[Unfortunately, the video of this service, including the sermon, did not get posted to Facebook, so it was not saved. The text of the sermon is below.]
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
This is a well-known account from Luke’s Gospel, about a time that Jesus was at the house of Martha and Mary in Bethany. Jesus seems to often stop here on His way to Jerusalem, and of course you know about the time Jesus raised their brother Lazarus from the dead. This passage is strangely intriguing to people. I thought there was one book using Mary and Martha as examples, but when I looked it up, I found at least ten books written about how Mary and Martha apply to us. Ten—none of which I’ve read, so I can’t tell you if they’re any good. But obviously there’s something that people find interesting about this interaction between Martha and Jesus (since Mary doesn’t say anything here).
But there are at least two misunderstandings about what happens here. The first is that Jesus is comparing Mary and Martha. It would be easy to think that what’s happening here is that Martha is doing bad or wrong things, and Mary is doing a good and right thing. Of course, Mary is doing a good and right thing, but is it true that Martha is doing something bad or wrong? Notice that Jesus does not rebuke Martha for the things she is doing. As far as we can tell, Jesus never goes to wherever Martha is busily working and tells her that she needs to stop and come and sit by Mary. It is not recorded that Mary brags about how much more pious and holy she is because she’s listening to Jesus while Martha is just doing housework, or something.
No, the problem is not that what Martha is doing is wrong. It is not until she comes to Jesus and tells Him that He should tell Mary to help Martha out. Jesus only speaks to her about what she’s doing when she tries to take Mary away from the feet of Jesus. The comparison here is not between Mary and Martha.
The second misunderstanding is that this is about trying to get us to reorganize our priorities. If someone asked you to put in order your priorities, it might go something like this: 1. God; 2. family; 3. friends; congregation, community, other organizations, hobbies. Something along those lines. Putting them in order of where they should be is easy. The difficulty is when we try to figure out how we’re going to measure whether our list is actually our real priorities. How are we going to measure whether we’re really prioritizing the things we know we should be prioritizing?
We could go by how much time, money, and energy we use for a given person or thing. And that’s not bad. But it’s also dangerous. Just off the top of your head, consider how much time you use per week on whatever you use it on. We might not like what we find. And then there’s the fact that we spend the hours of the night sleeping. None of you had sleep on your list of priorities, did you? And how do you put God first? By the number of hours you spend going to church, reading the Bible, praying? How far down the list would God fall if that were the criterion?
Maybe a better way would be, instead of a list of priorities, the question, what’s at the center of your life? What’s at the heart of your existence? Instead of a numbered list, what if we considered the center of things, like a wheel, with spokes extending out from that center? I do think that’s a better way of considering things, but it is still too easy to slip into measuring. And the problem with measuring is that you will never be able to make it come out right. You will never count it up so that you finish off all your works and get all the priorities in order. Measuring will always put you behind.
I said that the comparison here was not between Mary and Martha, between good things and bad things, or correct priorities and wrong priorities. That’s not the comparison; the comparison is between Jesus, with His word and gifts, and everything else. Jesus is not a priority among other priorities. Certainly, we should read the Scriptures and pray and be here. Luther says that the more he has to do in a day, the more time he spends praying. But the things of God, the word of Jesus, are not even in the same category as all our other responsibilities.
There is one thing necessary. Think about that for a second. One thing. And yet, there are a lot of other necessary things in our life. It is not optional whether I care for my family. It’s not optional whether I do my work as a pastor. God commands us to love one another, and the commands of God are not optional. Even in the church, we have “necessary” ways of serving, like boards, committees, meetings, paying the bills. But those things are necessary in a different way, necessary like Martha’s work and serving. We can miss a meeting. But Jesus says there is one thing necessary, because there is one eternal thing. When it comes to necessity, there is Jesus and there is everything else. Because there is no one else who gives eternal life. There is no other word that gives life. There is no other name under heaven by which we can be saved. However necessary are all the things we have and do, they are passing away with this world and this age and this life. Only Jesus, raised from the dead, is alive beyond death.
We have many things about which we are anxious and troubled, as Martha does. The world has no shortage of things about which to be anxious and troubled. Our lists of responsibilities never end. Love never ends. There is no time in this life when we get to the end of our lists and say, okay, I’m done. There’s always more. Someone always needs something from us. But Jesus finished His work. He came to the end of all His serving, and died. He rose from the dead, and He has gathered us here today to give us the full benefit of His work. We all come in here with all sorts of worries, burdens, joys, troubles, anxiety, work, responsibilities, successes, and failures. But we are not here to do any of that, to order it correctly, to show Jesus that we’ve got it all right.
Here is not where we do our serving, our working, our prioritizing. Here is where Jesus does His serving. Here He forgives you, lifts your burden, assures you that you are righteous not because you did all the right things, but because He has done all the right things. He gathers you in His baptismal Name and brings you before the Father and says, Here is My holy and righteous one. This one belongs to us. You’re going to have all those responsibilities when you leave, but here Jesus is doing His work, His serving, His feeding, His giving you rest. Rest at the feet of Jesus, with Mary, with all the holy ones of God. Jesus’ words are the words of eternal life. With everything else, here is the one necessary and eternal thing: Jesus with His word, His forgiveness, His body and blood. And He will not take it from you.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
— Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 7/15/22