Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 4/2/95
Luke 10:38 Now as they were traveling along, he entered a certain village, and a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39 and she had a sister called Mary, who, moreover, was listening to the Lord's word, seated at his feet. 40 But Martha was distracted with all her preparations. And she came up to him and said, "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the serving alone? Then tell her to help me." 41 But the Lord answered and said to her, "Martha, Martha, you are worried and bothered about so many things. 42 But only a few things are necessary, really only one. For Mary has chosen the good part, which shall not be taken away from her."
We come today to one of those precious gems of insight into the personal life of our Lord which only Luke records. It seems a very intimate and private encounter. Probably the disciples, including Matthew, John, and Peter (the source of Mark's information) were either on a mission or were lodged elsewhere and did not know of this exchange, but Luke heard the story from Mary or Martha (or their brother Lazarus) in the course of his research in Jerusalem. This family were all close friends of Jesus. You can read more about their relationship in John chapter 11 and the first part of chapter 12. Here, Luke points out their support of Jesus' ministry with a verbal parallel in the Greek that is lost in translation. When Martha "welcomes" Jesus in vs. 38, it is the same verb that is translated "receive" in 9:53, when the Samaritan village did not "receive" Jesus because he was journeying to Jerusalem. The implication is that Mary and Martha did "receive" him. The context makes the verb loaded with extra meaning: They "accepted" him as the Messiah. They did not just happen to be his hosts, but they were giving moral--and probably financial--support to his mission. In this as in other things they serve as examples to us. In their relationship with Jesus as revealed in this passage, we find three elements that are still with us, affecting ours:
Martha was "distracted" with all her preparations; in the Lord's words, she was "worried" about a great many things. She usually gets a bad rap in this story, and indeed her sister does come off better. But we are probably harder on Martha than she deserves. Both her activity--serving--and her motives--love for the Lord--were good things in themselves. Out of love and desire to serve, she was ministering to real physical needs. Indeed, she wanted to provide a sumptuous entertainment (Was her last name "Stewart"?) worthy of her Lord and Savior whom she thus delighted to honor. And this was good and right. Woe be to all of us if the Marthas suddenly disappear from the world!
It all reminds me of when I was a child and we had the preacher over for Sunday dinner. I tell you, Martha could have taken some lessons from my Mom, who managed to do the same kind of work extremely well and without complaining or even seeming to be flustered. The preparations had started the night before. Then we would rush home from church and she would somehow get it all finished to perfection just in time to be served after only a few minutes of the rest of us (in Mary's role) entertaining this extremely lucky minister in the living room. Now, these meals were just too good to be described in mere prose, so with your indulgence--and apologies to Hee Haw's Grandpa Jones--let me set the table for you.
Fried chicken, good and hot, Green beans (with fatback in the pot), Fresh-pulled corn cooked on the cob, Mashed potatoes with a great big glob Of butter running as it melts, Buttermilk biscuits--better loosen your belts. Top it off with apple pie And ice cream piled on way up high: That's what the Lord meant when he said To ask him for our daily bread.
Oh, I can smell it now! What was really impressive about all this was the coordination it took. I could probably cook any one of those dishes and do it adequately--if that's all I had to worry about. But somehow Mom kept it all going at one time and had it all ready--indeed, done to perfection--at the same time. And this was before the invention of microwaves! Well, I couldn't do that if my life depended on it. Now, I know this was not the menu at Martha's house, but you can bet anything she was fixing Jesus the first-century Palestinian equivalent. Oh, yes, this was a good thing!
But even good things can get out of hand. And when they do, they risk becoming not so good. That's what happened to Martha here. She seems to have lost perspective on what she was doing. We can get so focused on the means that they swallow up the end, and we lose sight of our original purpose. This can happen in lots of ways in lots of good things that we do in life. A father works hard to provide for his family out of love--but if he is never at home, where is the love? A mother works hard to maintain a clean house out of love for her family--but can they live comfortably in it?
So we see that when we lose perspective, the activity may no longer be the good it was meant to be even for the intended beneficiary. But this loss of perspective has a negative impact on us too. When activity gets the upper hand over aims, when procedures overwhelm their purpose, we become susceptible to anxiety. Martha was "worried" about a great many things. Anxiety may be defined as the useless and futile expenditure of emotional energy on fretting about what might go wrong. Anxiety can be debilitating. Ian MacLaren pointedly asks, "What does your anxiety do? It does not empty tomorrow of its sorrow, but it does empty today of its strength; it cannot make you escape evil, but it does make you unfit to cope with it when it comes." And we suffer this emotional drain for something that is non-constructive and pointless. Can you do something about it? If so, then do it. If not, leave it in the Lord's hands. In neither case should you worry about it.
Two constructive lessons about anxiety emerge from this passage. First, it can result from imbalanced priorities. Martha put too much importance on a good thing. So if you suffer from anxiety, examine your priorities. Second, anxiety is a choice. Yes, it is! Despite some of your quizzical stares, the passage is clear. The difference between Martha and Mary was a choice. Mary had chosen the good part. Now, I can hear some of you saying, "It's not that simple. If I could just push a button and choose not to worry, I would." Well, I don't know about mashing any buttons. But listen to Phil. 4:6-7. "Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God, and the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, shall guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus." We could accurately translate, "Instead of being anxious, pray and be thankful, etc." You substitute the one for the other. You may not be able to choose not to worry as such, but you can choose to pray instead; you can choose to give thanks instead. And the result of those choices is that the peace of God will guard your heart and your mind! So in effect, worry is a choice, or at least a failure to make a better choice. Let us serve like Martha, but at the same time make better choices like Mary.
"Lord, she's left me to do all the work! Make her help me!" Martha wasn't just bothered by the fact that she was working. It was just as big a problem--maybe a bigger one--that Mary wasn't! Well, wasn't her accusation fair? Maybe--maybe not. Somebody has to entertain the guest until dinner is ready. But Martha hasn't thought of that because she is too busy illustrating another psychological dynamic that still plagues us today. Too much busyness gives birth to anxiety, and anxiety when it has matured turns into bitterness. You want a good definition of bitterness? I once lived next to a man who had three vehicles in his yard: a car, a van, and a light truck. And on each one of these vehicles was the same identical bumper sticker: "Please draft my ex-wife!" One would have been a statement; two was a pattern; three was a serious attitude!
What is the connection between anxiety and bitterness? The root of bitterness is self pity. When the worry that we can't be good enough festers into despair, we cry out, "It's not fair!" and look for someone to blame. It is easier to blame someone else for our problems than to admit that they started from our own misplaced priorities. But bitterness is perhaps the ugliest of all our emotional problems, and certainly one that closes us off effectively from the grace of God. For God's grace must be accepted with the open hand of faith; it only bounces off a closed fist.
And what is the solution to bitterness? It is to realize that bitterness is a choice, too! And the alternative to it is the choice to forgive. Now, maybe you cannot now forgive that person against whom you are bitter without a real struggle. But there was a time when you could have, and you chose instead to harden your heart. Now maybe you cannot directly choose to change your feelings, but you can choose positively to love, positively to forgive, positively to close the books on that wrong--real or imagined--never to bring it up again, and stop picking at the wound. And if you do make this choice, by God's grace, you will eventually find that you have in fact indirectly also chosen to change how you feel. Forgiveness is the path to emotional liberation, both when we accept it from God and when we extend it to others because we ourselves have been forgiven.
So far, this has been a story about handling negative and hurtful emotions. And I keep saying that the solution is to choose something. What? "The good part" that Mary chose, which would not be taken away from her. And what did she choose? She chose to listen to Jesus as his disciple, to sit at his feet. She chose to make Jesus himself her first priority. When we do that, then it does not matter whether it is our turn to sit or to serve (we will do both), for we are doing it all for the Lord, and both are simply and equally acts of love for him. She chose to look at Jesus, to see him for who he is: Messiah, Lord of All, Lamb of God who taketh away the sins of the world. She chose to sit at his feet and hear him say, "Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you." If we sit at his feet we will also hear him tell us how to seek first the kingdom: "Go ye into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey all things, whatsoever I have commanded you." To sit at those feet is to realize that anything we fret about, everything we are bitter about, is just absurdly, shamefully, sinfully petty in comparison. It is to be freed from all of that to walk with him, love him, and serve him. Blessed are those who do so. For that is the good part indeed, and it shall not be taken away from them.
You cannot defeat negative emotions by a negative strategy, i.e., by trying not to be too busy, not to worry, not to be bitter, etc. But there is a positive strategy that does work: we can choose to dwell on Christ Jesus, his grace, his goodness, his glory. We can force those negative emotional forces out of our lives by choosing consciously to focus on something else instead. We can choose to "Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God, and the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, shall guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus." We can choose the better part. And if we do, it will not be taken away from us.
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams