Luke 10:38-42 “As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. 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, Martha,’ the Lord answered, ‘you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.’”
What a fascinating way to end this chapter, a chapter which is principally about mission and the cost of discipleship. Workmen are needed to bring in the harvest. Pray that the Lord of the harvest will send labourers into the harvest fields. Yet the chapter’s conclusion is the commendation of a woman who seems to have done no more than sit at Jesus’ feet and listen. The emphases are very different and you might wonder how the two passages could be in the same book, let alone the same chapter.
The Bible is not put together as we would put a book together. That is one of those strange things. There are Christians whose only interest is mission, outreach and evangelism. Their great heroes are men like William Carey, Adorinam Judson, David Brainerd, Hudson Taylor and Jim Elliot. If they were writing this gospel then they wouldn’t insert into it a minor difference between two women about domestic duties. They’d write a gospel with the one great theme of evangelism, challenging people to go into all the world and spend their lives preaching the gospel. Their writings would be characterized by intensity, self-sacrifice and self-denial. Yet the Bible moves from that world to this world so naturally. How wonderfully Luke structured his gospel; it is simply matchless. It challenges you as you study it to ask such questions as, “Why did Luke write about this domestic family tension here?”
In this chapter in his gospel Luke’s great emphasis is on the theme of service. Now service is not just for missionaries like the men I mentioned, but the Christian service of little people, housewives and students and Old Age Pensioners. It is in the light of that theme that we come to this little incident, and the lessons we all may learn from this passage are ones we desperately need. I mean this congregation needs them; I mean I need them, and you too. The passage presents to us the single demand of serving the Lord Jesus Christ. “One thing is needed” to the person who serves Christ.
A PRACTICAL EXPRESSION OF SERVICE TO CHRIST.
We are introduced for the first time to a woman called Martha, the hostess of a home that had been opened to Jesus. She is the older sister; the house is called her home. Martha had a high sense of the duty of Christian hospitality. No preacher will ever be found speaking against the evangelical grace of hospitality because ministers are so often the beneficiaries of that grace. The Bible from the time of Abraham elevates those who are hospitable. In doing this some have entertained angels of God. Paul exhorts the Romans to seek to show hospitality. Peter exhorts his readers to show hospitality to one another without grumbling. Hospitality has evangelistic implications. The early church spread largely through house churches, gathering one’s friends and neighbours to your home to hear a preacher or even an apostle preach. A soldier like Cornelius invited the people who worked for him to come to his home and meet a man who had known Jesus of Nazareth in this world. They ate together and then Peter spoke to them. It was a never to be forgotten day. You might do that; invite your friends to your home, and ask me too, and at Easter I’ll explain as we sit around the table why we believe Jesus rose from the dead, or at Christmas what is the meaning of the birth in the stable. Invite Muslim students. There is also the joy of Christian friendship; so many of you invite one another to your homes for a meal. It is an expression of affection.
In the early church there were few hotels in the smaller towns where gospel preachers came, and the Christians gave accommodation to the traveling evangelists and church planters. In fact, they had learned this from the pattern of life of Jesus himself and his disciples. Jesus had received hospitality from people like Peter and his wife, or from Zacchaeus, or Levi, or Simon. Homes welcomed him and advanced the cause of the kingdom. Here is a beautiful picture of the family in Bethany where two sisters and a brother loved the Lord and welcomed the Saviour to stay with them. What Martha is doing is receiving Christ in the course of his ministry as she serves him in her home. He is there to preach to them about the kingdom of God. So here is Martha responding to the demands of Christian service.
A FRUSTRATED OUTBURST IN THE SERVICE OF CHRIST.
Now we move on to an abrupt demand for service. Martha leaves her work in the kitchen and enters the meeting where our Lord is speaking. She comes right up in front of Jesus as he is sitting, teaching the group who have gathered there, and she confronts Christ. We read that, “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!’” (v.40). How blunt she was! You have to imagine the build up to this explosion. The little signals that came from Martha as her head popped around the kitchen door. The knowing looks in the direction of Mary. The cough to draw Mary’s attention, the stares and gestures, the extra noises that came out from the kitchen as pots were put down a little too loudly, but it had been all to no affect. Mary was transfixed as she listened to Jesus; she noticed and heard nothing coming from Martha in the kitchen. Mary just sat there leaving all the preparation to Martha who was building up a head of steam in the hot kitchen. Finally her anger turned away from Mary and focused on Jesus. If Mary didn’t notice then surely our Lord knew what was happening because he knew everything. If he were the great figure of love and thoughtfulness what about showing a little bit to her? If he taught people to love their neighbours as themselves what about her? Who was showing any love to her? Nobody. Everyone was leaving her alone to work away. She not only demands help from her sister, she demanded concern from the Lord. “Lord, don’t you care? Lord, doesn’t this mean anything to you? Don’t you see notice how overworked I am?”
Have you heard that? Have you heard it often? Have you heard it recently? Have you found yourself thinking and speaking like that? It is no wonder that this attitude just filled the Christian church. People in every congregation feeling they are so overworked, and taken for granted by other Christians. Worst of all Jesus doesn’t seem to notice just how overworked they are, and they are overworked. But do you see that there is something wrong with the attitude of this overworked woman who finally snaps, leaves the kitchen and interrupts the sermon and stands in front of Jesus and says, “Lord, don’t you care? Shouldn’t you be doing something about this?” The trouble is this, not the demands of preparing a meal for 30 people, but what lies behind it, the bondage of demands. Martha is caught up in the pressure of all these demands; she is under the tyranny of demands. She’s been sucked into doing too many things. Two attitudes are wrong with Martha:
i] Martha was distracted. Luke tells us, “But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made” (v.40). She’s been dragged away doing one thing but ending up doing something else. She’s being frustrated and finally broken by everything she’s had to do to serve these people. Jesus tells her, “You are worried and upset about many things” (v.41). Martha is being overwhelmed with too many things. Really and simply too many dishes, too many different dishes.
Martha, you see, had so many things to think of, the number of people, this saucepan, that pot, this meat, those vegetables and sauces, cleaning, peeling, chopping, timing the speeds of the various dishes so that everything would be ready at the appropriate time, watching it all simmering and roasting and baking while putting more charcoal on the fire and wondering whether she had enough water in the jars for the meal and for the washing up. Would there be place cards on the table, goat cheese on the salad? Many different dishes . . . too many dishes, and that, of course, is the difficulty in our own lives, too many things. You can ask yourself how you can cut down on the service of too many things. Martha seems to have been sitting there in the congregation at the beginning. The Authorized Version spots the Greek word kai, ‘also’ and translates verse 39, “Mary which also sat at Jesus’ feet”, that is, as well as Mary, her sister Martha had originally been sitting there. Both of them had been listening to our Lord. Then Martha couldn’t stay and listen as she was overwhelmed with plans for ‘fellowship supper’, the evening ahead, the meal, and the crowd filling the place, and she got up and moved to the kitchen expecting that soon she would be joined by Mary. Martha was not just a sensible woman making plans to feed her guests. It had passed that. She’d become worried and upset about too many things. Martha’s problem was not that other problem mentioned by Jesus in one of his sermons, of guests who had been invited to a marriage supper but who all made excuses not to attend because other things were more important; they were all too busy to come, they said and excused themselves. That was not Martha’s problem for she was in charge of the supper and Jesus was the chief guest. Martha had become simply obsessed with the supper. She had so much to do; it all hung on her; there were so many supper distractions as she listened to Jesus that she couldn’t profit from hearing even the preacher of the Sermon on the Mount. No man ever spoke like this man, and he was in her home, but she got up, walking away from him, right out of the gathering and began to work in the kitchen with increasing noises off. She had a growing feeling of impatience with Mary for not seeing the problem and coming out and working alongside her.
Mary never thought of the supper; she was transfixed, glued to the spot, listening to Jesus maybe telling the parable of the prodigal son or explaining the kingdom of God, or why he had come into the world. Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. Mary was putting first things first. Martha’s problem was “many things;” as Jesus said, “You are worried and upset about many things” (v.41). Martha’s problem was the wrong place of things. Mary had put Jesus first; Martha had put things first. That hadn’t been her original plan. She’d wanted to show hospitality to Jesus, bringing him into her house to serve him. What is she serving now? She is really serving the dinner – in more senses than one. Martha has become a slave of the dinner. Her chief end now was not glorifying and enjoying God the Son but enjoying the meal.
How often does this happen to us, even in Christian work? We plan, and organize, and get involved, taking on far too much. Then we get resentful and irritable and angry with others who don’t have the same commitment that we’ve shown. The root cause of our frustration is this; we’re no longer serving the Lord; we’re serving the dinner. Our event has to go very well because we’re in charge of it; we planned it all and arranged everything and so it has to be perfect, and everybody has to come and everyone has to contribute to it being a success! We have got distracted from serving Christ to serving the event we’ve planned.
ii] Martha was upset. There had grown up in Martha’s heart a tyranny of more than things. There had grown up a tyranny of bitterness. What has made this godly woman upset? Why is there a lack of peace in her heart? I could say that Martha was engaged in service for its own sake. But more than that. Martha was engaged in service for her own sake. “Why all the extra flour and corn and meat, Martha?” asked the girl at the check out counter in the Bethany foodstore, there are just the three of you aren’t there?” “Well, we are having a party at our house, and there is a very important guest and we are expecting a lot of people.” “Lovely. Have you got anything special that you are cooking for them?” “Well you know my favourite chicken meal and that fig desert with sweet syrup? I thought I’d cook that.” “Oh, that chicken of yours, Martha. You are famous for that. It’s finger-lickin’ good.”
So it had to be a very excellent meal because it was in Martha’s home and Martha was cooking and serving. Would it have been an unthinkable tragedy if something was cooked too long and it got burned? Oh, it would have been an unspeakable tragedy if something was overcooked in Martha’s house when Martha was serving. How often, I say, does service for the Lord become really an excuse for serving ourselves? We get the Euodias and the Syntyches, sisters in the Lord in the same congregation, and they cannot get on with one another because in serving the Lord they have actually turned around and they are serving themselves. One runs the Sunday School and it has to be done her way. One runs the Dorcas Guild of Aid for the Needy and that has to be done exactly in her way. They have become rivals. Our Lord doesn’t load us with the demands of anxious service. Our church doesn’t need people who are distracted and upset because of the demands of anxious service.
THE SIMPLICITY OF THE DEVOTED SERVICE OF CHRIST.
This is what Jesus says; “only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her” (v.42). In this particular text there are a number of different readings in the original Greek manuscripts. You can look down at the bottom of your Bibles and you’ll see that some school of manuscripts have Jesus’ words like this, “but few things are needed – or only one.” I don’t think the sense is altered materially by these variants, but probably the best translation is the one footnoted, “few things are needed, or rather, only one and Mary has chosen the better part.”
Just a few things are needed in our lives. Just a few things are needed which which to serve Christ, and love God and our neighbours. Only a few things are needed for this meal in Martha’s house, not many, many things to bolster Martha’s reputation as a cordon blue chef, and to establish the fame of her chicken roast and her fig and syrup deserts. Just a few things are needed for great Christian hospitality. We’ll seek in first place the kingdom of God and his righteousness. We will take the word of God seriously. We will hear it and we’ll obey it. Godliness with contentment is our greatest ambition. We’re not going to worry about where our next meal comes from because the God who feeds pigeons and seagulls will certainly feed us who are his children. We won’t become morbidly preoccupied with what will happen in the days ahead. Sufficient unto the day is that day’s evil. We will battle with today’s temptation by the strength God gives us.
How often in our distracted age do we need to learn Christian simplicity? Simplicity in our worship; to have a man whom God has called and gifted to pastor and preach the word and lead the praises and prayers of God’s people; if we have that then don’t distract from that gift by worship clutter. There are those elements of worship that God has ordained, teaching the word, baptism and the Lord’s supper, prayer and praise and giving to God’s work. Just a few things are divinely regulated. Then there is also simplicity in our lifestyle, in what we buy and what we wear; do we have the courage to simplify our lives for Christ? Just a few dishes are needed. We live in an age of clutter, and rubbish and trash. We discard so much. We’re often at the dump putting items we are disposing into their various containers. We are going to Charity Shops with stuff we realise we don’t need. Our personal lives get cluttered up with junk in the same way. It is a matter of Christian concern to maintain a simple lifestyle. A great work of art doesn’t have a host of fussy details. It has its own simplicity and the beauty that comes from that. We are living in an age where the whole economy is geared to fill our homes with consumer goods – every room – and our whole experience is structured by ‘stuff.’ I think of the amount of money that is spent on clothing, from the youngest children, wearing the right trainers for this year, who go to see the big football teams playing at immense cost, or the amount of money spent on a Friday and Saturday night in the clubs. There is the harassment of conformity, everyone pressurized to live for today and satisfy the lusts of the mind and the flesh. Find out what they’re drinking and drink it. Find out what they’re smoking and smoke it. Find out what they’re inhaling and inhale it. Find out what they’re thinking and think it. Find out what they’re coveting and covet it. Isn’t that the civilization in which we live?
What of Christians? We are too like the world. We may add a fish logo, or a text, but we also go for the gadgets of the world and think that some superficial Christian veneer can justify it. I think of a man I loved dearly who rejected the inevitable expansion of his business. He and his wife had a materials’ shop in Malvern and yet they took early retirement when the business was flourishing so that they could give hospitality to Christian people, and sit at their fireside in a house that was named ‘Conkers’ near Bath and talk of Christian things. He ministered to many, many of us young people. He made a great contribution to my life. I am not saying that the Christian church has to lead the movement back out of the technological age – I am very conscious that through technology this message can be heard and read all over the world. I am saying that Christians must be examples of contentment with their work, rest, family life, and all the things that encourage godliness, fellowship and growing in the knowledge of God.
What does God the Son say here to Martha? “But few things are needed – or only one” (v.42). “Just a few dishes are needed Martha.” That is the context. It is an extraordinary lesson to learn. Have you learned it? You went to church one day and you’d been worried and upset about many things. In the sermon God spoke to you through the preacher and this is what he said to you. “Only a few things are needed in life.” That was it. You had the message from God for that day. If you were never richer, and never gathered more stuff for the rest of your pilgrimage you began to learn contentment. You saw it, that only a few things were needed to glorify and enjoy God in an abundant life.
THE SINGLE-MINDEDNESS OF DEVOTED SERVICE TO CHRIST.
Jesus speaks up for embarrassed and guilty Mary sitting there at his feet addressing Martha in her frustration and anger. “Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her” (v.42). Few things are needed in life, and only one that is supreme and that is the Lord Jesus Christ. He is the one thing that is needful, for by grace we are saved through faith. By the grace of God we are what we are. One thing is needed at the beginning of grace and that is to be covered with the provision of Jesus’ sacrifice as the Lamb of God, and be clothed in his righteousness. One thing is needed in the progression of grace, and that is to attend upon the Lord, to sit at his feet and learn of him.
Douglas Macmillan, the former minister at the Free Church in Aberdeen, was anxious to get his elders to participate more in interrogating candidates for membership, and not that he asked all the questions. So there was a young woman whom they interviewed and after Douglas had asked her a question or two about her faith and her Bible reading he turned to the elders and said, “Have any of you any questions for her?” There was a long, long pause, and finally one of the elders opened his mouth and said to her, “Do you like living in Aberdeen?” She said, “Oh yes . . . this is where I found the Saviour.” She found the pearl of great price. She found the treasure hidden in the field. She found the one thing that was needful. Mary had found the same Saviour.
Martha has to learn that the people of God as they eat together don’t need four expensive courses, starters, the main course, pudding, After 8s and coffee. It is delicious on special occasions but none of us live like that day by day. It would not be good for our bodily health. So it is as we serve the Lord, one portion alone is supreme and that is the opening of our lives to the scrutiny and fellowship of Christ, to be instructed and guided by him, to enjoy his dealing with us. He is our eternal portion. The Greek word in the original, the good ‘part’ means good ‘portion,’ a good helping of what is delicious and satisfying. It was Mary who had it not Martha, and it would never be taken away from her. Grace had begun the work in her life, and grace continued it and grace would be its consummation. Jesus Christ was her eternal portion. She had chosen the wedding feast of heaven; that was her portion. She had chosen the wisdom of Christ to inform her as to how she should live. She had chosen what included everything else. She had sought first, as a matter of urgent priority, the kingdom of God and his righteousness, then everything else she needed would be added to her. She sat at the feet of the Lord, and there she had learned what Martha was yet to learn, not to be worried and upset about many things. Hear these familiar words, “In everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phils 4:6&7). Mary set the Lord always at her right hand and so she was not moved and distressed beyond measure.
The life of our Lord was not a worried and distracted life. Remember when the disciples of the Lord thought children were too insignificant for his interest. He was a busy man and so, “Get those children out of here!” But the Lord Jesus had plenty of time for children, to hold them in his arms and ask God to bless them. Our Lord had to lead a disciplined life to have time for children. He lived an undistracted life for them to have a place. Do you have time for children? For your own or for your grandchildren? To play with them, or pray with them? Today there are hundreds of distractions for children. You could spend all your lives serving children. Where do you draw the line? Your children can become as much a distraction from the one thing that is needful as anything else – your job, your shares, your second home. Only if your heart is centred on the one portion, the single thing that is needed, the supreme thing that gives eternal joy, the kingdom of God, then children and all God’s gifts will have their place.
One portion is supreme because one Lord is supreme. Mary was sitting at the Master’s feet. The word had been sounded forth from the Mount of Transfiguration, “Listen to my Son!” Mary was doing that in her home. She was hearing all that Jesus had to say. He was her Master and she was his servant. What an honour to serve such a Sovereign. The rich young ruler rejected the Lord’s counsels because his portion of stuff in the world was so great. He wouldn’t be parted from it. He went away from Jesus sadly, but Mary went as close to him as she could joyfully. It is true for all Christian discipleship that Jesus Christ has to come first. The place of peace is at the feet of Christ. It is nowhere else. The counsel of peace is in the wisdom of Christ. Come unto me and you shall find rest for your souls. Men and women are characterized by a fretful search for wisdom and peace. There are shelves of books in every book shop offering to give men peace but in Christ there is the one Book and that is full of him.
You know how even in the matter of closeness to the Lord Christian people have the yearning for some instant way, a short cut to fellowship with the Ancient of Days. They want some Concorde flight into God’s presence that rewards them with all the wisdom that is in Christ, something that will take no time, and they’ll get there the same moment as when they started so that then they can get on to something else. But the wisdom that comes from Christ comes only by sitting at Jesus’ feet. Nothing could be more important for you as a Christian. So often we speak to believers beset with all kinds of problems – and how often have I been beset by many problems – and then you get down to the root of the matter and you discover that there’s been no growth because of all manner of weeds have been allowed to grow and choke the word. There has been no undistracted sitting at the feet of Jesus Christ. If you want to grow in Christ you must know Christ, and if you want to know Christ there is only one way and that is sitting at Jesus’ feet and hearing his word.
Sometime I wish that preachers had to endure a time and motion study analysis of their days and weeks to ascertain how much time they spent sitting at Jesus’ feet. They can find time for everything, watching TV, reading the daily paper, visiting websites, talking to their families on the phone but how much time do they find for their Lord and Saviour? How often are they sitting at Jesus’ feet? I am sure that if the study-sheet were presented to us at the end of a week we’d be surprised and ashamed.
You may have friends and family members who are perplexed at your going to church each Sunday. They tell you that this is not for them, that it doesn’t turn them on. They need to be assured that you don’t go there because of the eloquence of the preacher, or the size of the congregation, or the beautiful people whom you meet there. We go there to hear about the Son of God, Jesus Christ; we are present in our place of worship on Sundays in order to meet with him because he has told us that he will be there when we gather in his name. If that doesn’t turn you on, and if you get no joy from that knowledge then the reason is that you don’t know Jesus Christ. You are not a Christian, because everyone who knows him spends time with him, thinking about him reflecting on all he is and everything he has done for us.
Mary was at Jesus’ feet because she wanted to hear every word he said, not because she wanted to dodge the kitchen chores – like teenagers avoiding the dishes and so able to get on their phones and call their friends immediately the evening devotions are over. Mary’s heart was with her Lord. Later she showed that she understood and perceived the meaning of his coming death when she opened a jar of precious spikenard oil and anointed his feet. She knew that he was going to go to the cross for her. I am saying to you that the deep mysteries of the Christian life and Christian experience aren’t just picked up in some instant-mix form. To learn to be a helper and counsellor you have to sit and think about the word of God. You have to take time and mean business with God. How poverty-stricken the spiritual lives of many congregations are because few of their members spend time reading Christian books, or in prayer sitting at the feet of Jesus. In those churches the Bible is not taken seriously.
Ultimately we only have one portion and that is Jesus Christ our Lord. He has chosen us to be his inheritance. His portion is the Lord’s people, and we can scarcely plumb the depths of that. Jesus Christ delights in fellowship with you. The one who at the Passover feast at the end of his life said to the Twelve, “With desire I have desired to eat this Passover with you” expresses the same sentiments about you this Lord’s Day. “I have looked forward to them coming into my presence and singing my praise and hearing my word and praying to me.” He calls for you to take delight in these occasions. Come and cast your cares on my broad shoulders for I care about you so much.
The cure for distraction is attraction, and that is attraction in one direction not distraction in many directions, to one Lord not many lords. Mary has understood this, and Jesus blesses her for her understanding. I am urging you all and myself to do something in the light of this word from the Lord to you today. Begin tonight to take time and sit at Jesus’ feet. Will you do that? Then it won’t be very important what you remember of today’s sermons or what you carry away with you to the lunchtime table, because if you begin a growing deepening relationship with our Lord, and sit at his feet then he will take you on from grace to grace and from glory to glory. Leonard Ravenhill once said, “If I had spent more time alone with God rather than preaching and planning how I was going to change the world, I would be a very different man.”
O that I could for ever sit
With Mary at the Master’s feet!
Be this my happy choice;
My only care, delight and bliss.
My joy, my heaven on earth be this,
To hear the bridegroom’s voice (Charles Wesley 1707-88).
2nd May 2010 GEOFF THOMAS