Getting the Priorities Right
One of the most misunderstood of all of Jesus’ parables is "The Parable of Good Samaritan" – we looked at it three weeks ago. Many folk assume that Jesus told that particular parable in order to teach us how to be good people. Christianity for them is all about being nice and kind – it is all about us doing our bit and we all like to imagine that we are capable of doing our bit quite well.
But that wasn’t Jesus’ point at all.
If it had been then Martha, in the little incident that Luke chose to record next, would stand out as the heroine whereas in fact she who busies herself in meeting the needs of others is the one who stands in need of Jesus’ gentle and loving reprimand.
No Jesus wanted to make it very clear that no one can meet the standards that God demands of his creation. The Good Samaritan shines the spotlight onto our failure to love our neighbour as ourselves. The incident in Martha’s home tells us that to simply dedicate ourselves to serving others is not the way forward either.
A Much Loved Family
This is the first time that we meet with Martha and her sister Mary but it won’t be the last. They had a brother too whose name was Lazarus and all three of them were special friends of the Lord Jesus. The apostle John tells us specifically that Jesus loved them all. It was a love that was obvious to others.
Although this is the first time this family group is mentioned it appears that the friendship had already begun.
Jesus and his disciples had travelled on together and arrived at the village where Martha and Mary lived. We know where they lived; they lived in a place called Bethany which was located not very far from Jerusalem.
We don’t know whether or not Jesus had sent word that he was about to arrive In Bethany with his disciples, but we do know that Martha was ready and willing to welcome him into her home.
The Sisters and their qualities
Whenever Martha is mentioned it is because she is active, taking the lead and taking the initiative. She is the one who actively welcomes Jesus and his followers to her home and gets on with the hospitality side of things.
We shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss this as mere activity, as something to be despised, being active is something which should generally gain our approval. However for the type of person Martha was there is always the danger that "activity" becomes the all important thing. The danger is a real one for plenty of folk in church life – it is possible simply to be too busy. It is possible to be content with that busy-ness even if it does mean that other more valuable things in life are over-looked or allowed to go by the board.
At the time this incident took place Jesus was nearing the end of his ministry. The climate of hostility had grown significantly. The influential party of the Pharisees had hardened in their opposition to him and had already taken steps to make life uncomfortable for his sympathizers threatening to put out of the synagogue any who publicly declared for Jesus (Jn.9:22) and in this they would even succeed in intimidating some of the Jewish authorities themselves (Jn.12:42).
Bethany was close to Jerusalem and it is likely that Jesus’ whereabouts would have been well-known. There was then danger associated with offering hospitality to this trouble-maker from Nazareth. But Martha had no hesitation in welcoming him to her home and providing for him and his followers.
It is not always easy to associate with Jesus. In many parts of the world today to take an open stand for him is still fraught with danger. To opt for the quiet life and to keep your head down can be very tempting. Martha didn’t chose to hide but opened her home to the Lord Jesus.
Are we prepared to do anything similar in our day?
Of course the reason why she was so ready to do this was because she was a believer. It wouldn’t be long before Lazarus her brother would lie dead in the tomb struck down by a sudden sickness. Word would have been sent to Jesus pleading for help and then there would intervene that inexplicable delay while Jesus deliberately stayed away. Yet when he did show up with Lazarus having died Martha goes out to greet him still full of love for him and confidence in him even though failing to understand his purposes. Even before the miracle is performed and her brother is called out alive from the tomb at Jesus’ command she would declare:
"Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world." Jn.11:27
Concerned to serve Jesus well
And as a believer Martha wanted to serve Jesus well. Don’t we want to approve of her in her efforts to do the very best for the Lord and his followers as she welcomes them into her home.
Don’t we want to sympathize with her as she struggles on in the kitchen on her own – after all the culture of the day prized hospitality, how could she have done otherwise?
And yet, and yet...
Martha was wrong – we’ll come to Jesus’ rebuke shortly, but for the moment we must take on board the fact that she was wrong. Doing something good, but getting it wrong.
I wonder does that speak to any of us this morning? I wonder if some of us might be in danger of allowing what is good be the enemy of what is best? If we are then Mary’s example provides a helpful correction. So let’s turn for a moment to consider the very different Mary.
She too is a believer
At the time of Lazarus’ death she too would react in a similar way to her sister Martha. We don’t read of any similarly clear declaration of faith but we do find her humbly falling at his feet and expressing her confidence in his authority.
With Jesus in her home Mary demonstrates her grasp of the situation and makes a wise choice. Instead of fussing with the preparation of a complicated meal she quietly and humbly sits at his feet that she might pay attention to his teaching as he preaches in the home.
It is quite possible that before Jesus arrived Mary was involved in all the preparations for the meal. (Martha complains at having been "left" to serve alone perhaps implying that Mary had earlier been involved in helping her.) But now with the Master in the home all Mary wants to do is to listen to what he has to say. This was her way of serving Jesus and it was more acceptable to him than the path that Martha had chosen.
If you are a Christian I wonder which of these two sisters you are most like. A Christian must serve his/her Lord – Martha’s way sincere though it was kept her from Jesus while Mary’s on the other hand brought her directly and calmly into his presence.
The time has come to investigate a little further just how Martha managed to get things wrong. I hope you’ll appreciate by now that she was genuine in her endeavours – she wanted to serve the Lord who had become so special to her and she wasn’t out to oppose him in any way. And yet she still made her mistakes. We want to learn from this so that we might not repeat her mistakes in our own lives.
Basically Martha got her priorities in a twist and in doing so allowed the values of this world to creep in.
As we read the description we find hints at just what the problem was. Martha became distracted with "much serving". In this state she became more and more anxious and more and more troubled.
She had wanted to put on such a spread but it was all becoming too much for her. She wasn’t able to benefit from Jesus’ presence in her home, she couldn’t stop to listen to what he had to say all she could think about were her own preparations. To make matters worse Mary wasn’t being a bit of use and had gone to sit and listen to Jesus.
You can easily imagine the scene can’t you? Martha is distracted and becoming more and more frustrated by the minute. Finally, she’s had enough and she storms in and speaks words that she’ll probably soon regret.
She’d got her priorities all wrong and now ends up criticising Mary in front of everyone as she makes Mary’s behaviour the subject matter of her question to Jesus.
"Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me."
Mary was honouring the guest of honour, sitting at his feet and listening attentively to him as he taught. Martha ought to have commended her but her own plans were being thwarted and so all she could think of doing was to moan and complain and criticise.
Of course her question does more than criticise Mary, her question implies criticism of her honoured guest too!
How often men and women act just like Martha! We set our own agenda; we do what we like to think is best and then when God fails to dance to our tune we turn and criticise.
I don’t think Martha to be the only one who has ever said to Jesus:
"Don’t you care?"
An accident occurs. An illness isn’t cured. A natural disaster isn’t averted. A child dies. And it’s suddenly God’s fault!
"Don’t you care?"
How could anyone say that to Jesus? He had come from heaven because he cared. The Father had sent him because he cared. And there he was teaching and preaching the truth of God in her home because he cared for those who were there and Martha has the gall to question him, him!
"Don’t you care?"
My friend are you ever in danger of imitating Martha? Too busy trying to serve Jesus in your way to spend time quietly listening to him and honouring him in his way?
A Loving Reprimand
How tenderly Jesus deals with Martha who has got herself so wound up.
He gently calls. He still loves her and her outburst won’t change that, her mistakes and her wrong set of priorities won’t stop him loving her. And neither will your mistakes and failures stop him loving you – he knows your name just as well as he knew Martha’s.
But his love is a strong love and he will rebuke and discipline his own when they need it. Jesus doesn’t try to gloss over the untimely, critical outburst – Martha was wrong. He doesn’t try to smooth ruffled feathers by pretending that everything is alright, he loved her enough to tell her she was wrong.
Jesus’ words to her are found in vv.41-42:
"But the Lord answered her, "Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.""
There was nothing wrong about preparing a meal to offer to guests but when that meal took on too great a significance that it led to Martha getting everything out of proportion there was a problem. Martha had wanted to provide something super special but in doing so had allowed that to dominate everything that day. Mary on the other hand had been ready to leave the food and drink in what the Lord had to teach and that, in Jesus’ estimation, was "the good portion".
Jesus’ gentle but firm correction of Martha didn’t crush her or drive her away but served its purpose in making her a better Christian. May we too respond in similarly positive ways when the Lord deems it necessary to rebuke and correct us.
Well, time has passed and it is time to conclude.
Believers can and do make mistakes. They can get their priorities all mixed up and focus on the wrong thing entirely at times. They can also allow a good thing to become unhelpful by according it a place and a prominence that is inappropriate. Yet there is forgiveness and restoration because our God is gracious and kind and the Saviour is wonderfully tender with his people.
True religion is not to be reduced to simply doing things for others however important that other person might be. True religion also involves sitting as a humble receiver of all that God has to offer us in Jesus Christ his Son.
There are two tables of the Law and both are important in the life of the believer: the believer is to love God wholeheartedly and to love his neighbour too.
Both the tables of the law serve to show us how far short of God’s standards we have fallen. When we recognise that we are ready to call out for God’s gracious forgiveness which is offered to us freely in Jesus and in Jesus alone. Once we’ve been forgiven and reconciled then the law goes on showing us how God wants us to live as his forgiven children.
May God make us all his children and may he help us to get our priorities right so that we may honour and glorify him and not be succumb to the pressures of this world and its values which longs to squeeze us out of Christ’s mould and into its own.