The Trouble with Mary and Martha


This account is well known. Just say, "Mary and Martha" and most Christians know the story you're talking about. The trouble with Mary and Martha" is that we don't know the story rightly.

Most people think it a rather sweet, almost funny story. The trouble is that Martha's sin isn't wretched enough to us. Even if people can see themselves as Martha's, they don't care. What's the big deal? Perhaps if Martha was shown to be a liar, a thief, an adulterer, or a murderer we'd take her sin seriously. But what is she shown to be? A worrier. No, that's all you think she is. She's also an idolater, blasphemer, and despiser of the Word of God.

Martha is shown to have another God. Our text says the Lord is in her home, and that Martha even calls Him Lord. How many times does Scripture say the Lord came to someone's house? There's Peter, Simon the Pharisee, Matthew, Zacchaeus, and 3 times He visits Martha and Mary. Wherever and whenever your Lord wishes to speak to you, you should make it a priority to listen, but I'm getting ahead of myself.

The Lord purposely comes to Martha's home, "But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made." She was distracted from the Lord by all the necessary preparations. Martha has a god alright and it's not Jesus. It's all those necessary preparations. It's the vegetables that need peeling, the table that needs setting, the baking bread, the simmering stew, the water, the wine, the dishes and more.

You have a god too. It's whatever is at the top of the list when the question, "What's important to me?" pops into your head. Leaving aside whether it's the true God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost at the top, is God at the top at all? Or is your spouse, your child, your job, yourself? Is it your health, what you have to get done, that problem at work, at home? Whatever is at the top of the list, there's your god. That's what you worship, serve, and bow before. And hey it could be a good thing. Martha's god, all the preparations that had to be made to serve her Lord, weren't evil things, but still they were terrible gods.

Her Lord had come into her home, but He came in second place behind the gods of duty and service. He had come to speak to her, but she didn't have time to listen. Note well: This isn't a Divine Service. This isn't Jesus preaching a sermon. This is Jesus teaching outside the Divine Service; this is Bible class. But Martha doesn't attend. She has other things to do that are more important.

O the wretchedness of this woman; how horrible her sin; how terrible her judgment. It would be better for her if she were a murderer, a prostitute, a thief, or a liar, but you don't think so. No, to you the "big" sins are commandments 4 through 10. Those are the ones you had better not get caught doing. Those are the ones that God gets real mad at. How silly. Just because the world around you thinks they're the worse sins, you do. Wrong the most serious sins are against the first 3 commandments. That's why they're first. The most serious of all is not hearing the Word or hearing it negligently. Why? Because when you don't listen to God's Word you sin against the cure. Apart from the Word the Lord speaks to Martha, how can she be rescued from enslavement to her false gods? How can you be?

Martha is on the top 10 list of New Testament sinners right up there with Paul, Peter, and Judas. She is an idolater and despiser of the Word. She is also a blasphemer. As Mary sits there passively listening to God's Word, Martha is busy. She is zooming in, out, and by the place where Mary sits at Jesus' feet. Now if you don't have daughters, you might not know the code. When they're upset at each other and trying to get you to intervene, they place dishes down distinctly. It starts gentle enough, but if they don't get the change of behavior or attention they want, bang, boom, klunk, and slam.

Well, Jesus doesn't know the code, so He goes on teaching. So Martha gets fed up and comes right up to Him. She tells the Lord that He should tell Mary to help her. This is misusing the name of the Lord. He gives us His name to pray, praise, and give thanks. Martha uses it to pray, but it is a serious sin to tell the Lord what He should do. How quickly we become angry when a child does that to us. How much more the Lord when we do it to Him?

Yet, did you catch the flicker of the Gospel in Martha's words? You might not because of the translation. It says, "She came to Him and asked, Lord don't you care that my sister has left me etc..?" First, the Greek doesn't say Martha asked anything. It says, "She said." Second, the statement in Greek expects a yes' response. Martha said to Jesus, "Lord surely You do care that my sister has left me." She doesn't view Her Lord as an ogre, but as One who really cares about her. She doesn't yet see how very much, nor do we.

That's the trouble with Mary and Martha,' not only don't we see Martha's sin as wretched enough, we don't see the Gospel that draws and keeps Mary as sweet enough. Not only don't we care if we're Martha's, we don't see the joy and relief of being Mary's.

The contrast that runs throughout this account is between one and many, between the one Lord Jesus and the many distracting things, between being upset about many things and the one thing needful. This distinction is particularly apropos to modern life. We're in a hurry to get things done rushing and rushing till life's no fun. We're running on empty running behind. There really are too many things to do. The gadgets that were suppose to make life easier have sped it up. Life is like those Visa check card commercials. We are cogs in wheels able to buy faster and therefore eat faster, work faster, think more, worry more.

Mary hears the divine, "Stop!" when Jesus arrives. She puts everything down, everything is second place to Jesus. Compared to Jesus all the things demanding our worry are not needed. Modern life calls you to be worried about so many things. By sitting at the feet of Jesus, Mary grabs hold of the Gospel truth that worrying, working, planning, or speeding can't make your life one minute longer, sweeter, or richer. We are free to ignore the threats of worry. "If you don't do this, you're in trouble." "You had better do this or else." "Do that, that and that, now or this, this, and this will happen to you." Man lives by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God not by worry.

Jesus plainly says "only one thing is needed." This is not the Gospel of the modern church. The Gospel of the modern church is if you plan your best, try you best, then you can rest in Jesus. "Yes, yes," the modern churchman says, "Only one thing is needed for salvation, but everyday life is different." You can rest in the Gospel of the modern church only in your grave not in your daily life, but friend I need rest now, don't you?

And that's where Jesus gives it here and now. "Only one thing is needed" says Jesus, and "I'm here for you now." He who never had another god, never despised the Word of God, never misused the Name of God, and never worried once, bore Martha's sins against the first 3 commandments and yours too. Though Jesus was holy; He was punished for Martha's idolatry, my blaspheming, and your despising of the Word. Such sins deserve punishment without mercy, and that's what Jesus suffered in our place. Such sins deserve shame, pain, and eternal torment, and Jesus bore them all on the cross till He could say, "It is finished." And when Jesus finishes a thing you can be sure it's really done.

"Only one thing is needed," says Jesus, and, "It will never be taken away from you." Jesus, His forgiveness, life, salvation is all that you need, and He will never be taken from you. His Baptism doesn't wear off like some stamp from a park. His Absolution doesn't stop declaring you holy but echoes into eternity for it's an eternal Word. Jesus Body that you eat and His Blood that you drink can never be taken away from you. They course through your body changing you, reclaiming you for everlasting life.

"But, but, but," can be your only response if you've been paying attention. The sins I've spoken about today are besetting ones. Worry, idolatry, blasphemy, and despising the Word are woven into our very beings. That's because they were there in Eden. The world thinks that some sexual sin was at the root of the Fall because of the fig leaves. No, the first 3 commandments are the root. The fig leaves point to the most popular way breaking the first 3 Commandments is manifested in life.

So we're to that Lady Macbeth moment. Washing, scrubbing, scraping but still the stain of sinfulness is there, but Jesus doesn't turn away from us. After Martha's idolatry and despising of the Word rises to the height of blaspheme and she tells Jesus what He should do, Jesus doesn't turn away in disgust but answers in love and pity. "Martha, Martha," Jesus says telling her she can forget the many things that trouble her and cling to the one thing she really needs that will never be taken from her. Whatever your worry, distraction, or problem. Whatever is jumping up and down on your heart saying, "You must pay attention to me. You must give me my due," you can forget it. Jesus promises to be and have all that you need for this life and the next.

I'm still not sure if you've seen the extreme Gospel here for Martha and all truly sinful, wretched worriers. Jesus promises that the Gospel will never be taken from Mary that means the many distractions, the many things, the worry and the upsetness will be taken from us one day. Though our sins seem to be us and us our sins, though our worry seems to be who we are, it's not that way to God in Christ. By the sharp, double-edged sword of His Word He can do what we can't. He can separate our sins and sinfulness from us. He sees us so separated right now in the Water, Words, Bread, and Wine. We are to see ourselves that way through His eyes. Here is where the trouble with Mary and Martha ends. Amen

Rev. Paul R. Harris

Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas

Pentecost IX (20070729); Luke 10: 38-42