Sermon – 9 Pentecost C – 2013

Martha and Mary

Martha, you are worried and distracted about so many things; there is need of only one thing.

Fr. Palmer said last week that the part of the story of the Good Samaritan that always makes him uncomfortable is when the priest passes by the beaten guy and he does not come to his aide. I share his discomfort about that but I must admit to being even more uncomfortable with this story of Martha and Mary. It makes me uncomfortable because I have a whole lot of Martha and not nearly enough Mary going on in my life. And when Jesus confronts Martha, it feels like He is nailing me at the same time. So if you are a Mary, good for you and God bless you. You get a pass today in terms of the sermon. What I want to do is to address all of us Marthas and see if we can’t find some comfort.

Jesus as the Great Physician, correctly diagnoses Martha’s problem. She is worried and distracted. She was scattered and to be fair to Martha I think I can appreciate why she was.

Over the years we have had a number of Bishops in our home and that can be a stressful event. Not so much because I was having my boss over for dinner but because we honor our Bishops as a continuation of the Apostles. They come to us as representatives of Christ. So as you can imagine, we give our home a top to bottom cleaning, Beth puts on an elegant dinner, we talk about who should be invited and where people should sit. We want the evening to be as pleasant as possible and it takes a lot of work to make it happen. That easily leads to us into being worried and distracted. In the meantime, the Bishop, particularly Bishop Foley, probably just wants to hang and also would most likely prefer that we didn’t go to all the trouble.

By this point in Jesus’ ministry, He was well known. He had called and sent out the disciples. He had healed many and cast out demons. He had preached to the multitudes and been transfigured on the mountain with Moses and Elijah. He had fed the 5,000, calmed a storm and raised a little girl from the dead. They knew who he was. So not only was it an incredible honor for Martha to host Jesus in her home, it was a weighty responsibility. She started out with the best of intentions but she lost her focus on what was really important and she became worried and distracted. She was so busy doing things FOR Jesus that she forgot to be WITH Jesus.

Martha’s dilemma is a common one. Life can be so busy and such a challenge that we lose our focus and as a result we become worried and distracted. We have financial pressures, concerns about our health, we try unsuccessfully to balance work and family, we have to deal with ongoing family dynamics. Then we turn on the news and we see national unrest and division, cities and states facing financial collapse, natural disasters and manmade wars. There are days when both from the perspective of the world and from the perspective of our front porch, it seems that we are only one step ahead of total chaos. There are plenty of good reasons to be worried and distracted.

Martha however compounds her own problem by proposing a way to make things right. She comes and fusses at Jesus. “Jesus don’t you care that I’m slaving away in this hot kitchen while my sister is sitting on her duff?” What is Martha really asking for here? She is really saying, “Jesus, this ain’t fair and you need to make it right!”

In our fallenness we confuse fairness and justice and we think that because God is a God of justice then He must be a God of fairness. So Martha reasons that if she is slaving away then it is only fair that Mary is slaving away also. But justice and fairness are not the same thing. Fairness says we should all be treated exactly the same, justice says we should get what we deserve. As one writer put it, “Justice is not an equalizer of conditions, it is an evaluator of actions.” (Hanover Baptist Church, Pastor’s Thoughts, Aug 22, 2010).

Jesus demonstrated the difference between justice and fairness in a wonderful parable of a landowner who hires men throughout the day to work for him. To the first men hired he promised a certain wage. Then throughout the day he hired more men. When the day was over the landowner first paid the men who had been hired last. He paid them the amount that he had promised the men who had worked all day. This got their hopes up that they would be paid even more than first promised. Why? Because it would not be fair to be paid the same amount as men who had only worked for one hour. But true to his word, the landowner paid them the wage he had promised. When they objected, the landowner informed them that he paid them what had been agreed upon. So the landowner had treated them justly and their cries of it being unfair were irrelevant. If the landowner wanted to be generous to others then that was his business not theirs.

This is a great lesson to keep in mind because sometimes it is tempting to fall into the role of the workers who complained that they were not being treated fairly. We work hard and we do good but we look around and it seems like the wicked are prospering and we tell God it’s not fair. But God causes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust and as long is the rain is falling on us we should not begrudge it to others.

So Jesus does not give in to Martha’s appeal to make things fair. He does not tell Mary to get up and help her sister. Instead, He challenges Martha’s priorities. “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” He wants Martha to change her focus and do what Mary is doing. And what is Mary doing? What does Jesus mean when He says that there is need for only one thing and that Mary has chosen the better part?

Jesus is actually making a clever play on words here. Martha presumably wants help getting the food ready and so in the Greek Jesus says that Mary has chosen the better “portion.” But what is that portion? What is the one thing that Martha should be doing? Is it sitting at Jesus’ feet instead of serving? Is this a call to prayer?

I think it goes deeper than that. Martha being worried and distracted over food verses Mary who has made spiritual food a priority paints a picture of what Jesus preached in the Sermon on the Mount.

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?… So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Matthew 6
In sitting at Jesus feet, Mary is demonstrating that she is making the kingdom of God the priority in her life. Meanwhile Martha is worried about what they will eat and what they will drink and by doing this she is missing the most important thing of all.

For me, this is what makes it such a challenge. It wasn’t as if what Martha was doing was a bad thing. The truth is that often in our lives the good is the enemy of the best and Martha had chosen the good over the best.

We make the same mistake when we allow the concerns of our daily lives to edge out our relationship with God. We have so many things to do that we decide that we will pray when we get the time or we will read the Scriptures when we get the time or we will come to Mass as long as nothing else is going on. And when we put our spiritual lives off “until we get the time,” you know what happens. We never get the time.

So again, Jesus was not rebuking Martha for doing something bad, He was challenging her priorities; to choose the best over the good, to“Seek FIRST, the kingdom of God.” Let me offer some practical suggestions.

Some of us are reading through the One Year Bible, which coincidentally, has us read through the whole Bible in one year. Go figure. Those daily reading take about 15 minutes. Additionally I have actually timed reciting the Lord’s Prayer and it takes 13.6 seconds to pray. So as a step in seeking first the Kingdom of God, how about putting those two things together and begin there. How about getting up 15 minutes and 13.6 seconds earlier than you normally do and read the lessons for the day and say the Lord’s Prayer and off you go. You will soon want to spend more time in prayer but start there. Don’t set yourself up for failure by trying to have a 2 hour quiet time from the get go.

In terms of the Mass, make it a rule that unless you are sick or dead, you will be at Mass. This is your time to receive Jesus and to offer yourself to Him as a living sacrifice. What in your life can be more important than that? But what if there is a home game? Come to Saturday Mass or Sunday at 9am. But what if I have company? Invite them to church or be a witness to seeking first the Kingdom and tell them you will be back in an hour or so. Are you saying Jesus is more important than family? Well did any of your family die for your sins?

Seek the Kingdom first through your giving. The Bible speaks of giving God our first fruits as opposed to giving God our leftovers. Someone once told Beth that after they pay all of their bills, whatever is left over, they give God 1/10 and they thought that was a tithe. But if you do the math it was probably more like 1/10 of 1 or 2%. God did not give us His leftovers, He sent His Only Son, so it is certain that He deserves more than our leftovers.

I encourage you parents to start early with your children. I don’t know what kids get today for an allowance but if you give them a dollar then train them to take a dime and set it aside to give to God as an act of worship. If they learn this early it will become a way of life and you will have done a wonderful thing for them. Jesus said that givers will receive back, pressed down and overflowing. (Lk 6:38). In doing this you will have set your children up to be blessed by God throughout their lives.

I haven’t spoken much about Mary but I do want to say that I admire her courage. Men and women had very distinct roles in those times and Mary had to have raised some eyebrows in playing the role of a disciple and sitting at Jesus’ feet. She also had to have known her sister well enough to know that she would not be pleased with her for not helping out with the chores. But being with Jesus was more important to Mary than having people’s approval and so she made that her priority. Here too Mary is a good example to us because as the climate of our nation changes I think it is going to take increasing courage to be a follower of Jesus. But when you have before you two pictures, one of a person worried and distracted and the other of a person sitting quietly at Jesus’ feet, the best choice is obvious. May God give us the grace to be a lot less like Martha and a lot more like Mary. Amen.

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