Luke provides a historical narrative of the time Jesus was the guest in the home of two sisters. The lives of these two sisters are juxtaposed against one another in such a way as so as to lead the hearers to seek first the kingdom of God… by seeking rest in Jesus above all the immediate… and temporal… demands of each and every single day.
This is a short five verse historical narrative, meaning this story actually happened in history. And it is a story that only Luke records for us among the four Gospel biographies.
This passage is also an objection passage, meaning it features a depiction of someone rejecting Jesus’ teachings – or his actions.
It’s Luke chapter 10, verses 38-42, which reads as follows:
“As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”
“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
Now, look at what appears immediately before this account. You’ll notice that Luke places this historical narrative of Jesus’ visit at Mary and Martha’s house right after the famous “Good Samaritan Parable,” another passage given to us only by Luke. You’ll likely recall that in the “Good Samaritan Parable,” Jesus teaches that we should do good works in service to our neighbors – and that our neighbor is in fact anyone who is in need – and that we are called to serve even when our service could be detrimental to our own physical well-being. So the objection that Martha raises shouldn’t seem too startling if we had simply been reading straight through Luke’s Gospel, landing on this narrative immediately after reading the “Good Samaritan Parable.” It appears as if Jesus is condoning the actions of Mary who is not serving and caring for her guests – not helping her sister. It appears as if Martha’s objection to Jesus is valid… why isn’t Mary helping her sister serve their special guests? But Jesus doesn’t rebuke and chastise Mary as Martha was expecting him to do… and why is that?
Trouble in the Text:
Let’s look at the text again and consider this in more detail – to see what the real trouble is in this text.
Jesus says, “One thing is necessary,” and indicates that Mary has chosen it – the “good portion.” But doesn’t it seem that what Martha was doing was good and in fact it would appear to be necessary. Jesus and his disciples just entered her village and they needed a place to rest…. and she invited them into her house. They were likely hungry and needed something to eat. I’m sure their sleeping arrangements would have had to be made somewhere in the village if not at Mary and Martha’s house.
It seems that Martha has a point! Someone needs to cook. Someone needs to get a seat for everyone. Someone needs to clean everyone’s feet. Someone needs to get everyone some water from their travels. Someone needs to find a place for the guests to put their luggage – or to rest and feed their animals. So if Martha didn’t do these things, when would they have been done? Would they have been done at all, since Mary clearly had no movement towards helping her?
Should Martha have tested Jesus and put him in a position of snapping his miracle making fingers when it was time for such acts of service to necessarily be completed… so everyone… including Martha… could just chill and not do any of the hosting work – that is apparently not necessary?
I don’t think Jesus ever snapped his fingers for a miracle to happen, but I think you get my point. He’s the God-Man and he doesn’t need to be served by Martha at all. She needs to be served by him.
What I’m pointing out here in this text is that what Martha did – serving Jesus and her other guests – wasn’t a bad thing to do. As the host, she was fulfilling her calling – her vocation.
Martin Luther had a deep, worked out theology on vocations. Here is a quote that is often attributed to him concerning our work:
“What you do in your house is worth as much as if you did it up in heaven for our Lord God…”
According to Luther’s way of thinking, you might think that Martha was really outdoing everyone with her work. She wasn’t simply doing work in her house that would be worth as much as if she were doing it up in heaven for our Lord, she really was doing work in her house – for the Lord – who was literally in her house!
Luther’s quote continues though:
“We should accustom ourselves to think of our position and work as sacred and well-pleasing to God, not on account of the position and work, but on account of the word and faith from which the obedience and the work flow.”
Here lies Martha’s trouble in choosing to do this good thing for Jesus. Such service needs to flow from the Word of God and faith in the Word of God. From this faith the work is to flow. The text says that she was distracted from the serving. What was she distracted from? Jesus! She was distracted from resting with Jesus by her serving. And Jesus, being Jesus, knows her heart. When she chastises him to spur him on to get her sister to work too – he knows that she is asking this because she is anxious and worried. Here we see that even making a meal – even making a meal for Jesus – can be a life or death matter, if the work doesn’t flow from faith and if it keeps us from rest in Jesus.
Grace in the Text:
So where is the grace in this text? God’s grace is in the rebuke Jesus gave to Martha. It’s not often that we might consider a rebuke as containing God’s grace, but here you have to hear the heart position Jesus has towards Martha when he says these words.
Listen to this rebuke again and picture an empathetic Jesus:
“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.”
Did you hear the gentleness in Jesus’ voice? Did you hear the concern he had for Martha’s well-being?
Jesus directly addresses Martha by name – twice! This is a sign of his gentleness to her.
This should not be understood of as a harsh critique. He does have compassion on her… she after all is working hard in service for him and others. He is her guest. She has opened her home to him. And you can tell that Jesus sees her suffering. He puts the words anxious and troubled to her work. Even though her work is a good choice – it’s a good thing for her to be serving her guests, these important visitors to her village… but as a result of her heart position behind her work – one of anxiety, trouble, and even resentment against Mary for not helping and its seems against Jesus too for not correcting Mary – Martha is missing out on what Jesus has to offer her. This is far from a “get behind me Satan,” response that the Apostle Peter got when he had the gall to rebuke Jesus. No… this is an invitation from Jesus to Martha to partake in the good portion with her sister Mary.
And what is this good portion? In our text, when Jesus says, “One thing is necessary,” it might be better for us to understand it as Jesus saying, “There is need of one thing.” That one thing we need is Jesus. Jesus is the best portion of anything a person might have in this world.
Martha is making a meal, of which I’m sure she will have a portion, but Jesus is letting her know that Mary has chosen the better portion… him! And with his compassion and expressed understanding of her trouble, Jesus is welcoming her into the rest that Mary has received sitting at his feet that Martha has missed.
This image of the Lord being the good portion is not a concept that is new in Jesus’ words to Martha. To get a better grasp of Scripture’s explanation of the Lord being our portion, I’m going to read Psalm 16 to you. It’s on page 546 of your pew Bible.
Keep me safe, my God,
for in you I take refuge.
I say to the Lord, “You are my Lord;
apart from you I have no good thing.”
I say of the holy people who are in the land,
“They are the noble ones in whom is all my delight.”
Those who run after other gods will suffer more and more.
I will not pour out libations of blood to such gods
or take up their names on my lips.
Lord, you alone are my portion and my cup;
you make my lot secure.
The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
surely I have a delightful inheritance.
I will praise the Lord, who counsels me,
even at night my heart instructs me.
I keep my eyes always on the Lord.
With him at my right hand, I will not be shaken.
Therefore, my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices;
my body also will rest secure,
because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead,
nor will you let your faithful one see decay.
You make known to me the path of life;
you will fill me with joy in your presence,
with eternal pleasures at your right hand.
In this Psalm, David calls the Lord his ONLY portion and his cup. In the full context of this psalm, we see that this brings David security, gladness, and rest.
David says that apart from God he has no good thing, which indicates that every good thing he does have comes from the Lord!
This psalm features the juxtaposition between the person who seeks after other gods for refuge and himself as he seeks after the one true God. Those who seek after other gods will suffer more and more, and the counsel from these false gods will lead those who listen to them and walk with them to ruin and decay. Whereas, the counsel that comes from the Lord leads to life, a life that is even beyond the grave!
This rescue even from the grave is one that Martha will later experience firsthand through her brother Lazarus. The Mary and Martha in Luke’s Gospel are the same sisters found in John chapter 11. In John’s Gospel, their brother Lazarus has died, but they had sent for Jesus to heal him before his death. Jesus waited to go to them and he arrived after Lazarus had been in the grave for four days. And in that text, we hear Martha’s confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God who has come into the world. She says that with his words he can do anything. And Jesus raises Martha’s brother back to life. He raises him even though he’s been dead for four days with his body reeking from decay.
Martha knew there was a resurrection of all the dead to come at the end of days, but she had no anticipation of experiencing a foretaste of this victory from the dead in her lifetime – through her brother’s death and resuscitation.
And Lazarus’ resuscitation was the foretaste of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead that was to come. David was right! God will not abandon his people to the realm of the dead. He will not leave his people to decay.
Through David’s words in Psalm 16 and through the lives of Mary and Martha, it becomes clear that the safety and security and rest that comes from God comes from connection to the presence and counsel of the Lord. This is what Mary had from Jesus as she sat at his feet listening to his teachings – she had his presence and she had his counsel. She was not stressed like Martha who was missing both Jesus’ presence and counsel, though she was working and striving to serve him.
From John’s account of Martha’s interaction with Jesus, we see that she took his invitation to heart. She is trusting in him to have the power over life and death – first to save Lazarus from death and later to raise Lazarus from death to life. She has learned what Jesus meant when he said that there is one thing of need – it is him! Jesus is the best portion of anything a person might have in this world. A person might have a meal to support physical life, but no matter how many meals a person eats, another is always needed. All such sustenance of this world will abandon us to the grave and to decay.
But Jesus is the “good portion” that will never be taken from us and he will not abandon us to the grave.
Trouble in the World:
In our day and age, the same temptation and struggle that weighed down on Martha presses against us too. We have more things to do than what can be done in the hours of the day. And all these important and even necessary things to get done vie against our time with Jesus and our rest in him.
This means that we need to have proper prioritization of our God-given vocations, which are really callings from God. They are not just jobs that bring in a paycheck. They are all the relational as well as job duties that God has called each and every one of us into. In all of these callings, the calling that Jesus gives us to abide in him and rest in him must be our first calling. His presence is with us when we hear his Word… and when we are in fellowship with other believers centered on that Word… and when we walk in the waters of baptism in which we are buried and raised with Christ daily, as we turn from our sins and turn to Christ… and when we partake in the communal reception of his body and blood at the Lord’s Supper, in which we not only hear – but also taste the forgiveness of sins. This invitation, this call to receive Jesus as the best portion above all things in this world… is above all other callings.
But this world presses in on us and distracts us from Jesus and his presence in our lives. It might be easy to picture tragedies such as cancer, death, fires, natural disasters, divorce, loss of jobs, and such as the thorns that choke out the light of Christ, but these daily troubles and woes can be of the variety that Martha had and we all have when we are pressured to put other relational vocations above our calling to be in Christ so that we have no time in Christ’s presence at all.
We have many more distractions in the 21st century than the disciples from centuries before. The many luxuries we have from technological advancement has only increased the number of hours that we work, because we are no longer limited to a small geographic work area or the hours of daylight of the sun. Much of our work (well for many of us) is not as physically demanding as that of previous centuries, so our hours of work can increase too, which certainly takes a toll on our minds, emotions, and spirits, if not our bodies. Our standard of living in America is very high… I imagine that most of us eat better than the kings from thousands of years ago… probably even better than the ones from centuries ago. So our focus can easily fall to maintaining that high standard of living. We can easily start to spin our wheels on material items that are solely of this temporal life. I believe this is one reason why Jesus said it is very hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven.
In many families with children, both parents have full-time jobs, which means time with their kids is more limited due to household chores that must be met, such as laundry, grocery shopping, cleaning, and cooking. As soon as the parents are off work, that work must start. Their time with their kids and each other is more limited. I’ve seen that for Millennials, though many have called this generation lazy and entitled, are people who have two to three part-time jobs or who have what they call a “side hustle” to make more income… and as a result of these factors our relationships and the vocational duties necessary within these relationships can easily take precedent over the one necessary relationship – which is with Jesus, our good portion.
For many kids in school today, the work load has increased drastically from how it was a couple of decades ago. The curriculum in most schools keep expanding and the credential process for schools has become more extensive so more work is given to verify that the students are learning what they are supposed to learn. Kids are now expected to have many extracurricular activities to stand out in college applications – many of which end up occurring on Sundays. In addition to this, to keep up with the financial status of their peers, some teens are working part-time jobs to get the latest phone or the new pair of Jordans.
In all the hustle and bustle… we are like Martha, anxious and troubled and working towards good things in many instances but have missed the good portion of the Lord in our work, and often times we end up missing the loved ones in our lives.
Even within the church, serving Jesus is sometimes presented as being more important than being served by Jesus. This concept misunderstands the righteousness we have before God. It makes our work and service to Jesus (and others) as the assurance of our justification – it leads to anxiety and being troubled.
I was a part of a church that had no paid staff – no one was a full-time minister, or pastor, for the congregation. This meant that many volunteers were required for the congregational services and Sunday school classes and for community fellowship activities and studies. The congregation had a separate program time for kids during the only Sunday service available. My wife and I were constantly being pressured into teaching and running this program during the service. Yet… for us, we really needed to be in the service time to hear God’s Word preached.
This is while we were living in China, and this was the only English speaking congregation in a city of 7 million people. We had no other options. It was a lot of effort for us to even get to church during winter… because it was a 30-minute electric bike ride one way. Try rain with wind a few degrees above freezing on a bike… it’s not fun. Or during the summer, we had to endure scorching heat to get there. We were often hot and sweaty by time we got to church.
We were very hesitant of helping with this kids’ program during the service, but we agreed to do so once a month. When we wanted to back out of this program, we were made to feel guilty about this decision and we were told that such service should be viewed as our sacrificial service to God. Yet we wanted to be in the church service… for purposes of being refreshed by God’s Word and to have time to just sit with God and other believers. Getting to the church was work… so we didn’t really want to work to get to church to work… we were wanting to go there to be with Jesus. Essentially, some people in the church were being Martha to us and wanting us to work for Christ instead of rest in Christ during the time when we really needed to just rest in Christ.
I know of another congregation that I attended regularly for a few years. It was a church body that was growing numerically by leaps and bounds, sometimes by 50-100 people a week. They kept blowing out the size of their venues and had to find new ones or create new services, or create “satellite” locations that would receive the messages via some sort of live stream setup. What they found was that numerous people were regularly attending the church as a side church, not their church of membership that they donated money to. They noticed that many people would go to their church services that were not a member of one of their weekly small groups or they did not participate in any of their community service projects or mission abroad trips. They saw that these people were taking up seats from people that in their mind should have the seat instead. They then started to give announcement that these seats came with a sacrifice, that unless you were giving financially to the church, or taking part in one of their mid-week small groups, you weren’t welcome to a seat – because you didn’t earn the seat. The seats required a sacrifice – I kid you not. That was actually said. You may not believe it from what I just said, but many of the people going to this church as a second service on the weekend were there because the teaching and preaching was so good! They saw the church was a moment to be Mary – to sit at the feet of Jesus and hear his Word. It was also easier to just sit there and be Mary I’m sure, when they didn’t have the membership and expectations as with this church as they did in their home congregation. The leaders of the church were being Martha, chastising the people who weren’t serving the way they thought was “necessary.”
Grace in the World:
I hope you don’t feel like you are being Martha’ed here at this church, but if you do, please talk to me or an elder about this. We’ll together seek to find the right balance of work and rest within our church activities… and that might… depending on your situation… end up with you being Mary all the way… with no work – just rest when you enter those doors of our church building.
And I can offer you that grace… and not be stressed about losing an usher, or church greeter, or Sunday school teacher, or an elder or congregational president when I say step down from your position if it is keeping you from Jesus, just come and rest with him… because Jesus taught the necessity of his presence and saving work in the lives of his disciples for eternal life, again and again, and again. He emphasized his work for us over and above our work for him. And I trust that if a person leaves a position, God will raise up another to fill that church vocation if it is necessary.
Jesus says don’t be worried or anxious about tomorrow. Don’t worry about what you’re going to wear, or what you’re going to eat, or where you’re going to sleep. Doesn’t God provide for the birds and the grass —- and how much more important and loved by God are you than birds and grass?
Jesus says that his yoke is easy and his burden is light. He invites you to come to him – everyone who is heavy-burdened and that he will give you rest for your soul.
Jesus says I come not to be served, but to serve.
Jesus washes his disciples’ feet… not the other way around.
Jesus says abide in me, and you will bear fruit. It’s a promise! Abide in him, and you will bear fruit. This goes back to the Luther quote I previously shared.
“We should accustom ourselves to think of our position and work as sacred and well-pleasing to God, not on account of the position and work, but on account of the word and faith from which the obedience and the work flow.”
Our good works should just flow from the faith that we have in Jesus. When there is resentment, anxiety, and unnecessary stress present in our work – stop and ask… where is Jesus right now? You are almost 100% likely to have been distracted from Jesus in these moments of labor. It’s time to take a moment and refocus on Jesus and remember…
Jesus is the best portion of anything you have in this world, because it is in Jesus and Jesus alone that you will have eternal life. It is in Jesus and Jesus alone that your works can have eternal merit. It is in Jesus and Jesus alone that your labors may be holy.
And knowing this… it’s imperative for us to find rest in Jesus daily. We know that Jesus comes to us in his Word. So daily, we need to find time to be in his Word, preferably throughout the day we will remain his Word. I don’t have the struggle so much, because my day to day job brings me to God’s Word… still I could get caught up spending this time only as a means to getting my assigned church duties check marked, so I have to beware. And I hope you don’t feel this invitation stop some of your vocational labors to be in God’s Word as an obligation that must be met for pleasing Jesus. No. This is for you. Remember Jesus is the best portion of anything the world has to offer.
If you are not already resting with Jesus in his Word daily… it can be hard to conceive of how to even begin to put this into practice. Putting aside earthly demands that seem all together necessary to be met for the day at hand can seem impossible. If someone already doesn’t have time to watch TV due to their family and work demands, it can be hard to find what must be cut out of the schedule for simply resting in God’s Word and for quiet contemplative prayer.
A conversation I had in my last year of high school teaching before going to the seminary has helped me understand this conflict and it has forever changed the way I look at each day’s work. I was running copies at the printer… and it wasn’t even jamming… but my principal stopped by me and just started preaching. He said, “You know there is more than we can ever possibly do in a single day. We can work every hour of the day and not get everything done that we need to get done. So just don’t worry about doing it all. Just stop when you need to stop. It’s OK. You can’t do it all anyways. It will be there for you tomorrow.” I took that as my boss giving me permission to not respond to every email the day they come in – if it was going to take away from being with my family, if it was going to take away from being with Jesus.
Knowing that Jesus is the best portion of anything we can have in this world is a good start to having the right motivation to do this. Just stop doing what you’re doing when you feel you need to stop… when you feel you need rest. Just stop something on your agenda, stop anything… if you’re missing Jesus in the things you’re doing. We’ve already seen that it’s possible to miss Jesus when serving Jesus.
First, consider picking a verse with a promise from God within it that you can recite in a breath. During the time it takes you to breathe in and then breathe out, you can recite that verse. During those moments when you are stressed and feel anger or anxiety swelling up within you as you work… stop… breathe in and breathe out, saying that verse.
[Breathing in] God is my refuge
[Breathing out] and my strength.
That is just one example of a breath prayer. That short breath focused on the Lord can reorient you to properly see your work in light of Christ so that your service might be holy… and that it might flow from faith in the Word.
A second idea to help set aside time to rest in Jesus is to carry a pocket Bible with you or having a Bible app on your phone can help you find the time to rest in the Lord. When you are in the grocery store line to check out, instead of gawking at the tabloids, eyeing the candy, or swiping through your social media feed on your Smart phone, consider pulling out the Bible and reading a few verses and saying a prayer. Such actions might even spark conversation in the line… or you might hear a word from the Lord that applies to your life and current situation and it might fill you with such joy and encouragement that not only will it change your mind from anger towards the idiot drivers in rush hour home… but it will give you a word from Jesus to share with your loved ones at the dinner table. Bringing the eternal spiritual bread into your evening’s physical meal of bread.
When our vocational demands press against our time to worship on Sundays, we might have to get creative.
I’m reminded of the time I was placed in a teaching position in China that required me to work at nights and all day on Sundays, so that I could not attend any mid-week or Sunday church services. At the time, getting out of this predicament wasn’t an option. But a blessing is that I ended up reading my Bible more during this time of my life than ever before. Since I didn’t have work in the mornings, I routinely took my Bible to a shop nearby my apartment and I read it Monday through Friday for an hour or longer while eating breakfast and drinking tea. I would sometimes do this for lunch too. When I saw people that I suspected were Christian, I always went out of my way to speak with them and I had many great encounters with fellow believers that year, and I believe I read the Bible more in that year than any other year of my life.
I’m reminded of the college student who worked every Sunday service and Sunday school time as a preschool supervisor. She took great care of my daughter, Arabella, and the other young kids. I was worried for her, because I didn’t know if she was able to attend any services with this work schedule. I knew that our church didn’t offer any other service times that she could attend. So I asked her about this one day, and she told me that she still attended church, but she did so by finding a Saturday service. Wonderful.
There are always moments to rest with Jesus, because he’s always there for us and he invites us to rest with him and partake in his love and compassion for us. He truly is the best portion of anything a person can ever have in this world. Amen.