Preached by Dr. Robert F. Browning
Calvary Baptist Church
The story we are going to examine today has more twists and turns than a mountain road. It is filled with surprises because the main characters have an uncanny way of not doing what you think they will do, or what you think they should do.
Before I share the details of this story, let me remind you of its context. It is part of the journey motif in the tenth chapter of Luke.
Jesus and the disciples were making their way from Galilee to Jerusalem by traveling through towns and villages and interacting with the people who lived there. In this chapter, Luke relates two stories, a parable featuring the Good Samaritan and this incident that occurred in Mary and Martha’s home.
In these stories, Jesus clearly voiced his disagreement with restrictions imposed upon foreigners or women by the religious and secular leaders of his day. Both stories break with tradition and reveal the stark contrast between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world.
Now, let me turn our attention back to our text.
Jesus and his disciples were on their way to Jerusalem and unexpectedly stopped at the home of Mary and Martha. These sisters are mentioned in the Fourth Gospel in conjunction with the death of their brother, Lazarus. You recall Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, which was a contributing factor in Jesus’ crucifixion days later. The High Priest was fearful Jesus was becoming too popular and powerful and made it clear he wanted Jesus arrested.
When Jesus and the disciples arrived at Mary and Martha’s home, they were invited in by Martha who immediately began preparing a meal. There was nothing unusual about these kind gestures, especially for Luke. Showing hospitality to friends and strangers was a major theme in his book, and since Martha was probably older, she took the lead.
What was unusual, however, was what Mary did. She did not follow Martha to the kitchen to help her prepare the meal, but she sat at Jesus’ feet like a student or disciple, soaking up every word.
This did not sit well with Martha, and she decided to do something about it. She went to the room where Mary was, but instead of speaking directly to her, she appealed to Jesus to tell Mary to come and help her.
“Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.”
I get the feeling Martha was as upset with Jesus as she was Mary. Actually, she might have been more upset with him. Why else would she serve Jesus a heaping helping of guilt?
Did Jesus acquiesce? Surprisingly, no. Jesus took Mary’s side in this dispute, even though this seemed out of character for him.
“Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:41-42)
Jesus was gentle, but firm with Martha. He left no doubt about what he felt Mary needed to be doing and no room for negotiation.
So, what happened? Did Mary get up anyway and go help Martha, or did she continue listening to Jesus? Did Martha voice her disapproval with Jesus and Mary or just leave the room in a huff and return to finish the meal? Did one of the disciples break with tradition as Mary did and take her place in the kitchen?
We don’t know because Luke doesn’t tell us. This may have been his way of inviting his readers to deal with these and other questions.
You know what intrigues me most about our text? It is the decision Mary made to remain by Jesus’ side and Jesus’ response to Martha when she complained to him about Mary’s absence in the kitchen. Both run contrary to first century customs and traditions.
Why did Mary make the decision to break with hundreds of years of tradition and sit at Jesus’ feet that night? Obviously, she sensed more was going on than a casual visit from dear friends, and she was right.
Just days before, Jesus told the disciples he was going to be betrayed into the hands of his enemies and killed. The full weight of the cross was bearing down upon him, and it had to show on his face and the disciples.
As a result, I believe Mary sensed this could be the last time Jesus would be in her home, and what Jesus needed most that night was not a large meal but companionship, encouragement, support and love. So, she chose to seize this opportunity to stay close to him and to forgo helping Martha in the kitchen.
In other words, Mary chose that evening to feed her spirit by listening to Jesus and to nourish his spirit by expressing her loyalty to him. The last thing she wanted to do on this somber and solemn night was to be preoccupied with cooking and cleaning.
Looking back, how do you think Mary felt about her decision? Do you think she second guessed it in light of Martha’s criticism and disgust? I don’t, especially after hearing about Jesus’ arrest or perhaps watching the crucifixion alongside other women gathered at the foot of the cross.
How do you think Martha felt after hearing about Jesus’ death? I suspect she talked to Mary and assured her she no longer had hard feelings for what Mary did that night. Seeing or imagining Jesus on that cross so soon after his last visit opened her eyes and heart.
I dare say all of us would spend this week differently if we knew it would be the last days on earth for someone we dearly love. The things we planned to do would all of a sudden not be as important. They would be replaced by the desire to spend time with our loved one, expressing our deepest feelings for them and supporting them in their final hours.
Why did Jesus publicly rebuke Martha and tell her that Mary made the right decision that night in her home? Why didn’t he say, “Mary, it is ok. I’ll be fine. You go ahead and help your sister.”?
Certainly, he wanted to support Mary for “choosing what is better,” but I think there was another reason. Jesus wanted to teach Martha and the disciples how important it was for them to seize every opportunity to draw close to God by helping those facing stiff challenges.
I believe Jesus wanted the disciples to do as Mary did that evening when she trusted her heart and followed the nudging of the Spirit. He wanted them to be that discernable, flexible, daring and bold.
Why did Luke include this story in his account of the life and ministry of Jesus? After all, he is the only one who does.
There is no doubt Luke wanted to voice his approval of Jesus’ counter-culture views on foreigners and women. He, too, believed the kingdom of God was inclusive and fair.
I believe there was another reason Luke shared this story. Following Jesus’ example, he wanted to teach his readers the value of discernment and the importance of seizing every opportunity to draw close to God by supporting those facing intimidating challenges.
Like Mary that evening in her home when Jesus dropped by for a visit, Luke wanted the second and third generation of believers to listen to their hearts, to follow the nudging of the Spirit, to interrupt their plans, to set aside their agendas and to see into the heart of every person they encountered. He wanted them to live in the moment and be aware of where God was already at work and join him in those efforts.
Luke knew life is never about one thing. This is why he wanted to help his readers to ‘choose what is better,’ just as Mary and the Good Samaritan did.
Both of them responded spontaneously to where the Spirit led them even though this decision presented them with a new set of challenges. Evidently, the needs of those around them were more important than their agenda, schedule or others’ expectations of them.
I wish this level of discernment and flexibility was as easy as it sounds. To be candid with you, I have found decisions between two good choices to be more difficult to make than a choice between good and bad. Choices between two good options are agonizing for me. I always want to do both. Maybe you do, too.
How can we know what to do?
Do what Mary did. Listen to your heart. Ask the Holy Spirit to help you discern what you and others need in the moment. Identify which opportunity will soon pass and never come your way again. Be flexible enough to adjust your plans so you can, with God’s help, become an agent of comfort, support, grace and change.
I would add one more thing necessary for “choosing the better part” as Mary did. Identify and deal with the worries and distractions keeping you from making timely decisions. This was what Jesus advised Martha to do.
“Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
What worries, distractions, fears, pursuits, habits, expectations, traditions and temptations keep you from seeing what is most important? What stands between you and the many opportunities you have to grow closer to God and to be of service to others?
Perhaps the most important thing you can do this week is to identify and deal with these obstacles. I have to believe if you do, you will see more clearly the choices you need to make.
Some of you recall the 1989 movie, “Dead Poets Society,” starring Robin Williams as Professor Keating at a Vermont preparatory school for boys. Mr. Keating was not like other teachers at the aristocratic Welton Academy. His teaching methods were new and controversial for 1959.
On the first day of class, Mr. Keating ushered his students into the hall where they stood around the glass case containing the pictures of former classmates and professors, most of whom were dead. He made it appear as if the people in the pictures were talking when he repeatedly whispered, “Carpe Diem,” or “seize the day.”
“One day,” Mr. Keating said, “you, too, will be fodder for worms. Make your life count before that time comes!”
Listen as the Holy Spirit whispers “carpe diem” in your ear this week and seize your opportunity.