The one thing our Lord does not teach us here is that a contemplative life is superior to an active one of service. Mary and Martha are not used to contrast these two different types of Christian personality. If this is the case, then Jesus plainly rebukes a life of Christian service. He does nothing of the kind. But I am getting ahead of myself a bit. It seems a bit odd for this section to be included here. When did Jesus make a quick trip to Bethany, which was not in Galilee but much nearer Jerusalem? John records that Jesus went up briefly to Jerusalem and was there in the winter during the Feast of Dedication (John 10:22). This was before Lazarus became ill and died. It was likely during the missionary work of the seventy, which provided the opportunity for our Lord to visit his dear friends. His visit was an important preparation for the trial they were about to endure. Perhaps it is also in terms of Luke’s organization, a balance to our Lord’s “Go, and do likewise,” as if the Christian life is only about doing. The incident in Martha’s house reveals that the strength to go and do lies solely in fellowship with Jesus Christ. We must sit meekly before his word, for his word is our life and strength. This section is beautifully inserted – to show our Savior’s love for his friends, to correct overly narrow notions of the “ideal” Christian life, and to call each one of us to choose the “one thing needful.”
To Sit at Jesus’ Feet and Hear his Word (vv. 38-39)
Upon arriving at Bethany, which was about two miles from Jerusalem, Jesus and a smaller group of disciple entered Martha’s house. Lazarus is not mentioned. Mary is introduced here for the first time. Her posture is akin to where we shall find her later – at our Lord’s feet. Her outward posture surely reflected the posture of her heart. She knew who he was and where she must be in relation to him: at his feet, hearing his word. This is the point of the encounter and its insertion here. Nothing is more important for us than hearing the word of Jesus Christ. As he said, “My words are spirit, and they are life” (John 6: 63), meaning that they are from the realm of the Spirit and give life to all who hear and believe them. Pause and watch Mary for a moment. She knew much less about Jesus than we do, but perhaps she also knew more. From what he had already taught, she knew that he was the Son of God and Savior of sinners. She was committed to the person of her Lord and knew that his lips dropped precious dew from heaven. She could not hear too much, listen too keenly. She was utterly prostrate before the Lord. If only we were often before our Bible and heard sermons with meek hearts, “crying out after knowledge and lifting up our voices for understanding” (Prov. 2:3). Sitting at our Savior’s feet, we would grow in grace and knowledge, love, peace, and joy (2 Pet. 3:18; Rom. 15:13).
Martha’s Complaint (v. 40)
Lord, Do You Not Care How Busy I Am?
Mary had been helping Martha with meal preparation, but when it became obvious that Jesus “came to serve more than to be served,” she left off helping Martha and began listening to Jesus. This left Martha to serve alone. Even more, she was distracted, as the verb makes clear, so that she could not listen to Jesus; she was mentally distracted. Perhaps she looked occasionally at Mary, hoping to draw her attention so she would resume helping, but Mary continued looking at Jesus. We should be clear that Martha wanted to serve her Lord, but she forgot that Jesus was the Giver, not her. She may have been the hostess, but Jesus was the Host of the bread of life. It is understandable that she became frustrated with Mary and perhaps a bit sharp with Jesus: “Lord, do you not care?” Do you not know that I am trying to make a pleasant meal for you and have no one to help me? Mary was helping, but she stopped. O, how distracted and upset Martha was becoming. In the hustle and bustle of serving, she lost the spirit of serving – and that with our Lord sitting in her parlor! Have we not often found this to be the case, that in our zeal to serve the Lord, there is more than a little of self-serving and even of agitation – that it all go as we would like, that others recognize we are serving and even help us, and even complaining against other believers when they do not do as we think they should. On our best day, we are giddy creatures with divided hearts. Our best works are stained with much impurity!
Tell Mary to Help Me
Jesus can make it all right, Martha thought, if he will simply tell Mary to return to the kitchen and help me. Again, our hearts are so similar to Martha’s that I know not where to laugh or cry. We do what we think is a service to our Lord, even sincerely, but we think everyone else should share the same priorities and help us in the service we believe so important. Easily we forget that our Lord gives different graces and gifts. We also learn that our choice of service can be wrong – Martha’s was! When Jesus rebuked her, he did not commend what she was doing, only that she did it with too much fretting. No, she, too, should have left off the serving and sat his feet – not because serving the Lord and wanting to offer him our best is wrong, but because we have to receive from him before we have anything worthwhile to give. We must eat the heavenly bread from his lips before we can serve him acceptably. This was lost upon Martha. The Bread of Life was sitting in her living room, and she wanted to feed him! But he came to feed her, and so before we can serve our Lord or show mercy to one another, always this thought must come to us. Lord, you must feed me with your heavenly bread and wisdom, or I shall quickly go astray, choosing either the wrong service to you or doing the right service weakly and with a burdened heart rather than joyful to give back to you what you have first given to me.
Jesus Lovingly Rebukes Martha (v. 41)
Martha, Martha – How Tenderly He Rebukes
Our Lord might have taken personal offense at Martha’s not so veiled criticism. “Do you not care?” She assumed that the Lord would side with her and wondered that he has not already told Mary to return to preparations. But ever compassionate, Jesus’ rebuke is tender. “Whom he loves he rebukes” (Rev. 3:19). Doubling her name implies tender regard for her. He knows that she wanted to serve him. He also knew that she is mistaken in her priorities. She needs correction. He did not say as many do today, “Martha’s heart is in the right place, so I will let this go.” For her heart was not in the right place; the present issue is not between different giftedness but the heart itself, its choices and loves and priorities. The Lord might have accepted her service and ignored her heart, but he could not, for he loved Martha. When there is much good he has worked in us, he will not refrain from rebuking us. Our heart must be in the right place before our actions and works can be, for the loves of our heart direct the rest of our lives.
Anxious and Troubled – Service Gone Awry
Here is the issue with Martha. In wanting to serve the Lord, even in wanting to offer him her best, she became distracted by the serving itself – it became the focus, not the Lord. Whenever we are intent upon serving him, we do not ask others to drop what they are doing and help us. Love does not seek its own. Service to our Lord – any service in home, church, and community – that agitates and divides our heart is service gone awry. It has lost its value, and it certainly loses its joy. Those works become about us – doing our duty, or meeting our personal expectations, and the Lord Jesus is suffocated by our anxiety. Then, we become disturbed, disquieted, inwardly turbulent, forgetting that the strength to serve our Lord is found in his fellowship. “What can I do to serve the Lord” does not count nearly as much as, “Am I quiet before the Lord and taught by his word so that I can understand the path of duty and have strength to walk the path in communion with my Lord. The serving itself became everything to Martha – what she could offer the Lord, how busy she was, and how frustrating it was to watch Mary doing nothing important but sitting on the floor listening to Jesus!
One Thing Needed: Mary Has Chosen Better
Our Lord will soon speak about having a “single eye” (11:34), a healthy, focused “life vision.” Martha is anxious and troubled about many things – her frustration is intense (troubled) and extensive (many things). In her agitation about serving, she has lost the most important thing about serving and forgotten why she is serving. Like the minister who is so agitated about his sermon preparations and delivery that he forgets his sermonizing is an act of worship and depends completely upon the power and presence of Jesus Christ to be effective. A mother may be extremely vigilant in her domestic duties, but her children may so vex her spirit that each day becomes little more than survival. She may be tempted to complain, like Martha, that those around her are not helping her – or that there is no one to help her. A businessman becomes so focused upon making his contacts and meeting his quotas that he forgets to do his work heartily unto Jesus. You can always tell where the heart is in your work – and I am referring to believers – by whether we think of Jesus and seek his strength, or instead become anxious and troubled by all that we have to do that our attitudes ruin what should be a holy sacrifice unto him (Rom. 12:1).
Hear our Lord: one thing is needful, most needed, a necessity, our chief business. This does not mean, “Martha, a one-dish meal would have been sufficient.” The one thing is what Mary was doing – sitting at Jesus’ feet listening to his word. Remember that Jesus was in the house; the Bread of Life was in Martha’s parlor. He was speaking. At the moment, meal preparations could wait. If necessary, he could provide for their physical needs in other ways. Was Martha’s bread in the oven as important as the bread Jesus was serving? Mary, our Lord says to Martha, has made a better choice than you. Again, this is not a declaration that the reflective, meditative life is better than the active life of service. Our Lord saved us not simply by preaching but by healing and loving and “going about doing good” (Acts 10:38). But in the busyness of his life, he ever set his Father before him (Ps. 16:8). He did good and bound Satan in the strength of communion with his Father. Mary had been serving, but she stopped when Jesus began speaking. Martha should have done the same. Mary’s choice was better.
Choose the Good Part (v. 42)
Nothing Better than to Hear Jesus’ Word
When our Lord says that “Mary has chosen that good part,” we must stand at attention – or follow her and sit at his feet. Who better than he knows what we most need? But I cannot sit still. I know more theology than my husband. I am smarter than the pastor and do not agree with him. All of these excuses begin with “I,” which is where Martha began. It is the reason Jesus rebuked her. There is nothing better, it is the good part, to sit meekly and hear the word of God. Pray more for the preacher than you critique and complain of him, and your heart will be better prepared to receive the good word. When you come to the Scriptures, be still before God and hear his voice – do not look for theological concepts with which you agree but wait for him to instruct you in the way you should go. God’s word is living and powerful (Heb. 4:12). He has told us to abide in his word (John 8:31-32). He has said that his word is the way we live and leave our grave clothes behind so that we can serve God with loving hearts (John 5:25). And if you want to serve the Lord, let him teach you first. He does not follow your agenda. How you read things may not be the way things really are. Let him teach you. He teaches you through his word, as you are humbled before it. Let Mary’s posture be yours – sit quietly at Jesus’ feet. Do not presume to tell him what others should be doing or complain about what he has you doing. Sit and listen; hear and be fed and grow by the indwelling word (1 Pet. 2:2).
Mary Chose the Better Part – Have You?
Our modern way of living offers a limitless smorgasbord of choices – whatever satisfies you, it is likely available. Be careful about your appetites. Not all choices are equally good; some are sinful. Even as Christians, we may feel something should be done, but Jesus may want us still and listening. We cannot “do” well before we learn to listen well. Now, the way we know we have chosen the good is simple. How central in our lives is hearing the word of Jesus? Hearing and doing, as James wrote (James 1:22), is the Christians defining mark. It is the voice of Jesus Christ speaking to us through the gospel that brought us out of our tombs, and it his voice that keeps us fed and on the straight path. The reason we hear so many encouragements to read and study in the Bible is not because we must become monks but because we can become nothing unless his word makes something of us. The Bible is no dead book; it is the living word of the living Savior. This is the point of this exchange. Yes, we must “go and do likewise,” being and showing compassion to our neighbor, loving God and our neighbor with all that is in us. But neither you nor I can do that without the power of God. All our progress in grace and truth, therefore, depends upon making communion with Jesus Christ in his word the center piece of our lives. Do this, and live, child of God. Do this in your home, in your marriage, in your battle against lust, when you want to and when you do not want to – hear Christ’s word. Eat the word of his flesh and drink the word of his blood, his eternal wisdom, and he will strengthen you with his life.
The Good We Shall Never Lose or Regret
Mary’s choice led her to Jesus’ feet, and he will never take this away from her. Go serve if you must, he implies to Martha, but Mary will sit here and eat my words. Believer, if you join Mary at Jesus’ feet, you will find his particular yoke of service upon you much easier, and his burdens lighter. Imagine if he were walking next to you on the narrow path, whispering encouragement in your ear and warning you of danger around the next bend. He is. He is present by his Word and Spirit to guide and instruct, to protect and empower you. But you must continue making the good choice. You will never lose the good if you make this choice. If we “eat Jesus Christ,” which means taking him and his word by faith into our hearts and minds by the work of the Spirit, we shall never die. Hearing his word on earth as he has been pleased to leave it to us in the Scriptures and teach us by his Spirit, we shall one day hear his voice with our ears. Never will you be disappointed if you choose the good part of Christ’s word.
We should observe that Jesus loved Martha and Mary. Both were believers; Martha believed that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God (John 11:27). This is not a choice of salvation. It is rather a disciple’s choice of whether to live anxious and troubled or fed and strengthened. One can be loved by Jesus and love him in return and make a lesser choice. I should read the word, I know, and seek closer fellowship with my Lord, and I do sincerely love him, but I am very busy. Or the choice whether or not to skip worship and preaching, or faithfully attend upon our Lord when he walks among the candlesticks and preaches the loving-kindness of his Father in the midst of the church (Ps. 40:10; Heb. 2:12). We must choose the word of Jesus Christ to be strong. He is a speaking Savior. He has many things to say to his church, and he has given his Spirit to guide us into the truth through his Scriptures (John 16:13). Too many believers stay weak because they never make the better choice or grow weak when they started out well because they stopped choosing the better part.
You will never, child of God, regret the time sitting at Jesus’ feet. I leave you with Mary’s posture. It reflected the posture of her heart. Unless a physical defect or great weariness, body posture usually reflects heart attitudes. This is especially true in spiritual matters. If we are interested in hearing the word of Jesus, we shall sit where we can get a clear sight and sound of the preacher. We shall read the Scriptures with attention and prayerfully, for he is present with his word to bless. Ask him to illumine your heart to understand his word spiritually (Ps. 119:18; 1 Cor. 2:14). Learn to associate the Bible with Jesus Christ. It is his living word. This relationship is being broken by fools and charlatans, who pretend that we can know Jesus Christ existentially apart from his word. Tell that to Mary. The one needed thing in her life, in mine and in yours, is to hear the words of Jesus Christ. Let this sink in this morning: the one thing needed. No, I need some money. I need a better marriage. I need a better boss. What will you choose as your good part – to focus upon the fleeting? Or, will you choose the better part, to hear and live by every word that has come from his blessed mouth? Make this choice, and you will find that many other absolutely necessary things either vanish before his majesty or diminish in their importance so that we are able to move ahead bearing our crosses with joy. Mary will soon have to bear a very heavy cross in her brother’s death, at least for a few days. Sitting at Jesus’ feet and hearing his word prepared her for it as nothing else could. His word will prepare you for what lies ahead. Choose to hear him. Put other distractions, worries, and frustrations out of our mind. Hear his voice and live.
Are you choosing something else in your life? Have you made the best choice in a definitive, saving way, so that you have repented of living by your own will and words? This is what repentance is – confession and turning from the rebellion of plugging our ears to Jesus, so that like newborn babes we hunger after his word. Even if you have made that choice in your life, is it not truly shocking how many times we get up from sitting at Jesus’ feet. We have his word, but it remains closed on our table. We sit through sermons, but we do not drive them home through prayer and obedience. At other times, the word is choked out by life’s problems so that we are in danger of losing what we once had. I have seen this too often. You run into someone who had good teaching, but in a moment or two, it is like all that teaching has been lost. Keep sitting at Jesus’ feet. Put away the other places you would rather sit than hearing his voice. Choose the good. The world and sin will eat you alive if you make a bad choice. Determine to take in Jesus’ word, meditate and obey it, and it will be a shield to you against the world’s mockery and Satan’s sharpest missiles. No one ever spoke like Jesus Christ, because he is the eternal Word come down from heaven. He is still speaking just like this to those who sit at his feet and value his word as worth more than their necessary food.