Luke 10:38 – 42 Mary and Martha


A sermon preached on July 18th, 2010, based upon Luke 10:38 – 42.

38 Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 40But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.’ 41But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things;42there is need of only one thing.* Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’

This familiar Gospel story is often turned into a debate about which it is better to be: a Martha — a doer, an organizer, a person who jumps in and does what needs getting done, or Mary, the quiet, inward soul that ponders the meaning of it all, preferring simply being rather than doing.  But if the rebuke that Martha receives from Jesus implies that the ponderers are preferred, then heaven help us, because nothing would get done.

The dichotomy, however, is false.   The way to which Jesus calls us involves both doing and being.  The parable of the ‘Good Samaritan’ directly precedes this story, in which Jesus concludes by declaring, “Go and do likewise.”  There is much to be done in this world, and perhaps Martha in her efforts at providing hospitality for Jesus is in her own way trying to emulate the Good Samaritan who cares for the wounded stranger at the side of the road.

The issue at hand here is one of discernment; the capacity to pay attention to what is called for in a given moment.

A key to the story is found in the opening words:  “Now as they went on their way…”   Jesus has recently begun moving in a particular direction; he is headed to Jerusalem, where he knows he will die.  He has attempted a couple of times to talk to his disciples about this fact, but they haven’t been much interested in listening, because, of course, the information is terribly distressing.

My son Andrew showed me this powerful documentary entitled “Touching the Void” that recounts the story of two men who climbed a steep mountain peak in Peru that no one had previously ever succeeded in climbing.  On the way down, things went badly; first bad weather, and then one of the men severely breaks his leg.   His companion tries lowering him down the mountain by rope, but he ends up falling into a deep dark crevice.  Amazingly, he manages to slowly make his way through the deep darkness, and then slowly make his way down the mountainside, despite extraordinary pain and great dehydration.

The man described how he was convinced he was going to die.   He said that the reason he continued to make his way down the mountain wasn’t because he held out hope of survival; he simply didn’t want to die alone.  I was struck by this.  He didn’t want to die alone.  He needed to have another human being fully present to him as he made that final journey into the abyss.

It was, I believe no different for Jesus. Approaching his death, he needed to have friends who could be fully present to him in the struggle he was embracing.  Mary, in contrast to her sister Martha, understood this, perhaps not intellectually so much as within her heart. In John’s version of this story she goes so far as to anoint Jesus’ body with expensive ointment, preparing his body for death.  Others find her action incomprehensible, but Jesus is deeply grateful.   Thanks to Mary’s capacity for being present, he doesn’t feel so terribly alone.

Now if what Jesus had most needed at that time was a good home cooked meal to sustain his hungry body, then Martha would have been the one who had discerned what the moment called for. But his needs were for the soul food of someone who would sit quietly and to listen to whatever he needed to say.  Martha, bless her heart, is doing a lot of helpful stuff, but she is missing the ‘one thing necessary,’ to be fully attentive to the person of Jesus.

We all know the sense of urgency that we find in interactions with someone we love whom we know to not long for this world.  The time spent together is precious, demanding full presence. There may be some practical things to be done for such a person, providing a drink of water, straightening a pillow, making a phone call.   But beyond particular practical actions, what is needed is simply is for us to be mindfully present.

We’re also familiar with what happens inside us when someone we know who appeared healthy and strong suddenly dies.  We find ourselves replaying in our minds the last moments we shared with the person.  When we were living through those moments they appeared to us as insignificant.  But in the context of their death, the remembered moments take on extraordinary intensity.   We regret that at the time, we weren’t more fully present to what was happening.

The truth is, of course, that we all are dying, that the days we have on this earth are numbered, and if we could be conscious of this fact, our daily interactions with one another would take enter a depth that is generally lacking.

The question is not whether it is better to be a Mary or a Martha, but how to be both.   How do we accomplish things in this world without becoming anxious and troubled about many things, how to be present to the mundane tasks that life calls us to.

A rather ordinary man who left behind a rather extraordinary spiritual legacy was a monk known as Brother Lawrence, who lived in the 17th century France.  His early life was spent as a soldier at war, an experience that profoundly shaped him.  He sustained injuries from which he nearly died, and for the rest of his long life, suffered from the after effects of the injury.

But as is often the case, the trauma of the war seems to have served as a catalyst for his deepening spiritually.  He entered a monastery, where he served a very practical role within the community, that of cook. He “practiced the presence of God”; developing an ability for keeping his heart open to God moment by moment, which caught the attention of his companions.

Brother Lawrence’s biographer described him this way:

“It was observed, that even in the busiest times in the kitchen, Brother Lawrence still preserved his recollection and heavenly-mindedness. He was never hasty nor loitering, but did each thing in its turn with an even, uninterrupted composure and tranquility of spirit. ‘The time of work,’ said he, ‘does not with me differ from the time of prayer. In the noise and clatter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I possess God in as great a tranquility as if I were upon my knees at the Blessed Supper.’”

The famous ‘love’ chapter in 1Corinthians 13 expresses a similar idea.  We can do all kinds of good deeds, but if it isn’t love that is motivating our actions, then in a certain sense everything we do will be undermined.

And love flows both ways; it involves both giving and receiving.  Some of us are distinctly uncomfortable with being in the posture of receiving.  Perhaps such was the case with Martha.  She felt in control as long as she was in her mind the giver in the situation.  Sometimes true discernment of a moment leads us into the posture of the one who is receiving.

About twenty five years ago David Turner gave me an article by Eugene Peterson the ideas of which stayed with me through the years.  The title of the article was, “The Unbusy Pastor”, which began with Peterson declaring that any solicitations that came to him in the mail addressed to the “busy Pastor” were immediately deposited in the wastebasket.  He refused to give his attention to anything that appealed to what he considered his worst self.

What we think of as being “busy”, was in Peterson’s mind the mark of betrayal his vocation as a pastor.  He said that in being faithful to his calling he wanted to be about three things:  He wanted to be a pastor who is immersed in Scripture and the distinctive world view shaped therein; he wanted to be a pastor who prays, spending time cultivating a relationship with the great mystery that is God, and he wanted to be a pastor who listens.  When his parishioners spoke with him, he didn’t want to be so preoccupied with busyness that he couldn’t listen deeply to what they were attempting to reveal to him in their words.

I have rarely succeeded in being faithful to this vision of what the vocation of the pastor is all about.  But it has stayed with me to haunt me as often find myself, like Martha, “anxious and troubled about many things”, and losing track of the “one thing needful.”

What Peterson was saying about the vocation of the pastor can be applied to the vocation of all Christians.  We are called be present to God and one another, so that what we do can arise out of love.

I want to conclude with a remarkable story I heard this past week.  It starts off sounding like the set up for joke, with a priest, a rabbi, and two Protestant ministers on board a boat.  The boat was the USS Dorchester; the date was February 3, 1943, and about 900 American servicemen were on board in a troop transport.  About 1 a.m. in the icy waters of the North Atlantic, the ship was stuck by a torpedo fired by a German submarine

This account was recited at a medal ceremony for the families of the four clergymen:

“Chaos ensued – fire, smoke, and the screaming of the wounded. Fear filled the air. Some men panicked and jumped into the waters without life jackets; others were frozen in fear and refused to leave the sinking vessel. Taking on water rapidly, the ship began listing to starboard. Overcrowded lifeboats capsized, and rafts drifted away before anyone could reach them.

“In the midst of the confusion and terror, four chaplains – Protestant Ministers George Lansing Fox and Clark Poling, a Catholic Priest, Father John Washington, and Rabbi Alex Goode – moved about the ship, exuding composure while calming frightened men, irecting bewildered soldiers to lifeboats, and distributing life jackets with calm precision. Soon, the supply of jackets was exhausted, yet four young soldiers, afraid and without life vests, stood waiting.

“Without hesitation, the chaplains removed their own life jackets and gave them to the young soldiers. Then, according to one survivor, the four chaplains joined some of the other men trapped onboard for prayers that “sounded like a babble of English, Hebrew and Latin.”

“These four men of faith had given away their only means of saving themselves in order to save others. Men rowing away from the sinking ship in lifeboats saw the chaplains clinging to each other on the slanting deck. Their arms were linked together and their heads were bowed as they prayed to the one God whom each of them loved and served.

“The Dorchester sank beneath the icy waters of the North Atlantic, carrying with it the four chaplains and some 675 servicemen.”

It’s a very powerful image offered by these four clergymen of different faiths united in their witness, each in their own distinct way calling attention to the presence of the holy in the face of impending death.  Like Martha they did what they could on a practical level, handing out life jackets until there were no more.  In the end, however, the impact of their witness came down to their prayerful presence and the sense of calm they embodied in the midst of overwhelming anxiety.

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