Getting our priorities right
We know what it is like. You’ve done everything: cooked the dinner, cleaned up, tidied the kitchen, emptied the dishwasher and loaded it again, unloaded the washing machine and hung things out to dry. And they just go through and read a book or watch television. It happens a lot in our house. And it really is very annoying when the slave gets stroppy and asks you to do something.
And of course, our sympathies here are with Martha.
She is the one who has invited Jesus into her home
She a real doer, a servant.
Martha is the hub of the community. Other people may have the ideas, but she is the one who buckles down and does the work. She is the one who recruits and motivates and manages the volunteers. She is on the committees that actually do the work: the friends of the school committee, the summer fete organising committee; and when the theatre put on a fundraising event, she is there on the front line.
And I’m sure that here, Martha is the person who makes the synagogue run. She does the cleaning, the linen, the catering. She is on the coffee rota, the flower rota, and if there is a special event – we all know who the first person is who would be asked.
But equally Martha could be the vicar with constant new ideas and programmes and things to do, on umpteen committees, or on their rounds visiting people; Or she could be the warden, active in making sure that the buildings are in good shape, the gutters are cleaned, the grass is cut, dealing with the day to day problems.
And we are an activist society. We need our Marthas; we need people who can get things done.
Mary on the other hand is doing nothing. While Martha is doing all the work, she sits at Jesus’ feet and she listens to what he says.
And surely Martha is right to ask Jesus to tell her sister to get off her backside and to do some of the work. It is not right and it is not fair.
And yet Jesus response is quite astonishing.
“Martha, Martha, 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” (
It was a risky thing to say.
1. If you said it in our house, you might – occasionally – get the answer, ‘Well, if that is the case, you get your own dinner!’
2. Mary was doing what Mary should not have been doing. The woman’s place was in the kitchen, serving the men. It was not sitting at a rabbi’s feet listening to him. There was a saying of '’Rabbi Eliezer (Mishnah Sotah 3:4) "that whoever teaches his daughter Torah is considered as if he had taught her licentiousness". So when Jesus says, ‘Mary has chosen what is better and it will not be taken away from her’, he is saying something incredibly radical.
So what is going on? What is Jesus saying? Is he saying that the Christian life is about sitting at his feet, and not about doing anything? Is it about being and not doing?
No. He is not saying that. He has just told us the story of the Good Samaritan, and he finished it off by telling the lawyer, ‘Go and do likewise’. Later in Luke, Jesus demands of his followers a readiness to serve at any time, and he calls them to be faithful in their service (
Instead Jesus is talking here about priorities
1. We need to sit at his feet and to listen to him
Sometimes it is easier to see our own faults in other people and in other cultures. In Russia we used to see babushka’s fussing around in the church, making sure it was swept, that the glass on the icons was cleaned, that the burnt out candles were removed. And if you asked them why they were doing it, they would answer that it was because they loved God, it was their service of God. But even during the services they were sweeping wiping or snuffing. You very rarely noticed them stopping to actually worship, to be in his presence, to listen.
Mary began by doing the thing that is both the hardest and yet the easiest thing to do. She sat at Jesus feet and she listened.
It is so hard to do that because we define ourselves by our activities. One of the first questions that we ask of someone is, “What do you do?” We are valued because of our activity. Some of us get paid for what we do. And we get so much of our sense of self-worth from what we do, and from what others think of what we do.
So I get up in the morning, and after feeding the cat and making a cup of tea, I drift into the study. The intention is to sit down with the bible and to pray. And when I do that it is often glorious and liberating. But so often I think of something that needs sorting out or wonder if someone has sent me the email I’m waiting for. And I do this and I do that, and I end up having lost the time and having lost the focus.
It is so hard to stop and sit at Jesus’ feet. Martha was just too busy.
2. We need to let Jesus set us free from the many things that cause us anxiety and upset
I guess Martha defined herself as a good hostess. I guess she judged herself on how clean her house was, on how good the meal is, on her control of the situation. And now the most important person she could imagine had come to her house. She had to make sure it was good. She would be mortified if Jesus thought that her house was dirty, or that the meal was sub-standard.
Isn’t it interesting how we project onto others our own judgements, particularly religious leaders?
Actually, seeing a spotless house or having an amazing meal, were not on Jesus’ radar.
What was on Jesus radar was a deep love for Mary and for Martha. Martha had invited him into her house. He wanted to spend time with them. He was also the Son of God, and he had so much to say. He desired the best for Martha and Mary. He wanted to set Martha free from the expectations that she put onto herself, that she allowed other people to put onto her. He wanted her to know that God loved her even if the house was in a mess, and they only ate beans on toast. He wanted Martha to know that she was deeply deeply loved by God, that she could do nothing for God (as God said to Job, ‘Who has given anything to me that I should repay them?’), that she was valuable and precious not because of what she did, but because of who she was. Jesus wanted Martha to know that she was so precious to him that he would die for her. He wanted her to know that she didn’t need to prove herself to him, to the neighbours or even to God – she couldn’t, but she didn’t need to. He wanted her to know the astonishing hope, that if she trusted in him then death was not the end, and she could look forward to eternal life.
He wanted her to know all of this, but she would not sit down and listen.
Of course there are times for action and service, but there are also times to stop and listen to God. And when Jesus comes to your house that is one of those times.
Don’t try to entertain Jesus, listen to him
Don’t try to prove yourself to Jesus, listen to him
Don’t try to make everything right for Jesus, listen to him
Don’t try to serve Jesus, listen to him.
Bit of joke really, Martha getting a meal ready for someone who has fed 5000 people (in
Luke 9:12-17) with a few loaves and fish.
Of course, having listened to Jesus, we need to go away and to do what he says. But we cannot do anything of value, if we have not first listened to him. And I am absolutely sure that when Jesus had finished saying what he wanted to say, Mary – and maybe Jesus himself - would have got up and gone to help put some food on the table. It wouldn’t have been as grand, but it would have been what was necessary.
3. We need to let Jesus judge us.
Jesus makes us look at ourselves.
You can imagine Martha. She is doing all this stuff, and her sister is doing nothing. All the sister stuff comes back. It is how it has always been. The old resentments rise. She is getting angrier and angrier. She’s bashing the pots together, deliberately loud, so that Mary will hear. And when Mary still doesn’t move, it all comes out. “Jesus, tell her to come and help me”.
Just a little warning: when you ask Jesus to make another person do something, watch out what he says. Because usually when we ask him to judge another, he turns it round and judges us.
And that happens on this occasion. Instead of telling Mary to help her sister, he turns the whole thing round. ‘Martha, you are getting distracted and upset because your mind is telling you that there are 101 things that need to be done, and that Mary is doing nothing. Don’t let it destroy you. At this point, only one thing is necessary. I’m not going to take what Mary has away from her. In fact, you should be here and you could be here, listening’.
In other words, Jesus challenges Martha, ‘stop looking at others and start to look at yourself’.
So when you get angry with someone, when you think that it is unfair, and when you are tempted to ask Jesus to sort them out, to pass sentence on them, just stop – and ask him to show you why you think it is unfair, and – even more important - why you think it matters that it is unfair.
And when you get overwhelmed by the many things that you have to do, and particularly if you start to resent people who seem, at times, to do nothing, please ask yourself why you are doing what you are doing. Is it to make a name for yourself, to maintain a reputation, to be in control? Or is what you are doing a joy, or done in the hope of a future joy. It would have been OK if Martha had loved the making of the meal, and it really was done as an act of service and because she loved Jesus. But actually it was really being done, as so much of what we do is done, because she loved herself and wanted to put on a good show.
And yes, it might mean that some things are left undone, or that things are not always as nice as we would like them to be, or that we are not fully in control, but that is OK. Life is like that. And God is still in control. A couple I knew (in a place far far away), had an extraordinarily messy home, and domestically things seemed to be quite out of control – but it didn’t worry either of them – and they have been used by Jesus Christ to touch more lives for him than almost any other couple that I know.
These verses are about priorities.
Listening to Jesus
Letting Jesus set us free
Allowing Jesus to judge us
These verses balance the story of the Good Samaritan. There Jesus emphasizes the second part of the commandment, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’, and tells the lawyer to ‘go and do likewise’. Here we see the importance of ensuring that the first of those two commandments actually does come first: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength’.
One final thing: Jesus says of Mary: “Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her”. Jesus is saying to Martha, ‘No, I’m not going to tell her to help you’. But he is also saying that time spent with him is the one thing that will not be taken from us. We may lose our reputation, our dignity, our possessions, our closest friends, even our mind, ultimately our physical life – but for those who choose to put him first, to sit at his feet and listen to him, he will never ever be taken away from us.