The one about Mary & Martha

Sixth Sunday after Pentecost – July 21, 2019 – Luke 10:38-42 – Christ Church, Tracy City

This week I was reminded of what the preaching professor at The School of Theology always told us: when you preach, he said, you do so to a particular audience in a particular context. 

Broad-sweeping generalizations will never do. Each preaching event is unique. You can’t just take a sermon out of your files (not that my files are very extensive yet!) and give it to any ol’ congregation. 

This advice is good, but it’s not original. In fact, we first learned it from Jesus. Each time Jesus preached, he was aware of the specific needs of his particular hearers. When he taught, he did so conscious of his immediate context.

Luke chapter 10 provides us with a couple of examples of such instances. Last week we heard Jesus tell the parable of the “Good Samaritan.” 

A lawyer, well-schooled in Hebrew law, asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. The lawyer already new the answer. In fact, he quoted the commandment perfectly. 

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” 

But Jesus took it one step further. Jesus taught the lawyer that simply knowing that he must love his neighbor, wasn’t enough. Jesus said, “You must go and do.” He taught the lawyer to put his love into action. 

Today we hear another familiar story. Martha is busy with her many tasks. She is distracted with all that she has to do. Jesus’ teaches Martha the value of stopping to listen. 

This is quite different from what the lawyer needed to hear. The lawyer needed to hear less about knowing and more about doing. He spent his whole life listening, learning, and acquiring knowledge. On the other hand, Martha, spending most of her time in active service, needed to be reminded to slow down and listen to the Word of God. 

Jesus understands that different people in different circumstances need to hear different messages, so his teaching is not always the same. It responds to the unique needs of individuals and audiences. 

To the lawyer, Jesus gave the example of a Samaritan who practices his love for his neighbor by an act of great mercy. To Martha, Jesus offers the example of her own sister, Mary. 

The example of Mary and Martha has taken on a life of its own. Some folks get caught up in who they imagine Mary and Martha to be. These imaginary characteristics tend to be analogous to their own personalities. 

I have heard some folks say, “I’m a Martha.” What they mean is, they are doers. They are the ones who see to the details. Plan. Prepare. Cook. Serve. Clean. 

Others say, “I’m a Mary.” They are totally at ease when they have company. They aren’t concerned about all the planning and organizing. They just want to sit back and soak it all in.

It’s completely fine to relate to biblical characters this way, but if you do, be careful not to cast yourself—or them—in too narrow a role. No one is entirely Mary or Martha. Each sister represents a part of your personality.

Living life like either Mary or Martha is not sufficient for a meaningful life. It takes both listening and doing, learning and service, knowledge and action.

When Jesus says, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing” it’s easy to hear that as an absolute. “Forever and for all time there is need of only one thing: stop with your work and listen.” 

If we took this as a Christian absolute nobody in the church would ever get anything done. We would all the time be making up excuses and saying to each other, “Sorry, can’t cut the grass today, have to listen to Jesus.” 

“Help you paint the community building? Afraid not, have to read my Bible.” 

“Sorry, I’d love to go serve a hot meal down at the tent city, but I’m afraid I’m too busy sitting here basking in God’s creation.” 

No, it’s not like that at all. Slowing down and letting some of the details go was necessary for Martha on this specific occasion. On another occasion it might have been different. It’s not, “There is need of only one thing for all time.” It’s, “There is need of only one thing right now.” 

The one thing you are in need of now might be different from the one thing your neighbor is in need of. And your one thing might change from week to week, day to day, hour to hour. 

Today you might need to be spurred to action in your community. Or you might need to be encouraged to take a break and listen quietly for what God is calling you to do next. You might need to be comforted. You might need to be stretched outside of your comfort zone. 

Thank God—literally—that God sent Jesus guide us, to walk with us in our humanity, and to help us through our struggles, whatever they may be.

Whatever you need, Jesus is here for you in the hearing of the word, the saying of the prayers, and the breaking of bread. The best part is, you can take him into your heart, as both Mary and Martha did, carrying him with you wherever you go!

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