Martha was a good hostess. She “welcomed [Jesus] into her house.” Then she got busy, wanting everything be “just so” … getting out the dinnerware, the pots and pans, preparing a meal, arranging the table, sweeping the floor where the guests would recline and eat.
Actually, Martha was doing what any respectable host or hostess would have done in that culture. Many years before Jesus visited Martha’s house, look at how Abraham responded when the Lord and two angels in human form came to visit his tent by the oaks of Mamre. In the heat of the day, he ran out to meet them. He bowed to them and begged them to let him have the opportunity to serve them. Get me some water! Let these men wash their feet! Rest here! You’re probably hungry from your journey. I’ll have my wife bake some bread for you. Quick, Sarah! Make some flapjacks for these weary travelers! I’ll go out to the herd and select one of our best calves and have it cooked up, too. Don’t forget the curds and the milk, too! Here you go, fellows. Enjoy. I’ll just stand here and watch. Can I get you anything else? Don’t hesitate to ask.
What would you do if you knew Jesus was going to pay you a visit? That was a proverbial question I remember being asked in Sunday School when I was a child. How would you prepare? Would you put all your toys away? Would you clean your room? Vacuum and dust? Clean the windows? Would you brush your teeth and comb your hair? Make sure to wash behind your ears! Would you help your mom get out the best china and polish the silverware? What kind of a meal would you serve? Would you offer Jesus the very best you have? And we would dutifully answer, “Yes!” to each of those questions. Of course that’s what you ought to do when Jesus comes for dinner.
Mary, on the other hand, was not a very good hostess. Instead of helping her sister, she “sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching.” But she is held up as an example to the Church as one who listens carefully to our Lord’s teaching and learns what his Word has to say to us. When the Lord comes to pay us a visit (and he does that every Divine Service when his Word is read and preached), our job is to sit quietly, actively listen (that means pay close attention), and passively receive from him. Too often we think that our business in service and our activity in worship will somehow make the Lord notice us more than those who are not as busy and active. But the main thing is to sit at the Lord’s feet and listen to his Word. His Word is “a lamp to my feet and light to my path.” (Ps. 119:105) And “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” (Rom. 10:17)
Martha did not sit and listen to Jesus’ teaching. There were far too many other things to do. The Gospel writer describes her as “distracted with much serving.” Have you ever felt that way? You throw a party and invite family and friends over. You’ve spent hours, maybe even days, preparing. Everyone arrives and you run around like a chicken with its head cut off. Set the food out. Arrange it. Keep the punch bowl filled. Refills on coffee. Wipe up that spill before it stains the carpet. Has anybody seen my kids?!?!
Like most busy hostesses, Martha didn’t get much of a chance to visit with the guests. She’s upset with Mary for not lifting a finger to help and sitting down on her tush. And she is also upset with Jesus for not telling Mary to get off her lazy … bottom … and give her sister a hand, for crying out loud! “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.”
Now if I was Jesus, here’s how I would have responded: “Martha, would you just chill out! Knock it off! Settle down! First of all, you ought to mind your own business. Second, you ought to learn a lesson from your sister and sit down, too, and listen to what I have to say!” In the heat of the moment, I imagine many of us may have responded in a similar way.
It’s a good thing I’m not Jesus. A miserable Savior I would be. Instead, Jesus responds to Martha with a gentle rebuke. “Martha, Martha,” he says. The repetition of a name like this is seen elsewhere in Scripture. It’s an expression of intense love. (cf. 2 Sa. 19:4; Luke 13:34) Jesus reaches out in love to calm Martha’s heart, and says, “You are anxious and troubled about many things.”
“You are anxious and troubled about many things.” Boy, doesn’t that describe us, too? That’s an understatement. So many things in our lives cause us worry, stress, anxiety, even physical pain when our body begins to react to the emotional and mental strains we have. That’s when we need to hear the voice of Jesus say to us, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” (Matt. 11:28) It’s as if Jesus here is saying to Martha … and to each one of us … “Stop what you are doing, take a deep breath, and rest in my love for you.” “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.”
Jesus deals gently with Martha because he doesn’t want to make her think that what she was doing was worthless. The type of service she was offering is good and important. The Church needs “Marthas” who are active and involved. The Church needs “Marthas” who help and serve in the congregation and outside the congregation. And when I say “Marthas” I’m not just talking about women. Acts of mercy are vital. After all, this account of Mary and Martha follows right on the heels of the story of the Good Samaritan.
And remember what we said about the Good Samaritan. Jesus became a Good Samaritan for us by offering a great price for our great need. Christ’s bloody death paid the price for the sin that separates us from God, and we are forgiven and reconciled to the Father through him. The mercy given to us moves us to acts of mercy for our neighbor, as Luther wrote,
…if we recognize the great and precious things which are given us … our hearts will be filled by the Holy Spirit with the love which makes us free, joyful, almighty workers and conquerors over all tribulations, servants of our neighbors, and yet lords of all. For those who do not recognize the gifts bestowed upon them through Christ, however, Christ has been born in vain … Just as our neighbor is in need and lacks that in which we abound, so we were in need before God and lacked his mercy. Hence, as our Heavenly Father has in Christ freely come to our aid, we also ought freely to help our neighbor through our body and its works, and each one should become as it were a Christ to the other that we may be Christs to one another and Christ may be the same in all, that is, that we may be truly Christians. (AE 31:367-68, quoted in Christ Have Mercy by Matt Harrison)
We are all called to be Marthas as those who are baptized into Christ with his Spirit living in us and motivating our hospitality and acts of service and mercy. But before we can be Marthas, we are first and foremost called to be Marys, letting nothing distract us from listening to God’s Word. Does our “church work” distract from taking time to listen to the Word of Jesus? Do our acts of service at home distract from taking time to listen to the Word of Jesus? Repent. “Burn out” often happens when our busy-ness takes precedence over the one thing that Jesus says is necessary.
And what is that “one thing” which is “necessary”? Jesus said it’s “the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.” The good portion is Jesus himself and his Word of grace, as the psalmist said, “The Lord is my portion.” (Ps. 119:57). At the end of the meal, Martha will have to clear away the table and take the remaining portions of food away. Hopefully Mary will pitch in, too, at that point. But the Lord will not remove his promise of grace and forgiveness from those who are marked with his name in Baptism and who trust in his saving death and resurrection. The good portion will not be taken away from you. And when you receive the good portion in faith, anxiety fades and troubled hearts are put at rest (Lenski, Luke, 618)
Jesus comes to our house today and prepares a table for us. He is the host. We are the guests. He “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matt. 20:28) He serves us with the good portion of his Word of grace and forgiveness. He serves us with the good portion of his Body and Blood. Nothing distracted him from his service of dying for your sins. Sit at his feet today and hear his Word of Absolution for you. Rest in the peace he earned for you at the cross. Recline at his table today and eat and drink his life-giving Body and Blood. Come and receive the good portion that our Lord, who is both host and food, offers to you today.