The story of Mary and Martha

Luke 10:38-42 New International Version (NIV): At the Home of Martha and Mary

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!”

41 “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, 42 but few things are needed—or indeed only one.] Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”



I start with accusation. I join that great Frenchman of the late 19th century, Emile Zola. J’ accuse. I accuse the Busbridge church office of listing in on my phone and analysing my social media. Why else when there is a series of studies on Christian discipleship covering silence and solitude, fasting, the sabbath, simplicity and finally study with the story of Martha and Mary, did they ask me to do the last one if they had not known that my sympathies throughout my life have always been with Martha and not Mary. Just like the story of the prodigal son where I have always had greater identification with the son who stayed behind, I have always identified with Martha and yet it is Mary who gets the praise and acclamation. Surely the church office had found out through mysterious means and decided that I would therefore be the right one to do this sermon!


Alternatively, and rather more prosaically, they were able to fill the other preaching slots but everyone else was away on the bank holiday weekend so their choice was limited!


It matters not. What matters is that I come to this passage and topic this morning very much empathising with Martha. Always something to be done, in reality lots to be done. Anxious things won’t get done. A person of action and results. My favourite part of any meeting is the penultimate point on an agenda. We’ve been through the meeting, covered any other business and before we get to dates of next meeting, we have that bullet point: agreed action arising from the meeting. Yes. That shows it’s been a really good meeting because there’s lots of things to do following it. None of this simply just talking. Get action going!


At times my life has seemed like one long to-do list. For those who remember the Filofax, I used to order the pages in bulk because the to-do list was long and transposed day by day. It’s easier now putting one’s to do list day-to-day on Outlook calendar but it remains a list.


For those of us in any form of public service, looking after the needs of others, the to-do list is of an even greater anxiety because others are adversely affected if we don’t do it well and on time. Client meetings and then keeping them informed of developments. Preparing for court hearings. Giving judgements. Standing up for the poor and needy and advocating for their rights. Being a Christian witness in a very hostile environment. Running a business with responsibility for staff. And so much more.


Time to reflect, to pause, to study and to grow personally easily falls by the wayside. It can wait another day. Besides surely there will be another day when the to-do list is shorter or less urgent. Won’t there? Will there?


Indeed, psychotherapists here might be asking me if I’m actually afraid of the day when the to-do list is shorter or indeed just not demanding. But that’s far too uncomfortable a question so we move swiftly on.


What can we learn from this story that we heard read to us? I suggest five things.


True hospitality never goes out of style


Could you imagine opening your front door to find Jesus standing there, chatting with his mates. Is your first thought, oh no, not today, not now. We’ve got the builders in and everything’s dusty. Or the cleaner doesn’t come until Wednesday when the house will look much better. Or I’ve just got in from work and my clobber is dumped on the sofa. Or the kids are really hyper at the moment and they’re just hand painting all our wallpaper! Or the dog has just been sick in the kitchen. Or my husband has left the loo seat up again! And all the other excuses. Oh no, not today, not now.


Welcoming people into your home is a gift. A gift worth sharing whether you live in a pristine palace decorated to perfection and which appeared in Ideal Homes last week or in the sort of place the rest of us live in. Because true hospitality wraps a person with a warm hug, metaphorically even if not literally, and makes them feel special.


And hospitality is something we can all do right now. We can open our homes, if that is only a room or two, to neighbours, visitors and guests. Don’t ask what’s the worst that can happen because it sometimes does! What’s the best that can happen? You create a new friendship. Deepen an existing friendship. Laugh at the mess and share mutual stories. Enjoy the wonderful gift of sharing hospitality and love. It was Martha after all, the person of action, who opened their home to Jesus.


Comparison only breeds anxiety and discontent


Having invited them in, we find Mary smack in the middle of the living room, sitting with the boys, soaking up Jesus’s words. And where is Martha who invited them in the first place? She’s scurrying around the kitchen like a tornado. Checking the Rosemary on the roast lamb, setting the table correctly, finish the lemon drizzle on the cake. This woman is on a mission and will not stop and will not be satisfied until all the guests are happily rubbing their very full stomachs. Any of us who have had the benefit of Middle Eastern hospitality, even if here in England, will know how extensive it is.


But there’s a problem. Poor Martha is trying to prepare dinner for 15 but with no help. She flies past the living room and there sees her sister sitting, relaxing, and listening and enjoying the conversation. It’s the last straw. We can hear Martha’s frustration. How dare she do this to me. My own sister. Doesn’t she see that I’m doing everything on my own. To use spiritual language, doesn’t she see I’m doing the right thing?


And that’s where discontent in life begins. We compare our life to someone else’s and believe we are holding the short straw. Comparison rarely benefits. Strangely, we don’t compare with those in a less good situation to us. We compare with those who will make us dissatisfied. We look at the lives of others. In such order and having really got it together. We look at their homes. Some of us look at their pictures on social media. Big happy smiles, beautifully perfect children, travelling to such wonderful places, always in fun company, and that idyllic boyfriend or husband in the background. And we are understandably discontent


Yet in our hearts we know that no one posts pictures on social media looking bedraggled, having only just woken up, without our hair in place or whatever. No. We spend ages looking through a whole series of photos to select the most perfect one to post for our friends to see. And they do, and they are envious and they compare and they are discontent.


Comparison is a fraudster. It never tells the true story. It deceives. At best it’s only a snapshot. We don’t know what went on before the photo was taken or maybe the family arguments after the photo was taken and posted.


Fundamentally in life what matters is not where we are but how far we have travelled to get there. It is those who have made the longest journey who should have our greatest admiration even though they might now be in the same place as those who had only a short journey. I never cease to be amazed at how some people have overcome so much in life to get to where they are. Yet others have few challenges and difficulties to get to the same place. Comparing is impossible because we don’t know their journey.


Instead of comparing, looking to a snapshot of other people’s lives, God is at work in our entire life. He is interested in the journey we are making. No two journeys and no two lives are the same. Comparison doesn’t change our life. It simply steals our joy. Don’t let it


When you’re struggling and discontent, go to the best source of relief


Martha is a person of action. She is not shy nor slow. She is not coy. There’s a bit of a New Yorker about her because in my experience, most New York women are ferocious! When she gets disgruntled by the unfairness of the situation, irritated, frustrated and resentful, she wastes no time. She knows exactly who can fix it. You can see her marching into that living room where Jesus is talking, interrupting him, having a strop and commanding him in no uncertain terms: tell my sister to come and help me.


There’s a lot to be said for knowing who can help. But sometimes we share a problem with everyone else but. Prayer requests, social media, our best friend, anyone and everyone except the one who can really help. Martha knew what she was doing. She went to the person who can deal with her struggling and discontent.


She was confident the Lord would back up. Give herself affirmation. She said to herself: he knows I’m doing my bit and will want my sister to help.


When you are in this situation and we all are, yes there will be times for sharing a problem with others. But always go to the source of the relief, go to the one who will listen and understand and be the help that is needed


You can tell Jesus anything


How interesting that Jesus doesn’t rebuke Martha for her words. And let’s recognise the cultural aspect which made this situation even more surprising. This was a blunt interruption of someone recognised as a teacher who held a special position in that society. This was also a woman interrupting men and we only have to look at Paul’s insistence in the early church that women should ask questions after the service to know how culturally Martha was trampling on sensitivities.


There is no standing on ceremony or the way things should be properly done as far as Jesus is concerned. He doesn’t say for example: make your sister come and help you? Look here, you don’t speak to me that way. Don’t you know who I am and what we’re talking about here.


Jesus accepts Martha where she is, and who she is, accepting the tone of her voice and the irritation in her manner and listens to her tirade without batting an eye.


And Jesus gave her encouragement. He speaks to her by her first name, and indeed repeats it twice to make sure she knows she is being heard.


We have that immediate right of audience with Jesus too. He doesn’t get miffed or offended when we come to him in the middle of an emotional meltdown. He won’t mind, in fact he would prefer it, if we tell it exactly how we’re feeling. It’s part of something miraculous in the way God loves us, all of us, that he would actually rather prefer we come the way we are. His deep desire is that we come to him. That’s what matters to him. Not that we dress ourselves up metaphorically, emotionally and in other ways. We come as we are and that’s the way he wants us. He is the perfect friend. Approachable, sympathetic, loving, eager to listen.


The path to peace begins with one thing


Jesus says, Martha, dearest Martha, you are worried and upset about many things. But actually, very few things are really needed and if truth be told it’s only really one. Mary has chosen what really matters and that can never be taken away.


And what is this one thing?


It’s the focus of our lives, relationship with Christ. Mary was growing that relationship by sitting and listening and being with Jesus. That is what mattered.


It is so easy for us to get so wrapped up in the cares of life. The to-do list. Things to be done. In the parable of the sower, the seed amongst thorns was those who heard the word but the cares of this world choked the word and the person became unfruitful. Many of us can echo that experience


The highest priority in our lives needs to be choosing the good part, to use Jesus’s words, the sitting at the feet of Jesus in obedience, the listening, the studying, the commitment and adoration. All else is secondary.


And this is the Christian disciple experience. Whether it’s silence and solitude in reflection, relative simplicity in our lives, taking time to rest whether on the sabbath or any other way, giving up things which clog up our lives whether food in fasting or other ways or just in studying to be a better Christian. This is Christian discipleship.


But this is not an excuse to be lazy and to take no responsibility for our lives and those of others with whom we are in contact or we can help in any way. That is another trap altogether. At our home group on Wednesday night, we looked at the book of James. It’s very clear. Be doers of the word and not just hearers. But what we do must be led by the Spirit, in accord with the Lord’s will for our lives and with his blessing. Otherwise we will be frantically busy to no good effect. We will run without energy, think without direction, talk without substance and love superficially.


Mary understood she needed to learn more about her Master and to seek the things that have eternal value. It is then she could be a blessing to others including her sister, Martha.


When we concentrate on Jesus first, we discover we are never truly alone or without help or doing things in our own strength. We realise his grace is sufficient for all we need to do and face. We find inner peace and strength for that to-do list. We find the inner calm in the busiest times when the pressure is really on.


So please take time to bring yourself as you are, your worries and your to-do list, your frustrations and irritations, to the Lord Jesus Christ and commit everything, including your plans, into his hands asking that he may through you bring glory to his name. As Martha did, open the door wide and let Jesus in.


I end with a sequel.


The next time we encounter Martha, her brother is dead. Well that’s a challenging aspect of life. Did she go into a whirlwind of activity? Probably because that’s the person she was and these things don’t change. But was there something else, something more important? Yes, because she approaches Jesus. She has full confidence in him. She is recorded as saying the following. Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the son of God who is coming into the world, John 11.27. She had learnt very well from the time Jesus knocked on her door.


As we start this coming week with many things to prepare and achieve, will you also put your trust in the Lord and Master, and take time to listen to him and be with him



David Hodson

07973 890648

May 2019

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