesus’ feet was doing something. Mary honored the teacher with her full attention as any teacher would hope from a student. At the second dinner party, Mary honored Jesus with her expensive oil, an act of hospitality that went above and beyond the expected norm. Mary did what she could do. So did Martha. And so, may you.
I encourage you in the days ahead to look at your lives, your neighborhood, the people Jesus puts in front of you, the opportunities Jesus gives you. At the same time consider your gifts. What resources do you have? What are you good at doing? Keeping in mind that you need some balance of devotion and service, look for what you can do to honor Jesus in your life.