Pursuing What is Best
Mary and Martha, Priorities, Balance
We all know what it is like to come home from vacation or a long business trip. There is something comforting about familiar surroundings. We love being able to sit in our own chair surrounded by people who know us and love us.
Think for a minute about the life of Jesus. He was constantly going from town to town. His life was forever, it seemed, lived out of suitcase. Imagine how exhausting that would have been. In his travels I suspect there were some places that were more like home than others. Perhaps Peter’s home was a frequent resting place when Jesus was in Galilee. The one home we know was a lot like home when Jesus was in Jerusalem was the home of Martha, Mary and their brother Lazarus. They lived in Bethany about two miles outside of Jerusalem. Whenever Jesus was in the area it appeared he stayed with them.
In our text this morning from Luke 10 we are privy to one of these visits to Bethany.
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!”
Martha and Mary were both followers of Jesus. They both were devoted to the Lord. We know this from the various accounts of Jesus with these women. Martha comes across in kind of a bad light in this text but she was trying to do a good thing. She wanted things to be special for Jesus. She welcomed Him into her home and wanted to make His stay as pleasant and renewing as possible. Martha had a gift of hospitality. She served her Lord by cooking and entertaining. She loved doing things for Jesus.
The text tells us that Mary, Martha’s sister sat the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. This is significant because it was unheard of for a rabbi to allow a woman to sit at his feet. Jesus did not support the subjugation of women that was so common in the day.
Mary’s posture was such that demonstrated that she had a desire to learn all she could from the Master. She listened intently to the Word of God through the lips of Jesus.
I suspect Martha was fine with Mary sitting with Jesus . . . at first. We are told that while Mary sat at the feet of Jesus Martha was in the kitchen working. Perhaps Martha would have liked to have been able to sit at the feet of Jesus too. However, she had rolls to bake, potatoes to mash, and a table to set. There was much to do. As she worked in the kitchen she began to feel OVER-whelmed and UNDER-appreciated. She started to feel upset that Mary did not recognize that she wanted help.
We have all, at one time or another, been where Martha was so we don’t have any trouble imagining what was going on. You can imagine Martha thinking “Here I am in the kitchen slaving away over a meal these people will eat in just a matter of minutes and everyone else is out their having a good time with Jesus. Don’t they understand how much work is involved?”
Can you hear Martha starting to “sigh” loudly. When no one noticed I can imagine pans and plates being placed on the kitchen counter with a little more force than normal. Martha felt like a martyr and wanted everyone to know of her sacrifice. For all we know someone may have said, “Martha, can we do anything to help?” And Martha probably responded (with a noticeable edge to her voice . . . it was meant to be noticeable), “O no, I’m fine, you just continue with your visit.”
Martha had started out trying to do something nice for Jesus but her attitude had taken a wrong turn. Her service was no longer about Jesus . . . it was now about Martha. We are told Martha was distracted. When we start feeling sorry for ourselves we begin to view everything and everybody through a negative lens. Our stomach is tied in knots, our heart races, we attribute the worst possible motives to everyone and we start to feel like a victim. At this point, we may strike out at anyone and everyone who comes near.
Martha finally had enough. She came out to Jesus and said, ““Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” (40) I suspect if looks could kill there would have been mass casualties. Martha is frustrated and that frustration came out as anger toward Mary at not helping her and even at Jesus for not noticing her sacrifice and making Mary go to the kitchen.
Isn’t it easy to end up where we find Martha? We become so involved in what we are doing that we feel everyone else should be equally as concerned about our pursuits as we are. We can become so distracted that we lose our focus. We can become so obsessed with the things going on in our life that we can’t see beyond our activity. This is what happened to Martha.
Jesus turned to Martha and simply said,
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.”
I imagine Jesus looking Martha right in the eye and speaking with a touch of sadness, “You are worried and upset about many things”. Jesus identified her problem. With the next phrase He gave her the solution to the problem, “but only one thing is needed”.
Jesus may have been talking about the meal. He may have been saying, “Martha, you are worried about getting so many things ready for us . . . only one thing is needed. You are trying to put on a feast (and getting all worked up as you do so) when all we need is a simple bite to eat.” However, it is more likely that Jesus was telling Martha that she was upset about many things but was really missing the one thing that she needed most. He wasn’t going to scold Mary because Mary was seeking the thing she needed most: a message from God and a relationship with His Son.
Jesus was not telling Martha that it is bad to show hospitality to someone else. Martha was not wrong to want to be a good hostess. She took a good thing too far and it took her away from something far better. Martha’s priorities had become skewed.
Principles to Remember
I want to take the majority of our time this morning trying to apply this account to our lives. This story was not recorded because Luke wanted us to meet Mary and Martha. It’s not here for an anecdotal purpose. The Holy Spirit had Luke tell us the story because it illustrates something important for those who follow Christ.
Notice first that People Have Different Personalities. Some enjoy reading, some enjoy watching television. Some people like country music; some like rock music. Some people like to camp out; others like hotels. People have different tastes. There are always going to be some people who always need to be doing something. They love to solve problems and meet needs. They are like the Energizer Bunny and always on the go. There are others who love to ponder deep truths. These people love curling up with a good book. They love taking classes and soaking up new information. They are always ready to talk about something new they have learned. They are happiest when their minds are engaged in learning.
None of these personality types is better than the other. We need balance in our lives. The lawn mower repair guy who knows how to fix every lawnmower but never gets around to fixing any lawnmowers is worthless. By the same token the guy who is always taking apart lawnmowers but never stops to learn how to do it correctly will be always busy but will never finish the job. Likewise the person who has all kinds of theological knowledge who never does anything with that knowledge is useless. And the person who is always running and who never stops to “fill up their tank” at the feet of Jesus is running fast but often in the wrong direction. It is not about personality type, it’s about balance.
We Can be so Involved in Doing Ministry that we Neglect Developing a Relationship with God. This is especially a danger for the “Type A” driven personality. We see this danger with Pastors, youth leaders, Christian counselors and people working in the mission field. It happens to those who have a passion for the work of the church. We are so eager to see the church grow, the poor helped, and the kids cared for but what happens is we can neglect to tend to the fire of our own relationship with Christ. The work becomes their God. The focus shifts from the Lord to ME.
We can see this played out in a marriage sometimes. A couple is so active in their organizations and the things their kids are doing that they never take time to nurture their relationship. They are so driven in the task of providing a nice home and good life that they have no energy remaining for their spouse. When one spouse says, “You don’t have time for me anymore” the other can’t believe that their spouse could be so “selfish”. Don’t they see all that you are doing? Eventually this couple can drift away from each other and decide that they no longer love each other and it is simply because they have neglected to attend to their relationship.
It is easy for this to happen in other areas. We get so busy (often in good things!) that we neglect our relationship with Him. We drift apart, and our act of service becomes an obsession that takes the place of God in our lives.
The warning here is that we must always keep hungering for the Word of Christ. We have to watch our “God time” so it doesn’t get consumed with other activity (even good activity). I am convinced that one of Satan’s most effective tactics is to keep us so busy that we don’t have any time to build our relationship with Christ.
I have learned that I must discipline myself to read the Bible devotionally. I have to listen not for what I can “preach on” but I need to let God talk to me about me. I need to read good Christian books and listen to good solid teaching from others. I need to be a student as well as a teacher. If we are constantly working to feed the hungry but we never stop to nourish ourselves we will eventually die.
Warren Wiersbe wrote,
Often in my pastoral ministry, I have asked people with serious problems, “Tell me about your devotional life.” The usual response has been an embarrassed look, a bowed head, and the quiet confession, “I stopped reading my Bible and praying a long time ago.” And they wondered why they had problems!
Spiritual problems begin when we begin cheating our time with the Lord. Is this happening to you? Here are some warning signs
- You don’t have time to read your Bible or when you read you find yourself distracted by other things (so in effect you aren’t really reading the Bible)
- You have trouble concentrating in prayer because there is so much going on in your head.
- Your praying focused on your activities and no time is spent talking to God about your relationship with Him.
- You find one excuse after another for your absence with the people of God in worship.
- You become upset with Christian friends who ask if you are “alright”
If you see these signs it is likely that you need to spend a little less time doing stuff and a little more time sitting at the feet of Jesus.
When we neglect What is Most Important the Sweet Can Turn Sour Martha’s heart had turned from a happy servant into a frazzled and angry person. She was so preoccupied with her cooking and her “service” to others that somewhere along the line it stopped being about the others and it started to be about her. She wanted to look good, make a good impression, and be seen as a faithful servant.
Jesus tells us not to worry but to rest in Him. He warns us that in the world there will be tribulation but He reminds us that in Him we can know peace even in the midst of tribulation. Here’s a simple guideline for you: If you are churning and worried you have drifted too far from the Lord. If you look in the mirror and don’t like the person you are becoming don’t despair, don’t set out to do more . . . come back and sit at the feet of Jesus. If you get your relationship right with Him, other things will been seen with the proper perspective.
We need to get this lesson. In the book of Galatians there is a stern warning,
7 Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. 8 The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.
The message here is simple: you cannot fool God. You can proclaim your discipleship. You can talk about your desire to honor Him. But make no mistake, God is not fooled. If you are not making any time for Him you are mocking Him. If we are professing him but are not truly following Him in our lives we are mocking Him. The warning is clear: what we sow is what we will reap.
- If we spend more money than we have we should not be surprised when we have financial problems. We are reaping what we have sown.
- If we give no time to developing our relationship with God we should not be surprised when He seems far away in the hard times. We are reaping what we have sown.
- If we do not give priority to the spiritual training of our children we should not come running to God (or the Pastor) when our children make bad choices in their lives. We are reaping what we have sown.
- If we live our lives “picking and choosing” what parts of the Bible we will embrace, we should not complain to God when His promises don’t seem to come true in our life. We are reaping what we have sown.
- If we spend all our money on amusements and indulgences we should not be surprised when our life feels empty and meaningless. We are reaping what we have sown.
- If we turn to drugs, alcohol, or hyper activity to help us deal with stress we should not be surprised when we cannot find the peace of God.
The story of Martha and Mary is a warning for us to put first things first. We must keep our priorities ordered rightly. If we do this we will also reap what we have sown. Our families will grow strong. We will experience the Lord’s blessing, His peace, His provision and His strength. We will be used by God in ways that are more significant that anything we could do on our own.
There is Still Time to Change. So often when we read the stories of people Jesus encountered we are left wondering what happened to them. That’s not the case with Martha or Mary. We see them both later in the gospels. They both became dynamic and faithful followers of Christ.
It would appear that Martha listened to Jesus. She heard His warning. She adjusted her life based on His counsel and she grew and developed. When Martha’s brother Lazarus died Jesus came to see the sisters. We read this dialogue in the Gospel of John,
“Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” “Yes, Lord,” she told him, “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.” (John 11:21–27)
Martha understood. She had listened. She pursued the greatest thing. As a result in this time of crisis she had a faith that would not waver. She understood the nature of Christ even when others did not. She changed, and so can you. It is never too late to begin to do what is right.
So how do we start?
- Make sure that you have truly turned to Christ as the one who alone can rescue you and as the one who will be the guide for your living. Make sure your commitment is deep and extends to your life instead of being just a profession that is superficial.
- Set aside time every day for the Lord. Read His Word and spend some time reflecting and praying on what you read. Write down commands you find and set out to do what is said.
- Use travel time and exercise time when you would normally listen to an iPod or mp3 player and listen to the Bible or Bible teachers or Christian Podcasts.
- Make weekly worship a non-negotiable priority in your life
- Expose yourself to instruction through Sunday School, youth group and special seminars Read books that open up the Word of God to you.
- Build quiet into your life. Make time when you can just enjoy God’s company . . . even if you have to get up a little earlier.
- Find some Christian friends and encourage each other in your pursuit of God. Regularly ask each other about your devotional lives, your prayer time, and your worship practices. Help each other grow.
It’s so easy for any of us to get out of balance. Martha was a good woman and a faithful woman. She lost sight of what was important and we she alerts us to that same danger in our lives. Pay close attention to this story. Bring it to your mind often. See yourself in the story and heed the warning.