The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
July 17, 2016
Some people get pretty riled up about this little Gospel story. They think it unfairly puts Martha in a bad light, and they jump to her defense. Where, they ask, would the world be if everyone was like Mary, engaging in deep reflection but never getting around to doing anything practical? We need, they contend, the active, hard-working Martha’s of this world!
They are of course right, but they are wrong to think the point of this story is to suggest that contemplation is superior to action. The point is not which should be emphasized more, for that changes from person to person and, with the same person, from time to time. The issue is which comes first and shapes the other. Thus, the point is that, while what we do is the ultimate test of our faithfulness, we have to listen to God so as to find out what we should do.
Considering context is crucial to understanding any Gospel story. That is certainly the case here. Jesus, the previous chapter tells us, had just “set His face to go to Jerusalem” and to go there to die. That means His time to instruct His followers was running short.
The two sisters, Martha and Mary, had a long and close relationship with Jesus. When then He dropped in on them, it was only natural that Martha, who loved Him dearly, would want to provide Him the best hospitality of which she was capable. So she scrambled to throw together a meal worthy of Him.
But was she doing Him a favor? Had she asked Him what He wanted? At that moment, I’ve got to think, Jesus would have preferred a very simple meal, so that Martha could join Mary at His feet and just listen to Him one last time.
The unique context created a unique set of priorities. Because it might well have been Jesus’ final chance to speak with the two sisters at any length, Martha’s insisting on being kind to Jesus in the way of her own choosing made her, for all her good intentions, less than kind to Jesus. Though her actions were well meant and generously given, they were depriving Jesus of having the one thing He most wanted: her undivided attention.
Furthermore, it’s not just that Martha was distracted by secondary concerns, but that she was so sure she knew how to serve Jesus that she presumed to instruct her Instructor. You may have noticed her passive-aggressive expression of resentment against her sister, but did you also notice her resentful criticism of Jesus for not telling Mary to get up and help her?
Martha was acting as if she needed to set her Teacher straight. Taking charge of the situation, she was pushing her agenda ahead of His.
Martha was a good person who loved Jesus. But even good intentions, virtues and talents need to be governed by the Lord, and we need to beware of serving Jesus in the ways to which we default without first asking Him how He’d like us to serve. Martha’s failure to do that was preventing Jesus from fulfilling His priority purpose. For Jesus, that evening, there was “need of only one thing”: listening to Him. That’s why He said Mary had “chosen the better part”.
To listen well to someone always takes more than a quick pause in the rush of life. It takes time to grow quiet and receptive enough to hear, and then it takes time and focused reflection to digest what’s heard.
At one time Pastor Chuck Swindoll was so caught up in the rush of life and ministry that at home he was snapping at his wife and children, and responding with irritation at unexpected interruptions from them.
One evening his youngest daughter, Colleen, said she wanted to tell him about something important that had happened to her at school that day. She hurriedly began, “Daddy-I-want-to-tell-you-about-something-and-I’ll-tell-you-really-fast.” Sensing her frustration, Chuck interjected, “Honey, you don’t have to tell me really fast. Say it slowly.” She replied with a doubting tone of voice, “Okay, Daddy, but will you listen slowly?”
To hear from God, either directly or through others, we have to listen slowly, and linger long in the listening. Otherwise, the roar of our racing mental motor will drown out every other sound, including God’s voice.
Listening of course is not always better than acting. Sometimes attending to a practical matter is the “one needful thing”. (Suppose Jesus had not eaten for days.) But for Jesus at this unique time the one needful thing was that His friends concentrate on His message and just take it in.
As well-meaning as Martha was, and as valuable her service, she got off base with her attitude. You can see it in her condemnation of Mary and her dissatisfaction with Jesus for giving her sister a pass on the chores.
Martha was so sure of her default priorities that she presumed they were God’s priorities. She made the mistake we sometimes do: seeking to have Jesus bless what she’s doing before she’s heard from Him whether she’s doing what He wants to bless. She forgot, as we do, to make it her top priority to learn the Lord’s priorities, so as to align all her asking and doing with them.
Letting God set the agenda liberates Him to do all the good in us and through us He seeks.
This has application both to our personal lives and to our life together as a family of faith. In our friendships and marriages, our work and volunteer service, our self-care and support of others, our evangelism and discipleship, our honoring police officers and advancing the war against prejudice and double standards, are we only asking the Lord to bless what we were already going to do, or asking Him whether we are doing what He wants in the first place? Are we attempting to impose our agenda, or follow His?
If we only listen to God, and never put into action what we hear, our faith is – as James 2 says – dead. But if we act without listening, we’ve taken over the Lord’s job of calling all the shots, and we end up acting in disobedience, despite our good intentions.
To liberate God in our lives, we have to listen to Him and follow His lead about what to do and how to do it, as best we can discern it. Even if we don’t hear Him exactly right, such faithfulness in listening frees God to do something miraculous – as He did for Erik Wihenmayer.
Erik is blind. Yet, he climbed Mt. Everest, a peak that defeats 90% of those who attempt to reach its summit. How did He do that? He listened.
He listened to the little bell tied to the back of the climber in front of him – and would turn in the direction it signaled. He listened to teammates who would shout back, “Death fall two feet to your right!” – and would turn away from danger. He listened to the sound of his pick stabbing the ice in front of Him – and would place his feet carefully in light of what he heard.
Let us listen to God like that and achieve something marvelous like that. The Lord has promised to speak to us and guide us. All we have to do is give enough time and attention to the listening. Let us pray.