Luke 10:38-42 Martha or Mary – 21 July 2019 Kiama
What preparations do you make if a good, close friend is coming to dinner?
– Nothing at all. They take you as they find you? Or
– A bit of a tidy up. Find the dining table under all the papers, books and laptop computer? Whip around with the vacuum. Air freshener in the bathroom.
– Dash to the shops for a few special items for the meal.
– Sweep the porch, mow the lawn, clean the windows, polish the silver!
– Does it make a difference if you have been to their home?
– Does it depend on the kind of friendship?
– I have to tidy for the cleaners!
Jesus has come to visit Martha, Mary and Lazarus in their home.
So often, Jesus takes homey incidents from life and converts those everyday circumstances into moments for spiritual truth. Jesus does not quote the philosophers of the day or the quotable quotes of the day or the famous Jewish rabbis of his era. Rather, Jesus always finds spiritual truth in the everyday moments of life such as the gospel story for today.
Here we have Mary, Martha and their brother, Lazarus. From the Bible, we can reach some conclusions and make some assumptions. Mary, Martha and Lazarus were good friends of Jesus. Jesus visited their home in Bethany often. The little village of Bethany was located two miles from Jerusalem, and according to the Gospel of John, Jesus visited Jerusalem at least six times. So, it is possible that Jesus visited the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus often. We see that Martha could have been the owner of the home and so we assume that she was the oldest sister. We know that Jesus deeply loved Lazarus. In the Gospel of John, chapter 11, we hear that on finding Lazarus already dead and in the tomb, “Jesus wept”. Such deep relationships don’t occur in a moment, and this reveals that Jesus had spent much time with this family. We also know that Jesus had become a famous rabbi in the land; he had become enormously popular and well known. And we know that Jesus, the well known rabbi, was coming to the home of Martha, Mary and Lazarus for dinner.
Martha, the oldest and the hostess, was going to plan and prepare the dinner for Jesus. You can’t serve a well known rabbi party pies. You can’t serve the renowned rabbi of the land spam sandwiches. You can’t serve him some ordinary creamed corn soup. Jesus is coming to dinner and you have to make the meal special. So we can imagine Martha going to market early that morning in order to get the freshest food available. She may have found some fresh fish that had been brought in from the Jordan River. And dates and pomegranates and figs and raisins and nuts. And the finest of wines that she could afford. What a shopping spree that was, and all through the morning, Martha was a flurry of activity, busy cleaning the house and the yard before she began to prepare the feast for Jesus, the well known rabbi coming to her house. How exciting. She set the table with her finest, bringing out her brass menorah, the seven-candle stick and her favourite pottery ware. It was the time of arrival and Jesus knocked on the door, and everyone was so excited to see Jesus. They laughed and chattered and Jesus noticed how clean and prepared the house was, and Martha was pleased. Jesus sat down on a pillow in the front room and started to teach. Being a rabbi and all, he started to talk about God and love and prayer. And soon Martha was out in the kitchen, so busy, so focused on her last-minute preparations, and she was irritated that she couldn’t hear the conversation between Jesus and her younger sister and the other disciples, in the living room. The more Martha worked, the more frustrated she got with her sister, sitting in the living room, cheerfully listening to Jesus. So, what did Martha do? She started to send signals to her sister, banging the pots and pans together so that the noise would bring her sister into the kitchen. It didn’t work. So she walked into the living room to serve the entrees, the wine, the cheese, the crackers, and as she walked by Mary, she gave Mary the eyeball roll, rolling her eyeballs in the direction of the kitchen. But Mary wasn’t looking. Soon, from the kitchen, Martha returned to the living room to pick up the leftovers and gave her sister another signal, this one the rolling shoulder motion, rolling her shoulder and arm in the direction of the kitchen. Mary, again, did not respond. She was still focused on Jesus and his words. Finally Marth stood in the kitchen door and her anger could not be contained any longer: “Jesus, would you tell Mary to come into the kitchen and help me with all this work. Would you tell her to come into the kitchen and finish the work for this meal?” Jesus spoke to Martha calmly, “Martha, Martha, don’t be so upset. You are busy and distracted with many things. Mary has chosen the better portion, listening to me, and this will not be taken away from her.” I imagine Martha put her hand on her hips, said “hrumpff,” and stomped back into the kitchen to finish the meal.”
The story of this encounter was told over and over again in the early church because it was so down to earth, so ordinary, so common, and that is the way that life with Jesus was and is. Down to earth, ordinary, common incidents from life are used to illustrate the spiritual truths of the kingdom of God.
Today I want to put in a good word for Martha. How many of the women here this morning would consider themselves to be like Martha. I know that if there were no Marthas, a whole heap of things in our lives just wouldn’t happen. I think it would have been fairer if Mary had approached Martha and said, “Let’s both listen to Jesus and then let’s both go and work in the kitchen.” We need to speak a good word for all the Marthas of life.
Martha? Martha has become a symbol of action-oriented people, responsible people, men and women who get the job done. And the world needs men and women and boys and girls who get the job done. This is certainly true in the church. How would the church ever survive if not for the Marthas and Marvins ? The church could not exist without the women and men who are responsible for so many of the tasks around this place and who roll up their sleeves and do the work. The same is true with the family. We need responsible people to do the work of the house: to cook, to clean, to keep the house operating, to pay the bills, to keep the cars running, not to speak of raising the children and loving the spouse. Households can’t survive without Marthas and Marvins. Nor can offices. Nor can schools. Nor can businesses. What is wrong with being a Martha? A Marvin? A responsible, get it done, kind of person?
Nothing. There is nothing wrong with being a responsible, action oriented, get it done kind of person. Jesus did not fault Martha for being responsible. Martha’s fault is that she was … too busy to listen … too distracted to sit at his feet and absorb his presence … too busy living life to quietly hear what Jesus had to say … too involved with all her activities and actions that she didn’t find time to first listen to the voice of Christ.
And so Jesus taught in an unforgettable way that listening precedes action, that we listen first and then do or act. We all must be Mary first and Martha second. It is always in that order. That is true in both human love and Christian discipleship. Listening first and action second. Listening and then doing. Jesus clearly said: be hearers and doers of the word. Jesus never reversed that order; Jesus never said, “Be doers and hearers of the word.” From the lips of Jesus, it is always hearers and then doers of the word of God.
Martha has become a symbol of the modern world. No, more than that, Martha has become a symbol of you and me who have become so active and busy with living life, we no longer have time to slowly quietly listen to God or even our spouse, kids or friends. In fact, it is a subtle trick that we become so active in doing good things, that our activities become a cover-up for our lack of listening and quiet caring. Martha has become a symbol of a person who is far too busy and has lost the art of listening.
Let me give you some examples. Have you ever come home from a day of work and your kids are talking with you at the kitchen table, and they are saying, “blah, blah, blah, blah, blah,” and you nodding affirmatively at their words and thoughts, but you haven’t heard a word that they said. Yes, I think so. Or have you ever come home from a day of work and your spouse wants to share with you what has happened during their day, and he or she goes “blah, blah, blah, blah, blah,” and you don’t hear a word or thought that was spoken because you are so preoccupied with what happened during your day? Yes, I think so. Or have you ever been introduced to someone and your mind is racing so fast about everything that you actually don’t hear their name at all, and so you ask their name again, and you hear their name like you had never heard it before. You actually, totally did not hear their name the first time. Have you ever had that experience? I think so. Many of us, in our intense busyness of life, have lost the art of listening.
What is listening? Listening is focusing on the other; it is centreing on the other person; it is concentrating on the person before me, giving them my undivided attention. Listening is a gift of self to the other person. If you were to take this pair of binoculars and focus on one person or one thing you will find that they draw your focus into one point. You can’t see anything in front of that point, nothing to the side; nothing behind. With our natural vision, we see the wider picture; with the binoculars, we can focus on each individual part. And so it is with listening. Listening is an art that is learned and slowly developed where you actually focus on that person before you. Not the history of everything that has happened earlier today or before. Not on the future and all the activities that will occur later today or this week. Not on the side about everything that is occurring right now at this moment. Listening focuses on that one person, not on the past, not on the future, not on all the stuff going on right now. Listening is a gift; it is an art; it is a learned behaviour.
And listening is the first face of love. The more we listen, the more love grows. The less we listen, the less love there is. Listening is the conduit, the pipeline, through which love flows and grows.
This is certainly true in marriage. Any good marriage will find a couple who have discovered what it means to listen to one another. That is also true in good families. That is also true in good businesses. It is always Mary first and Martha second. It is always listening first and then doing. That is just the way life works.
But the gospel reading for today is not primarily concerned about listening to one’s spouse, family, friends or work. The Mary and Martha story is not primarily concerned about human love, important as that is. The Mary and Martha story is primarily concerned about Christian discipleship and listening to the voice of God and Jesus. To focus, to centre, to concentrate, on Christ and the words and spirit of Christ. To blot out all of my past busyness and all the clutter of my mind from yesterday. To blot out all my future busyness and all the clutter of activities that I am going to do this afternoon or tonight. To blot out all the current distractions of what is going on in the moment. Like Martha, we all get so busy and distracted with living life, so totally preoccupied with living life, that we have lost the art of listening. You know that this is true of your life, and I know it is true of my life. It is an art to listen to the voice of Jesus Christ in a sermon. It is an art to listen to the voice of Jesus Christ in our prayers when our minds are tempted to run so fast and far away. It is an art to listen to the voice of Christ as we are absorbed in reading the Bible when our minds are tempted to think about other things. Listening is a gift of one person to the other, a centre-ing, a concentrating of oneself on the other, on Jesus Christ, and listening to his voice. Mary knew how to listen to Christ, and we are encouraged to do the same.
It isn’t Mary or Martha – a choice between the two. It is Mary then Martha, listen then act.
Jesus is coming to dinner. The most famous rabbi in the land is coming to sit at your table, and even though he is the most famous rabbi of the land, he is your dearest friend. Instantly, your mind goes to work and you are soon busy planning the menu, busy cleaning the house, busy weeding the gardens, so distracted and pleased that you are living life to the fullest. The meal is ready and Jesus knocks on the door. You know he will be impressed with the meal, impressed with the cleanliness of the house, impressed with the immaculate condition of your gardens. You all sit down to dinner and then like Mary you remain at the feet of Jesus, listening to him, focusing on him, concentrating on his words and spirit. Will Jesus commend the way we are living our lives?
In the Amos reading for today (Amos 8:1-12) we find that God is not impressed with how the Israelites are living out their lives. They can’t wait for the Sabbath to be over so that can sell more produce. They are being so stingy that they aren’t even leaving the wheat sweepings for the widows, the poor and the orphans as God commanded. The saddest part though is in verses 11-12. “11 “The days are coming,” declares the Sovereign Lord “when I will send a famine through the land not a famine of food or a thirst for water, but a famine of hearing the words of the Lord.12 People will stagger from sea to sea and wander from north to east searching for the word of the Lord, but they will not find it.
Have we got our priorities straight? Do we listen then act? Amen.