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"Martha vs. Mary: Distraction vs. Discernment"

July 7/13 Lk.10:38-42


A humorous slogan says, "Jesus is coming...Look busy!" Now I hope we all know that abundance of good works is not what gains a person entrance into the kingdom of heaven - it's knowing Jesus that's the key requirement. Yet sometimes in our lives as Christians, and even when pastors get together at conferences and compare notes about congregations' health, we act as if being "busy" is what earns God's approval.

We have some special guests coming to visit all the way from Germany (Allison's in-laws-to-be). How shall we make our guests feel welcome and honoured? What if we planned a calendar full of events to attend? They're scheduled to arrive the evening of Saturday the 20th. Let's see, we'll have church Sunday morning. We could take a scenic drive around the countryside that afternoon, then attend the service at the CRC Sunday night. Monday the 22nd we should showcase local agriculture, visiting some pork, chicken, and dairy farmers. Tuesday the 23rd Allison's fiancé Philipp arrives in the afternoon at London; since we're going there anyway, we could visit Storybook Gardens and the Children's Museum. Wednesday the 23rd - you can't visit Ontario and not see Niagara Falls! On the way back we could catch the musical "Tommy" at the Stratford Festival. Thursday we could go to the beach in Goderich and check out the museum; that evening Blyth Festival's playing "Yorkville - the Musical". Friday the 26th we could pop over to check out the touristy shopping available at Bayfield, and that evening head down to Grand Bend area for "The Buddy Holly Story" at the Huron Country Playhouse. Saturday let's plan to do some four-wheeling (my office-mate at the hospital knows a contact); that evening "Beyond the Farm Show" is playing at the Blyth Festival. So much for week 1! There's still so much for the second week - Casa Loma, Canada's Wonderland, visit the Ontario Legislature, the ROM, the Science Centre, hike the Bruce Trail, go ziplining and see the scenic caves at Collingwood...

What would be the outcome if we jammed our schedule full like that? We'd be (A) frazzled, (B) broke, (C) exhausted, (D) on each other's nerves, (E) empty yet "entertained" beyond capacity...with no chance for real personal connection. They're not coming, after all, just to see Ontario, but to get to know US, the new "in-laws". To be always on the go to see the next attraction would indicate we'd forgotten the FOCUS: we'd be cheating ourselves out of the real meaning of the visit, the opportunity to connect presented by the occasion. They'd have come, we would have met, but would end up not really KNOWING them.

This is a parable, of course: does this describe our spiritual life - as an individual Christian? Or, corporately as a church? "Go, go, go" - yet missing the main point?


We pick up Luke's account at v38 in chapter 10. "As Jesus and His disciples were on their way..." On their way WHERE? We're directed back to 9:51, "As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem." Resolutely - Jesus is focused on His upcoming appointment with destiny (as outlined by Scripture) at the cross. So "on their way" reminds us of Jesus' overall mission, the shortness of the time, things are building to a climax - His remaining time on earth is short.

V38 continues, "He came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to Him." The village must be Bethany, just a couple of miles from Jerusalem; we know this household - Jesus raised Martha's brother Lazarus from the dead in John 11, and their other sister Mary appears there, too. So why does Luke say, "Martha opened HER home to Him"? Was it not Mary's and perhaps Lazarus' home, too? Probably Martha was the older sister. One can imagine her as the eldest "running" the place, she took charge; the matter-of-fact, responsible one. Is there a pattern amongst your siblings? Is there one who generally speaks up first, initiates things, leads in a certain direction, and the others more or less follow along? After a while it can be something you get used to, you expect it; they've been proved right so often their leadership is just accepted.

Martha "welcomed Him into her home" (NLT) - no small feat, considering the Teacher was accompanied by 12 disciples. According to eastern etiquette, hosting would involve a pile of work - washing their feet, preparing a special meal because this was a real occasion, and don't forget all those 13 beds to make up for comfort overnight. One is reminded of how it became a major production when the "threshing crew" came to your place: even neighbour ladies pitched in to help in the kitchen, feeding the many hungry men. The volume of food a threshing crew could go through at one meal became almost legendary. This is no small undertaking!

Martha must have realized she was providing a valuable and much-appreciated haven for the little band of itinerants. She wanted to give Jesus and His followers "the royal treatment" out of respect, love, and gratitude for Him: perhaps today we'd say one of her 'love languages' was 'acts of serving' (tokens if you think back to last week - the Good Samaritan sharing bandages, oil, and lodging funds with the man who'd been beaten and robbed. But there was a problem: Martha became slightly obsessive and overwhelmed by the whole thing. V40 "But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made." The word translated "distracted" can mean "to be driven about mentally, distracted, over-occupied, too busy [about a thing]." The word translated "preparations" is literally diakonian - "ministerings, servings", a word that came to describe the office of "deacon" in the early church. To some degree, Martha is providing a legitimate, helpful service. She's "distracted by the big dinner she was preparing" (NLT); it bottles up and bottles up until finally it explodes. She can't keep it in any more; v40B "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!'"

Robertson comments on "came to Him": "stepping up to or bursting in upon Jesus.It is an explosive act as is the speech of Martha." Another commentator suggests, "There is a touch of reproach in her words." She just got so fed up at her sister slacking off that she was ready to tell God off. "Don't you care?" she gripes. NLT: "Lord, doesn't it seem unfair to You that my sister just sits here while I do all the work?" When we get too busy just "doing", when acts of service are all we find ourselves doing constantly yet it doesn't seem enough, burnout can ensue even while we're still "busy". We start to question whether God really cares. It doesn't seem "fair".

Note the undercurrent of "poor me" language that Martha uses: "MY sister has left ME to do the work [ministering / serving again - root of word for deacon] by MYSELF.Tell her to help ME."

Uh-oh...CAUTION: watch out when you're tempted to start telling GOD what to do, as if you know better than Him. It can be a symptom of "ME" being too much "in charge".


How does Jesus respond to Martha's blow-up? Does He put her in her place, remind her who really is meant to be in charge? His gentle response is quite different from her eruption. V41 "Martha, Martha," He begins - the repetition and feeling expressing kindness and fondness even in rebuke. He continues, "You are worried and upset about many things": anxious, troubled, disturbed, disquieted. It's as if He's asking, "Stop and look at yourself, Martha - what effect have your priorities had upon you? Pause and take stock! You may be creating outward order but inside you, the real you, there's inner chaos."

Does that describe our church? "You are worried and upset about many things..." It has happened in the past in some churches. A congregation too bent on WORKS can become burnt-out, spent, grumpy, begrudging. Especially when there's just a few dedicated souls working overtime to fill all the gaps. Eventually bitterness starts to suck the joy out of a congregation like that, if it's not caught in time.

V42 "But only ONE THING is needed." Setting priorities is hinted at here, filtering out what's less-essential. There's a bit of ambiguity in Jesus' words given the context (perhaps intended, doing double-duty): He can be suggesting only one "dish" would have been sufficient instead of the 5-course meal Martha was bustling about to prepare ("keep it simple" idea). AND/OR He can be suggesting only one activity (that of sitting and listening as Mary is doing) is most important - especially considering (as we noted at the start of the passage) the time is short, Jesus' death is approaching and they won't HAVE Him around physically to listen to much longer.

He adds, "Mary has chosen what is better..." Priorities involve CHOOSING, saying "no" to some things so you can "yes" to others, deciding to keep some things top shelf and relegate others to the back burner. Mary's FOCUS is good, she's opted to concentrate on the right thing, the "ONE THING" only that is needed. Keep God foremost in your life's priority list. Prov 8:34 The Lord's wisdom (personified) calls, "Blessed is the man who listens to me, watching daily at my doors, waiting at my doorway." Psalm 73:25 "Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you." Here the Psalmist makes God his "one thing".

"Mary has chosen what is better;" Jesus adds, "and it will not be taken from her." Again perhaps a bit of playful ambiguity. (A) Jesus is not going to make Mary help Martha and so curtail her enjoyment of the Teacher's wisdom. Martha has tried to tell God what to do and God has suggested in turn: "Maybe YOU'RE the one who needs to change!"

(B) the other possible meaning in the ambiguous phrase "it will not be taken from her": Mary's choice to sit and pay attention to the Lord has eternally enduring consequences that will last forever, infinitely long after whatever killer-meal Martha's preparing will be long forgotten. Mary is choosing to know Jesus, to be in conscious relationship with Him, and that's the basis for eternal life. Jesus defines the most important thing in John 17:3, "Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent." John 5:24 "I tell you the truth [what's 'really real'], whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life." That starts here and now, this side of physical death, and continues forever. Hearing Jesus' word is pivotal: that's what Mary was intent on. 1John 5(11f) "And this is the testimony [here's the scoop]: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life." It's not about works, not about scurrying around heaping up good deeds in hopes that they'll outweigh our bad ones (as Muslims believe) - God has GIVEN us eternal life (it's a GIFT!) in His Son; receive Jesus - receive life. Galatians 5:6 "For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value.The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love." It's not about outward works, but FAITH that finds loving expression. As Mary sat listening at Jesus' feet she was 'faithing' Him, prioritizing knowing Him about everything else in her existence. And that wouldn't be taken away from her, even by the grave.


Lest we jump to stereotype Martha as solely a "works-oriented" Christian, one commentator notes a little Greek conjunction in v39 that doesn't show up in the English translations; literally, "[Martha] had a sister called Mary who ALSO sat at the Lord's feet listening to what He said." Luke may be hinting that "Martha loved to sit here as well as Mary." So maybe Martha would have dearly loved to have likewise been sitting listening to the Master; we can't assume she didn't mind missing Jesus' teaching.

But in general the two sisters can represent a couple of types of Christians. John Ortberg in An Ordinary Day with Jesus and God is Closer than You Think describes seven "spiritual pathways" different people use in relating to God. Martha, in general, represents what Ortberg calls the "Serving Pathway", summarized by Gayle Engle as follows: "People on the serving pathway find that God's presence seems most tangible when they are involved in helping others...If this is you, you may find that you are somewhat uncomfortable in a setting where you don't have a role to play in helping others. Acts of service come naturally to you. Persons preferring this pathway will need to be open to the other pathways in order to maintain a healthy balance in their spiritual life."

By contrast, we might peg Mary (the other sister) as someone who relates to what Ortberg calls the "Contemplative Pathway": (Engle summarizes) "People on the contemplative pathway love large blocks of uninterrupted time alone. If you prefer this pathway, God is most present to you when distractions and noise are removed...Making time to listen to God in silence and solitude is vital to the health of your soul. This enables you to connect and sense the presence of God. God's presence is manifest in many dimensions of life, so this person will need to be open to the other pathways in order to maintain a healthy balance in their spiritual life."

Note both types need to be open to the other pathways. Martha can't say Mary's approach is invalid, nor vice versa. Other pathways include intellectual, relationship, worship, activist, and creation pathways. The point is connecting: by which means do you hear God's voice best and sense His Spirit quickening you, nurturing you, growing you?


Taken overall, this episode with Martha and Mary reminds us to not let distractions crowd out the richness of personal communion with the Lord by listening to His word. Even when those distractions are good things like church work. As the Life Application Commentary notes, "It is possible for service to Christ to degenerate into mere busywork that is no longer full of devotion to God."

What's absorbing the bulk of your time and energy? Keep your focus Kingdom-oriented. Lewis Sperry Chafer referred once to a friend who was devoting most of his time and energy in pursuit of an insignificant matter; he said, "He reminds me of a bulldog chasing a train: what's he going to do with it if he catches it?!"

Daily personal devotions - whatever time you can best fit them in, even if you have to download the Bible reading and listen to it while you're driving in the car - daily devotions are your anchor-man in the tug-of-war of your spiritual life. Would you cook a meal for yourself even if you didn't feel like cooking? You probably admit, "Yes, food is necessary." Did you skip your devotions some days last week? If your answer is, "Yes, I was too tired to study God's Word," then consider Job 23:12, where Job affirms that God's Word is more precious to him than his necessary food. It doesn't matter if you don't feel like learning God's Word; it's necessary to your life as a Christian.

Interestingly, one man's devotion to daily Bible reading played a significant role in the naming of our country. At the December 1866 Westminster Conference leading up to Confederation, Sir Leonard Tilley, premier of New Brunswick, was reading Psalm 72 one morning for his daily devotions. It struck him that verse 8 might make a suitable name for the new nation, better than "kingdom" or "republic" - verse 8 said, "He shall have dominion also from sea to sea..." Sir Tilley made a recommendation to the other fathers of Confederation, and they agreed, so the new country became called "the Dominion of Canada". [reference - biography by Michael Clarke] God can speak to us through His Word when we give Him our full attention. Let's pray.