Luke 10:38-42 As they went on their way, Jesus came into a village, and a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39She had a sister named Mary, who was sitting at the Lord’s feet and was listening to his word. 40But Martha was distracted with all her serving. She came over and said, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her to help me.” 41The Lord answered and told her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, 42but one thing is needed. In fact, Mary has chosen that better part, which will not be taken away from her. (EHV)
Dear Friends in Christ,
There are times when Jesus could say to me, “Timothy, Timothy, you are worried and upset about many things.” It happens, doesn’t it? We all get worried and upset about many things. And frankly, there’s plenty to be worried and upset about in our world and in our lives. There’s the big stuff and then the little stuff. Martha was distracted with all her serving. Her sister on the other hand tuned it all out and focused on what Jesus came to bring.
We have not often enough followed the example of Mary. Rather than worry, rather than put her to-do list above everything else, Martha’s sister Mary dropped everything to focus on the one thing needful. She endured her sister’s huffing and puffing in indignation. She tuned out all her own worries and stresses. She just sat at Jesus’ feet and listened to His Word. Jesus told us “Mary has chosen that better part.” What made it better? Jesus said it: “It won’t be taken away.” Very little lasts forever. But God’s Word and the faith it builds does. Our hymn of the day puts it all in perspective:
All else, though it first give pleasure, Is a yoke that presses hard.
Beneath it the heart is still fretting and striving,
No true, lasting happiness ever deriving.
This one thing is needful; all others are vain —
I count all but loss that I Christ may obtain.
Those words were written about 300 years ago by a Pastor Johann Schroeder. He knew what was important. He knew the only thing that lasted. He had recently lost his wife. And it wouldn’t be long before he himself would die at the young age of 32. But because He listened to Jesus and knew Jesus’ teaching was the only thing that lasts forever, he was ready. He knew that Jesus comes through the Word and gives us the power to ascend into heaven! God offers you and me the very same, if only we’ll value and turn to His Word. “Choose What Lasts Forever,” Jesus is telling us.
“That Better Part”
We do all know what that Better Part is—in theory. If you had asked Martha what she thought the “one thing needed” is, there’s no doubt she would have answered correctly that the most important thing of all is what God does for us—what God gives us, and what Jesus says to us. But when the rubber hit the road, when things needed to get done, when dinner needed to be prepared and the table set for important guests, she hadn’t learned that truth quite well enough yet. And the same thing happens to us. Even Christians like us need to learn and relearn the lesson of our text.
Martha was a Christian woman, and if Jesus had not rebuked her, we’d think, ‘Wow, she’s one of the best Christians ever! Jesus came to her house, and she immediately got to work. She quickly planned the meal. She might have sent someone running to the market to make sure there were fresh vegetables. She started the cooking fire. She was not going to let her Lord or His disciples go hungry! Work needed to be done and done fast, and she was going to see to it that it got done.
We all love people like that, and we even rely on them. In church, we count on certain people to get the job done, not least when it comes to things that have to get done in the church kitchen. At a previous congregation I served in Michigan, the lady in charge of the church kitchen was actually named Martha! She made every funeral dinner function well, and every congregational meal too. She saw to it, for example, that every Ash Wednesday, hundreds were served a fancy chicken cordon bleu dinner. I used to joke when I was there that we Lutherans give up fasting for Lent!
What a wonderful thing that there are people like that. They know what needs to be done, and they set to it with all their might! Both the Martha in the Michigan church kitchen and the one in our text truly loved their Lord. In fact, if the Lord hadn’t corrected Mary’s sister Martha in our text, this whole sermon would be about imitating her. She’d be the hero of the story!
Both sisters were good friends of Jesus along with their brother Lazarus whom Jesus would later raise from the dead. Whenever Jesus came to their house, they were very happy to house Him and feed Him, along with His twelve disciples. Jesus loved Mary, Martha, and Lazarus too. For a preacher who had no home—“no place to lay His head”—their house was an oasis where He could relax among close friends.
Would Jesus feel as welcome and at home at your place? Would Jesus feel at ease in your home? Would He be able to let His hair down in our living rooms and talk about the good and the bad experiences of the day, because He knew we knew Him and His Word so well that we’d get it? That we’d understand what made Him happy and what made Him disappointed? That’s the kind of friends Martha, and her sister Mary and brother Lazarus were to Jesus. He was like family to them, and they were like family to Him. Martha didn’t only welcome Jesus, she did anything and everything to make Him as totally comfortable as possible. She ran around getting things ready so there could be a big festive meal for Him and His disciples. She was happy to do it. The only thing she was unhappy about was that her sister Mary wasn’t helping.
Just think how many things the church could accomplish, if only everyone was as eager as Martha! She didn’t even worry about the costs. Remember, along with Jesus came those other 12 bearded guys who were always with Him! That amount of food adds up! But who cares?! It was Jesus!
Mary, on the other hand, forgot all about dinner when Jesus came. ‘What?! Dizzy girl! Can’t she see there’s work to do? Is she lazy or something??!’ As far as Mary was concerned, though, dinner could wait. Maybe cooking hadn’t even crossed her mind, because to Mary something was so much more important than a dinner, and proper etiquette. While Martha was busy with all her serving, Mary just sat at Jesus’ feet transfixed, just listening to His Word!
Martha wanted to serve the Lord, and the Lord wants Christians to serve Him willingly and eagerly. And we do that whenever we work hard and faithfully fulfil our calling in life—not just by doing things at church, but at home, at our children’s schools, at work and in the community.
Despite all that, though, the one lesson we ought to all learn from Mary is that the “one thing needful”—The Thing That Lasts Forever—is to hear the Word of God. When we have that opportunity, dinner and company and work and everything else can wait!
That’s true on Sunday morning, of course. But it’s true the rest of the week too! We know that this was not the Sabbath day in our text, when Mary was sitting at Jesus’ feet, because a good Jew like Martha would never have been running around the house working on the Sabbath. Even on weekdays, we need to set times when we read or hear the Word of God. That’s what our Meditations booklets are for, and the suggested readings and the prayers in the back. If you haven’t got a hymnal at home, grab one or two of the red hymnals and use them at home. That is “the better part” that Mary chose—the one that Lasts Forever.
The Blessings Through the Word Last Forever
And what did she get right away? As the hymnist put it:
All earthly concerns she forgot for her Lord
And found her contentment in hearing his Word.
Martha was clearly not content and not happy, was she! She even got into a quarrel with her sister by putting dinner ahead of God’s Word. When we put things and personal plans ahead of God’s Word, we should not be surprised when quibbles and quarrels multiply, while contentment and peace shrink.
Martha must have been absolutely shocked when Jesus rebuked her! She was so sure she had her priorities perfectly in order, preparing a proper meal for her Savior, that she went to Him and interrupted Him while He was teaching to ask Him to rebuke her sister: “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her to help me!” ‘C’mon, Jesus, tell her! My, goodness! What could be more important than serving you, Jesus! Let her know that she’s being dizzy and lazy!’
Martha was 100% positive Jesus would back her position. But He didn’t! Just the opposite! He said: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, 42but one thing is needed.”
Martha was concerned about doing something for the Lord Jesus, but Mary wanted to let the Lord Jesus do something for her. And Mary had chosen “the better part.” What we do for the Lord is appreciated. But learn this lesson with Martha: what we do for our Lord—valuable though it is—is still less important and valuable, than what the Lord can do for us. Jesus said: “Mary has chosen that better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
A meal does us good only for a short time. But to hear God’s Word? That benefits us for all eternity and gives us something that will never be taken away from us! Through the Word, God ignites and builds and fans our hearts into faith.
At his inauguration in 1961, John F. Kennedy said those wonderful words that we wish people remembered and followed still today, namely: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” But when it comes to the one, true Christian faith, the biggest and most important thing is not what you can do for God, but what God can do for you. Hearing and learning God’s Word is not about doing God a favor, it’s about letting God give you the gifts He earned for you and loves to give.
When we are “worried and upset about many things,” the Word of God alone give us hope and comfort. When our sins come back to haunt us, the Word alone assures us that through the precious blood of Jesus all our sins are forgiven. When we wonder what the future holds, the Word of God alone gives us the hope of eternal life with God in heaven. When we wonder about food and clothes and all the other bills, it’s God’s Word that assures us He cares about even the sparrows and will certainly not forget us! God’s Word is the “one thing needful,” “the better part,” The Thing That Lasts Forever—and it shall never be taken away from us, nor will we lack for anything.
God, give us the work ethic of Martha, but especially, give us the simple faith and priorities of Mary of Bethany! Amen!
Pastor Timothy Buelow
Our Saviour Lutheran Church
Lake Havasu City, Arizona