Mary and Martha
Please open up to Luke 10:25–42, but before we read it I would like you to notice something as we read. I want you to notice that even though we are going to read two seemingly distinct stories, happening at different times and in different ways, they are actually very similar. Both are quite famous parts of scripture, but it’s sometimes forgotten that they give the same message. The first one is pretty easy to understand but the second one is more subtle. Let’s read it together.
“And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, ‘Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?’ He said to him, ‘What is written in the Law? How do you read it?’ And he answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.’ And he said to him, ‘You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.'”
So pause there a second. The beginning of this story makes it pretty easy to understand what’s going on, doesn’t it? Up comes a lawyer, who we already know is probably a bad guy because lawyers and Pharisees and Sadducees often came against Jesus to try to trap Him, trick Him, embarrass Him, or discredit Him – but they always end up losing to Jesus – until the end of the story where they break their own laws to crucify Him. So, by the fourth word we can have a pretty good idea that some shenanigans are about to go down.
What’s the context here? Everyone is sitting down somewhere and Jesus is in the middle of teaching when suddenly a Lawyer stands up to “test” Jesus. We don’t necessarily know his motivation is bad until we read the next verse, 29, which says,
“But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’”
This lawyer had come to hear Jesus teach, and had either been impressed by Him or was getting progressively more upset at Him, but at some point pops up out of the group to ask Jesus the most difficult, important question he can think of: “How can I inherit eternal life?” Or, how can someone be saved from sin and death?
Remember, this is a Lawyer and in his mind, and in the mind of many Jewish people at the time, because of the teachings of the Lawyers and Pharisees, the way to impress God, to make God happy, to gain favour with God, to get eternal life with Him, was to obey the Laws of Moses.
That’s why they had devised so many extra laws on top of them. God said, “Don’t use my name in vain.” So the Lawyers and Pharisees said, “Ok, no one is allowed to say the name of God at all, ever, or even write it down.” God said, “Rest on the Sabbath.” So the Lawyers and Pharisees devised lists and lists of rules about every part of life – how far to walk, how to eat, how to wash, how many knots you can tie in a rope. So many rules that God’s “day off to rest and worship” became a terrible burden and frustration to the people. But if God wanted obedience and eternal life was at stake, better safe than sorry, right?
So that’s the mindset that this man had when talking to Jesus. Rules and laws make people holy and win God’s favour. So Jesus’ answer to Him is perfectly tailored: “What do you think God’s Law say about Eternal Life?” And the Lawyer gives the right answer. “Love God with everything you’ve got and love your neighbour as much as you love yourself.”
But here’s the thing, and this is something everyone here understands and struggles with – me included. Knowing the right answer and understanding what it means are two different things. And then, understanding what the right answer means and then living by that truth are two different things too!
I’m reading through Pilgrims Progress again and just finished the part where a character named Faithful has had a conversation with someone he meets on the road named Talkative. It’s a really interesting encounter and I highly recommend you read the whole book, but it essentially goes like this. The main character, Christian, is walking with his friend Faithful and they’ve been having a great conversation. As they walk, they catch up to a man named “Talkative” who Christian knows but Faithful doesn’t. Christian hangs back so as to not have to walk with Talkative, but Faithful trots on ahead to strike up a conversation. Things seem to go pretty well because Talkative is really good at talking – and doesn’t care what the subject is. Faithful is quite impressed with how godly and religious Talkative is and falls back see what’s up and invite Christian to join the conversation.
Christian grins at his friend and says, “This man whom you are so taken with is fooling you just as he’s fooled so many before.” Faithful is surprised because Talkative seems like he knows so much about God and religion and faith, but after a while Christian basically says, “If you want to see what Talkative is really like, go ask him to talk not only about religion but ask him plainly how his belief Jesus has changed His heart and life.”
Faithful does so and it doesn’t take long until Talkative gets so offended and angry that he takes off. It seems that even though Talkative loved chatting about religion and theology and faith – he had allowed none of it to penetrate his heart and change his life.
It’s the same with this Lawyer, and most of the other religious leaders Jesus bumps into. They knew a tonne of scriptures, had memorized the entire Old Testament and had been trained to be experts in debate and interpretation – but as much as they knew about God’s Law, they had completely missed having a relationship with the Lawgiver. As much as they worked hard to obey the Laws, they had forgotten Who had written them and why they had been written in the first place – not to burden God’s people but freedom, not to separate them from God but to show them how to grow closer to Him, not to be a hammer to pound on their fellow citizens but a guide to help them know how to love one another and get along.
Who Is My Neighbour?
Jesus responds saying essentially, “Yes, your words are exactly right. If you love God and everyone else you come in contact with perfectly, you will have eternal life.” Sounds simple, but it isn’t. Our sinful nature makes this impossible. We can’t love God or anyone else perfectly because our sin not only clouds our judgement but makes us selfish and lazy. We cannot live in perfect love with anyone.
Notice that in the next part we see that the Lawyer jumps right past the “love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind” part because he thinks he does that already. Like the Rich Young Ruler, he believes that he has obeyed the entire law perfectly. Therefore, he assumes, he must love God perfectly. But, then, maybe because his conscience has been tweaked by something he’s done, or because he wants to impress the crowd or trap Jesus, the Lawyer asks one more question. “…who is my neighbor?”
Why did he ask this? Because as a Lawyer, he wants to know the boundaries of the law. What’s the limit, the line, the border that can’t be crossed? How far can I go before I’ve broken the law? It’s the same with us, right? Just consider when we’re driving. The speed limit is 70, but how much can we get away with before we actually get in trouble? 75? 80? How much checking our cell phone is too much? How far do I have to go before I absolutely have to wear my seatbelt? How long does the red light have to be red before I’m in trouble? What if it turns red as I’m driving through? Our question isn’t “How can I obey this law perfectly?” but “How much can I get away with before I’m in trouble?” That shows the sin in our heart. That’s what the lawyer was doing here.
“Ok, so I know God says I’m supposed to love my neighbour, but who, technically, does that include? How big of a circle can I draw before the people outside of it don’t matter? Who can I offend without worrying about it? Who can I ignore without God caring? Who can I hate and despise while still being able to say I love my neighbour?” From verse 30 Jesus gives the very famous answer.
“Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’”
Jesus tells the story of The Good Samaritan and gives a lot of details. Everyone would assume the victim was a Jew, and everyone knew that the trip between Jerusalem and Jericho was full places where people could get mugged and left for dead. Then come two good, law-abiding, religious, Jewish leaders, a priest and a Levite, who knew that God’s law said that if they touched a dead body they would be defiled and ceremonially unclean and therefore unable to perform their duties in the temple. So, better safe than sorry, they ignore the man so they can keep doing their jobs in the temple. Seems harsh, and the average person would have thought this wasn’t very nice, but the Lawyer, presumably, completely understood. But then the story takes a weird turn. Next comes a Samaritan. Jews hated Samaritans with pure, racist hatred. For a Samaritan to be the hero of a Jew would have been scandalous. But there it was.
If you’re having a tough time grasping the story, maybe think of the story this way: A man who had just finished working late at night in downtown Ottawa was walking up the stairs of a parking garage. It was Saturday at 2am, he was tired and already had his keys in his hands, when suddenly a group of men came through the door, mugged him, beat him, took his car, and kicked him down the cement stairs.
Not long after another man, a surgeon at CHEO who had been called in to do emergency surgery on a child came up the stairs and saw the unconscious bleeding man. He knew he couldn’t risk infection or contamination, and was in a hurry, so he stepped over the man’s body and headed to his car. Next came the pastor of a local mega-church. He had been doing some late night counselling and was headed home for some much-needed rest before he had to preach in the morning. He saw the beaten man, stepped over him, and walked away.
Next, up the stairs, came another man, a pimp. He had spent the evening collecting money from the women under his employ and shooting scenes for his porn website. He was a little drunk, a little high, and his knuckles still hurt from having to get a little rough while he was collecting his dues. But when he saw the man lying on the stairs, he had compassion. He lifted him up, brought him to the hospital, made sure he got a room and then went to the gift shop to buy some magazines for when the man woke up. He even told the nurse that if no one came for the man to give him a call on his cell phone so he could help out.
Now look at verse 36,
“’Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbour to the man who fell among the robbers?’ He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘You go, and do likewise.’”
Jesus forced the Lawyer to answer his own question. He was looking for the borders and loopholes in the law and Jesus closed them tight. Who is your neighbour? Who does God want you to show love, compassion, and care to? Everyone.
The priest and the Levite were encumbered by their interpretation of the Law. In no way was God’s Law meant to be frustrating, burdensome, and an excuse to prevent someone from showing compassion, and yet they somehow managed to make it that way. Jesus wiped all that nonsensical interpretive garbage clean and forced the lawyer to admit the truth. The way to love God is not to nit-pick laws so you can find loopholes and excuses, but to love God by loving everyone as your neighbour.
Mary and Martha
But now we turn to the next story in the passage. Let’s read it, starting in verse 38,
“Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.’”
Do you see the echoes of the previous story? Jesus is teaching a group of people when someone stands up and asks Jesus a question that is very close to their heart. For the Lawyer, it was a question about the Law, but for Martha, it was a question about priorities. And both ended up the same way. What was the Lawyer trying to do when he asked, “Who is my neighbour?”? He was trying to justify himself. And what was Martha trying to do? To justify how busy and distracted she was.
But this story is much more subtle. In the first one, it’s a Lawyer – booo. He’s testing Jesus – booo. What’s Martha doing? She’s serving. And not just serving, she’s serving Jesus and the disciples! Martha welcomes Jesus, the famous Rabbi, and all of his disciples into her home. They would all need to have their feet washed, to be made comfortable, and to have a meal prepared for them. We don’t know how much help Martha had, but she clearly didn’t think it was enough. She was frazzled and distracted and anxious and getting angry.
But she wasn’t a bad guy like the Lawyer, was she? She was doing a good thing! Just like the Lawyer, she felt justified in her actions. He obeyed the law; she was a great and wonderful hostess, preparing extra special things for her guests. How could anyone look at Martha and criticize her? How could anyone compare her to the Lawyer? It’s easy to criticize the Lawyer, but super-servant, super-frazzled, Martha? Isn’t she just trying to do a good job for Jesus?
But what does Jesus say? Verse 41,
“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.’”
This whole section is telling the same story. How does one gain eternal life? Loving God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. How do we show that? We love our neighbour. Who is our neighbour? Everyone. How did the Jewish people mess this up? By believing that the way to love God is to work so hard to obey His Law that they actually offend, hurt, and ignore loving God and their neighbours. They became more concerned with how many knots they could tie, and how ceremonially pure they were, or how far walked – that they forgot to worship and enjoy God or show love and compassion for their fellow man.
Martha makes the same mistake. She has prioritized hosting, serving, and working, over loving Jesus and Mary. Was she doing something wrong? No. Was she breaking laws? No. But where was her heart? She was working so hard to serve her guests that she was no longer able to find joy in it. She wasn’t fuelled by love. She was fueled by frustration, anger, pride, and jealousy. She forgot that Jesus Christ, the miracle-working Son of God, the source of light and life, was sitting in her living room. She didn’t care what he was saying. She didn’t care that Mary had the privilege of listening. She only cared about her own plans and priorities to the point where this wonderful, gracious, generous host, who was so excited to have Jesus over – actually comes into the room and yells at her sister in front of Jesus, accuses Jesus of not caring, and then tries to tell Jesus what to do! “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” “C’mon Jesus. Chop chop! I clearly care more about these people than you do, Jesus. I clearly have a better grasp of what’s important. Tell my sister to stop listening to you.”
Her priorities were as messed up as the Lawyer’s. She wasn’t serving out of love. She wasn’t loving God – who was sitting in her living room – or loving her neighbour – who included her sister and Jesus. That’s why Jesus responds as he does. He says her name twice, probably to get her attention and to show dissatisfaction with her (He does this with Peter and Paul too (22:31, Acts 9:4)). And then He essentially says, “You think you’re priorities are right, but they’re not. You are so worked up, so upset, so troubled and anxious about all the serving you are doing that you have forgotten the most important things – to love God and your neighbour. All this serving is only driving you away from your guests, away from your sister, away from love, and away from Me.”
Martha was doing exactly what the Priest and the Levite did – using a good, legal excuse to be able to ignore loving someone. “I can’t love Mary right now, the sandwiches need to be made. I can’t listen to the teachings of Jesus right now, I have too much to do. I should walk in there and give Jesus and Mary a piece of my mind. I’m in the right here. Jesus is wrong.”
And not only were her priorities a mess, but she actually tried to suck Mary into her whirlwind. “Jesus, tell Mary to stop listening to you, stop learning from you, stop sitting in your presence, stop letting her sit in front of a Rabbi, doing something very few women were ever allowed to even do, and force her to be as distracted and upset as I am.”
Jesus says, “No Martha. You’re not right. Your heart isn’t right. Your priorities aren’t right. And you’re not going to cause Mary to stumble into your own sin.”
So what does that mean for us today? I think this is an appropriate message for the beginning of the year because the lesson here is something we all struggle with. Regardless of whether you make New Year’s resolutions or not, we all are trying to figure out what’s wrong with us and how to improve our lives – whether that be our spiritual lives, our health, our relationships, or our careers. And as we try to come up with the game plans what will fix everything, it’s really easy to get our priorities out of whack.
The lesson in what we’ve read today teaches that a godly life doesn’t start with a list of rules and regulations, more knowledge and willpower, or trying to cut out all the toxic things in our life. Those aren’t bad things – just like Martha wanting to serve people and the Lawyer obeying the Law weren’t bad things – but they aren’t things that lead to eternal life, that lead to grace and hope and joy and peace.
What did we learn today? That in order to live a life of love, of service, sacrifice, obedience, and holiness, doesn’t come from a list of laws – it comes from a changed heart.
So before you do anything, before you decide on a diet, exercise routine, schedule, life plan, bible reading plan, spiritual retreat, marriage counselling, personal counselling, killing a habit, battling an addiction, or anything else, remember that it will be meaningless, even cause your love to grow cold and become callous to the things of God if you are not connecting with Jesus as your first priority. If you don’t, it won’t be long until you are either looking for loopholes like the Lawyer, or trying to drag other people into your personal tornado like Martha.
What does that look like? Well, consider that the Samaritan was a man living outside the Law of Moses but still had a heart for the things of God. So, it’s not about white-knuckling through the Bible-In-a-Year, or forcing yourself to wake up at 6am, or fasting so many days per week, or promising to be more generous and forgiving. It’s about connecting your heart to God, trusting that He will guide you, lead you, and help you.
Once you’ve settled in your heart that you need Jesus’ presence in your life more than anything else, things fall into place. When you come to a moment when you need self-control, you won’t trust your own rules and laws and willpower but will lean on Him and ask for help. As you trust His guidance, you’ll learn that sometimes your personal rules and outlook actually prevent you from doing his will – like the priest not helping the man who was attacked. You’ll learn how to be flexible, kind, and generous because you’re living by God’s priorities and not your own. And when you inevitably mess up, you won’t see yourself as a failure or a victim who should just give up, but as a sinner in need of a Saviour, a work in progress that God is ever forgiving and always willing to help.
My hope for you in 2019 is that you will begin by cultivating this attitude and mindset of faith. That you will know that life comes from loving God and others, but that love is not simply a list of rules and anxiety driven service driven by your own willpower and personal agenda – but a heart that has experienced the love of God and is allowing it to flow into the rest of your life. First to yourself, your family, and then to the world.