Summary: How being a ’martha’ can distract you from sitting at the feet of Christ and hearing his voice.
MARTHA – LUKE 10.38-42
I want you to note right at the beginning of this sermon the context in which Luke records this incident in the home of Martha and Mary. Luke places it immediately after Jesus has taught the parable of the Good Samaritan. I think that is significant because in that parable the ‘religious people’ are condemned for not doing the practical thing of helping the man lying injured by the roadside. This incident in the home of Martha and Mary seems to teach the very opposite. The context is important because it helps us to understand the meaning and purpose of this incident in the Gospel of Luke and in our lives today.
Martha and Mary, along with Lazarus, are close friends of Jesus. Their home at Bethany, some two miles from Jerusalem, was a familiar place for Jesus (and his disciples) to rest and relax. On another occasion when in their home Mary would break open an expensive bottle of nard, perfume, and anoint the feet of Christ and wipe his feet with her untied her. Judas Iscariot would be scandalised by the expense and the waste of money – but we know he had alternative motives for his outburst. Their home would also be the scene of the miracle of the resurrection of their brother from the dead. So their home is a place often visited by Christ Jesus. Luke tells us that whilst Jesus was ‘on the way’ – meaning he was heading for Jerusalem, he is invited by Martha to come into her home. Luke tells us in verse 38 that she ‘opened her home.’ This means much more than inviting him in for a cup of tea and a chat. It speaks of hospitality, which in the time of Christ was heavily regulated by the custom and social expectations of the day. Luke goes on to point out that Martha has a sister called Mary – so we are introduced within three verses to the three main characters in this little vignette. From the context it would appear that Martha is the older sister and that she is in the role of host.
Verse 39 – Luke immediately tells us that Mary sat down at the feet of Christ to listen to what he was saying (teaching). By sitting at his feet Mary is assuming the role of a disciple. We might think nothing of that but such an action was socially unacceptable in its day. No woman could become a disciple of a rabbi or religious leader in the day of Christ. It was just unheard of, in fact it was a scandalous thing for Mary to do and even more so for Christ to allow her to do so. Mary has crossed and broken clear social boundaries and by so doing is in danger of bringing shame upon her household and her family.
Verse 40 – all the while Martha has been doing what is socially acceptable and expected of her – preparing the meal for her guests. Look at what is said of Martha. ‘Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made.’ You know when I sat down and turned that sentence over in my head I was left thinking ‘How was she distracted by all the preparation?’ I mean if you are cooking dinner you usually focus on what has to be done. And then I began to wonder if the distraction was not actually in her heart. Her heart’s desire was to be like Mary, to be where Mary was – sitting at the feet of Christ – but her sense of duty, her sense of what others expected and others would think made her stay in the kitchen. I just wondered if she was constantly nipping in and out of the kitchen trying to hear what Christ was saying and all the time her frustration levels just grew and grew until finally she let it all out. One commentator described it as ‘Martha spitting her dummy out.’ But note what she says to Jesus; ‘Lord, don’t you care…’ That hit me like a thunderbolt. How could she ask such a question of Jesus? But then I thought how often I actually ask that question of Jesus. How often in my heart and my mind I ask that question when my frustration level grows. Sometimes I even find myself saying it out loud; ‘Lord, don’t you care…’ Martha then makes a telling statement – ‘…that my sister has left me with all the work to do.’ When I read that phrase I realised that there must have been some point at which Mary abandoned the kitchen, abandoned Martha, abandoned the preparation and went and sat down at the feet of Christ. There must have been some point at which Mary decided that being at the feet of Christ was more important than chicken korma or whatever was being cooked. Mary had made a conscious decision that at this, God-given, moment being at the feet of Christ and listening to him was more important than anything else and Martha resented her decision. Martha resented the fact that Mary had left the preparations and gone and sat down at the feet of Christ. Martha wants Christ to tell Mary she was wrong and to commend Martha for her hard work. Now let me ask you a personal question; ‘Are you a Mary or a Martha?’ The truth is that there are some of you here and you are definitely ‘Martha’s.’ You are doers, and there is nothing wrong with being a doer, except when it keeps you from the feet of Christ and when it leads you to criticising a brother or sister in Christ. Some of you have that ‘Martha syndrome’ you want everyone to know how much work you have been doing while others sit and listen to teaching/preaching. Your frustration grows until ‘you spit your dummy out.’ But I want to say to you this morning that for some of you the reality is you love the ‘Martha syndrome.’ You wont let any one else help and then you complain, maybe not out loud, but you complain in your spirit ‘Lord, don’t you care that .... has left me to do it all?’ Yet Martha goes further than just a complaint, she then commands Jesus to ‘tell Mary to help.’ Do you see progression here – Martha gets busy preparing the meal, living up to the expectations of the day as a host, she gets distracted by all the preparation when really she wants to do what Mary has done – sit at the feet of Christ and listen to him. Her frustration overflows into anger and bitterness and she questions Jesus’ concern for her and demands he tells Mary to help. If I have to work and not sit at your feet then I demand she has to work also. Ever found yourself in that situation? Ever felt yourself asking God that other people do what you are doing? Go through what you are going through? Martha had the gift of hospitality but she wanted Mary to exercise it as well. She didn’t want Mary to enjoy the teaching if she had to work in the kitchen at the same time. But friends you know the really telling thing about this story – nowhere do you read that Christ asked Martha to prepare a meal. Nowhere do you read that ii was anyone other than Martha who had placed such expectations on herself. If only Martha had realised – it was herself who had fed the distractions which led to the outburst.