Luke 10:38-42

During the school year I lead chapel services for our preschool children.  On Wednesday morning, 80 or so children sit in these first few pews here along with their teachers.  I always tell the children that at chapel time we do three things: we sing, we learn about God and Jesus, and we pray.  This simple explanation helps keep their focus—and it’s actually a pretty good way of describing not only what we do at chapel, but also what we do on Sunday mornings in this place.

 

The learning about God and Jesus that takes place during chapel comes from the whole experience.  But the kids primarily understand this phrase as referring to the time when I talk to them.  During that time, I read a passage of scripture from a children’s Bible and then say a few things about what it means for us.

 

I know that sometimes the kids don’t understand what I’m saying. The Bible has some pretty big concepts, and kids have lots on their minds.  But one simple message that always comes across clearly is:  when Pastor Mark reads the Bible and speaks, it’s time for them to listen.  Mouths are to be closed.  Hands to yourself.  Focus on what’s being said.  This is a basic and yet critical message—one that goes far beyond chapel time.  For in life, there are times when our calling is simply to listen.

 

Today’s Gospel reading, from the lasts verses of Luke 10, gives that very same message.  There are times when we are called to listen.  More specifically: when Jesus is speaking, it’s time for us to listen.

 

This text serves as a balance to the one which appears right before it in Luke 10—the one we considered last week at our service.  If you recall, the message of that text was all about doing.  We, like the Good Samaritan, have work to do.  We are called to be active in living our faith.  We are to help those who are in need.  That’s how we love our neighbor.

 

The story of Jesus’ visit to the home of Martha and Mary serves as a counter-balance to the Good Samaritan text.  Serving and helping are important, but sometimes we are called to listen.  When Jesus is speaking, that’s definitely a time to listen.

 

Mary listened.  Martha didn’t—she was busy working.  Jesus corrects Martha, and tells her why.

 

We feel bad for Martha in this story.  She was just trying to be helpful.  She was like Abraham and Sarah in our first reading today—showing hospitality to a guest.  We know how important it is to do this.  The Scriptures lift up this calling of ours too.

 

Jesus gives Martha a very gentle word of correction, repeating her name as a sign of tenderness.  He often gave far stronger rebukes to his disciples.

 

At any rate, Martha can handle the correction.  She’s a strong and independent woman, as we can tell from the details of the text.

 

Like other followers of Jesus, Martha is learning.  And so are we.  We’re learning to find balance—when to serve, and when to stop and listen.

 

One of the keys in finding the proper balance is to understand what is truly necessary.  Jesus tells Martha, and us, that only one thing is necessary.  That one thing, is him.

 

By saying this, Jesus is guiding us in our choices.  In finding the right balance, priorities need to be set.  Jesus commends Mary for choosing the right thing.  The situation called for a choice, and Mary’s was better.

 

What about us?  Jesus is the one thing truly necessary.  But how does that play out in our choices?

 

We must careful of false dichotomies.  For centuries, this text was used to prioritize the importance of the monastic life over that of an ordinary worker.  The monks were prioritizing Jesus, others were not—so the thinking went.  Martin Luther and the Reformers called this thinking into question.  Are not all people called to both work and pray?  Are not all people called to hear the word of God and then apply it to the work of their vocations?  Yes, of course.

 

Still, there are times to see a distinction and make the right choice.  I think it’s safe to say that the church today is best received by the dominant culture when it is seen as a tool for social justice.  People are happy to see the church serving the poor, righting wrongs and helping with earthly needs.  As such, there is a great temptation for us in the church to make this the highest priority of our work.  This temptation grows for us as we feel empowered and fulfilled in helping others.

 

But today’s text calls us to re-consider that priority.  Our greatest need is to sit at the feet of Jesus.  That means we will prioritize worship and prayer.  It means we will prioritize Sunday School and Bible Study.  It means that we will come to him often to confess our sins.  It means that we will prioritize the changing of ourselves over plans to change the world.

 

Serving and helping has its time and place.  But so too does sitting at the feet of Jesus.  The message of this text is simple: let us make time for hearing Jesus speak.

 

I remind you that the scriptures lift up for us the importance of keeping the Sabbath—meaning setting aside in our lives a regular time for study and prayer.  Let us keep the Sabbath.  Let us make adequate time to hear God’s Word.

 

And let us keep ourselves open, too, for those times when God comes near in other ways and at other times.  Jesus obviously didn’t show up at Martha and Mary’s place on the Sabbath.  Maybe he came at lunch time.  When is he showing up in your life?  Let us have our eyes, ears and hearts open to his presence.

 

When Jesus corrects Martha, he does so by calling out her challenges.  He tells her that she is anxious and troubled.

 

These words of Jesus bring a number of thoughts to mind for us.  For instance, it makes us recall that sometimes people suffer from extra anxiety because they put too much value on the way things look or on the quality of their work.  Was that the case with Martha?  Was she too concerned with appearances?  Is that why she felt she needed to work instead of listen?

 

What about us?  Do we experience anxiety and trouble for the wrong reasons?  Are we too caught up in appearances?  Are we so worried about being seen as competent, capable and on-the-ball that we neglect to spend time listening?

 

Another thought about these words from Jesus concerns their fairness.  Some have pointed to the anxiety of Martha and said that it comes from unfair expectations.  As a woman, poor Martha, it is said, was expected to serve, and then gets corrected when she does so.

 

This assessment, however, misses the mark.  Hospitality was expected from both men and women, as today’s Old Testament lesson reminds us.  In that text, Abraham was not sitting at the feet of the three visitors, but rather standing nearby – being attentive to their needs.  The text about Martha and Mary, if anything, raises the profile of women, since Martha is pictured as the head of a household, and Mary is pictured as a disciple engaged in study.

 

One more thought on anxiety.  Martha is troubled because her sister is not helping her out.  This calls to mind for us all the times when we have felt alone in our work—believing that others weren’t pulling their weight, convinced that they were out having fun while we had to do the dirty work.

 

Sometimes the workload won’t be distributed fairly.  But there may be good reasons for this.  Can we see the greater good?  Can we put away our troubled feelings and trust that God will provide—for us and for all?

 

Today’s text raises many issues for us, especially when we think about those things that cause us anxiety and trouble.  Thankfully, Jesus comes not just to raise issues but to address them.

 

The text concludes by lifting up something which Jesus called “the good portion.” “Mary has chosen the good portion,” he said, “which will not be taken away from her.”

 

This choice of words by Jesus is a clever turn of phrase—given, as it is, in the context of a meal preparation.  Martha may be preparing a meal but Mary is getting the good portion.

 

The words, however, are also much more than this.  In the Old Testament, the idea of a portion has very strong roots.  The tribes of Israel were each given a portion of the promised land.  The word is tied to the idea of inheritance, which is an important expression of God’s graciousness to his people.  It’s used in places like Psalm 142:5, which says: “I cry to you, O Lord; I say, “You are my refuge, my portion in the land of the living.”  And Psalm 73:26 – “My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”

 

When we listen to Jesus, we are receiving the “good portion” which God has prepared for each of us.  In that portion we will hear his words of guidance and gentle rebuke.  But even more, we will hear his words of mercy and forgiveness.  We will hear the message of the cross.  We will hear the promise of the resurrection.  This is the good portion which will not be taken away.  This is the good portion which will sustain us forever.

 

Jesus calls us to sit at his feet and listen.  We don’t always like to sit.  We don’t always like to listen.  But we will be blessed with the good portion, the one thing needful, when we do.

 

May God bear our anxieties and remove our distractions that we may hear his voice and receive his good portion.  In the name of Jesus. Amen.

 

 

 

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