Jesus, Our Teacher
The account of Mary and Martha is a familiar one. A cursory read of the passage leads most of us to imagine that the storyline can be reduced to a comparison between the active life of Martha and the contemplative life of Mary.
In some commentaries, the criticism of Martha is unduly harsh, while Mary is exalted for her ‘monastic’ example. There are other commentaries, however, that attempt to diminish the notion that Martha has acted imprudently. These commentaries go so far as to praise Martha for her noble efforts in serving Jesus.
I want to suggest to you this morning, that the key to properly understanding this passage lies in another biblical text. In John’s gospel, chapters 11 and 12, we learn a great deal more about Mary and Martha, and the nature of their relationship to Jesus. And what we learn in John 11 and 12 will be of considerable assistance to us as we seek to interpret, and apply, Luke, chapter 10.
In Luke chapter 10, we learn how Mary and Martha acted within a particular context at a particular time. What we learn from surveying some other New Testament texts, however, is that there is much more to Mary and Martha then what we find in Luke 10.
If we examine only Luke 10, we might be tempted to conclude that Martha is an extremely self-centred and self-righteous person. We might even conclude, based on His rebuke, that Jesus is not very fond of Martha. But, if we turn to John, chapter 11, what do we find?
First, Mary is introduced, and then “her sister Martha” (Jn. 11:1), and then their “brother Lazarus” (11:2). The sisters send a message to Jesus regarding Lazarus, “he whom you love is sick” (11:3). John follows up that statement by telling us, “Jesus loved Martha, and her sister, and Lazarus” (11:5).
It is no little thing to read that Jesus loved Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. Yes, we know that Jesus is loving, but aside from the five references to “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (i.e. Jn. 21:20), this is the only other reference to Jesus explicitly loving someone in the New Testament. Of course, there were others whom Jesus loved, but it is significant that these receive special mention.
Martha, who is rebuked by Jesus in Luke 10, is not some annoyance, but someone Jesus loves.
As we read on in John 11, we read that Jesus purposely delays His trip to Bethany to see Lazarus. Only when Jesus knows that Lazarus is dead does He begin His journey there. When Martha learns that Jesus is on His way, she leaves the house to meet Him. Their dialogue, recorded for us in John 11, concludes with Jesus asking Martha if she believes that He is “the resurrection and the life (and that) he who believes in (Him) will live even if he dies” (11:25).
Martha does not precisely answer the question she was asked, but she does respond with an answer of faith: “Yes, Lord; I have believed that You are the Christ, the Son of God” (11:27).
What do we know about Martha, as we unpack Luke 10? We know that Jesus loved Martha. And, we also know that Martha’s faith in Jesus is orthodox. Her faith may not yet be mature; her faith may frequently vacillate, but Martha’s faith is nonetheless orthodox.
As we return our attention then, to Luke 10:38-42, we do so understanding that Jesus was dining with women He loved—Mary and Martha were among Jesus’ closest friends.
In this brief account, Luke begins by telling us that Mary “was listening to the Lord’s word, seated at His feet” (Lk. 10:39). Mary’s posture at Jesus’ feet expresses, both, humility and an eagerness to learn. Mary understood that this was no ordinary teacher, and so she was going to soak up every word Jesus spoke.
The image of Mary at Jesus’ feet has led many to highlight Mary’s subjective adoration and worship of Jesus. While, it is certainly true that Mary adored Jesus, we should not glean that emphasis from this particular verse. In Jesus’ day, to sit at another person’s feet was to assume the posture of a student. This posture had more to do with learning than with love. Again, we do not doubt Mary’s love for Jesus—we see Mary display her affection for Jesus on other occasions. But from this account, it is not so much Mary’s affection for Jesus we see, as it is her express desire to learn from her teacher.
Martha, on the other hand, was too “distracted with all her (dinner) preparations” (10:40). Listening to Jesus teach, sitting down to hear a sermon, would surely interfere with her ability to produce a good dinner—so she thought. Frustrated that she was left to make preparations on her own Martha confronts Jesus, saying, “Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to do all the serving on my own? Tell her to help me” (10:40).
Even before we read about Jesus’ rebuke, we should get the sense that something is not right here. Look at the use of the pronouns ‘my’ and ‘me’ in her complaint to Jesus; they are used four times: “Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to do all the serving on my own? Tell her to help me”.
Martha’s complaint betrays her real focus. Jesus was no longer Martha’s primary concern. By this point, Martha was primarily concerned with Martha.
This is a real danger for the serving Christian. We sign up to do a task; we sign up to join a committee because we love Jesus, but as time goes on we begin to feel unappreciated and neglected—left alone to do the work. Eventually, we forget why we signed up in the first place, and we begin to resent having to do all of the work. When this happens, we turn something wonderful; we turn Christian service into something that is dishonouring to God.
In addition to honouring God, Christian service should not fail to bring the servant pleasure—even if no one else is helping you; even if no one else is noticing your efforts. Christian service should not fail to produce in us joy if it is aimed at pleasing Jesus Christ.
Martha was not joyful in her service, and this was a problem. “The Lord answered and said to her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried about so many things; but only a few things are necessary, really only one, for Mary has chosen the good part, which shall not be taken away from her’”(10:41, 42).
Martha was certain that her work was the most important work. Sometimes we think like that. We sometimes think that Jesus desperately needs us and that He could not do without our service. Really, it is the reverse that is true. We desperately need Jesus; we need Him to serve us the way He served Mary. We need Jesus to instruct us. The one “really necessary” thing for you and I is to sit at the feet of Jesus, our Teacher.
Serving Christ is a good thing, but too often we, like Martha, allow our service to get in the way of our study of God’s Word.
I think about all of the parents that I encounter during the week. Parents will pull their kids out of all sorts of activities in order to ensure that their children finish their homework. Kids get pulled out of hockey practices, swimming lessons, church programs, and music classes—all for the sake of studying. I suspect I will do precisely the same when Anya is in school.
But what about us? Who is going to hold us accountable to studying God’s Word? I’m afraid that I can’t do that for you. I’m not going to show break up your Friday afternoon bridge game and say, ‘That’s enough for today. Time to go home and study your Bible.’ I’m not going to show up at your golf club and say, ‘Just nine holes today, you’ve got some Bible reading to do.’ Nor am I going to show up at your workplace to explain to your employer that you can no longer work any overtime because of your Bible study commitments.
If you are going to follow Mary’s example, if you are going to engage in the one thing that is really necessary, and sit at the feet of Jesus—this is something you must resolve to do.
My guess is that more of us relate to Martha, than to Mary. I don’t know too many ‘Mary’s’, but I do know lots of people, including myself, who are prone to Martha-like tendencies. We are quick to volunteer; quick to serve; eager to get things done, but hymns like ‘Be still my soul’ make no sense to us. Many of us don’t know what it’s like to have a soul experiencing such peace and tranquility.
How do we get that? Would you believe that the answer to being a ‘Mary’ is found in Martha? Listen to what John writes, in his gospel, in chapter 12, verses one and two: “Six days before Passover, Jesus came to Bethany where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. So they made Him a supper there, and Martha was serving”.
We know from Matthew, and Mark’s descriptions of this dinner that the disciples of Jesus were present, and that they were dining at the house of Simon the Leper. That’s 12 disciples, Jesus, Mary, Lazarus, presumably Simon the Leper, and Martha serving. Martha is serving 16 people, but on this occasion there is no indication that it was any bother. Previously, she had one guest and she was having a fit. Now, she has 16 guests and is not troubled in the least. What had changed?
What had changed, of course, was that in between the two dinners, Martha’s brother Lazarus had died, and was four days in the tomb (Jn. 11:17) when Jesus brought him back to life.
Prior to the raising of Lazarus, Martha had confessed belief that Jesus was “the Christ, the Son of God” (Jn. 11:27). But now, having witnessed the resurrection of her brother, what Martha believed in her head became engraved upon her heart.
Mary was content to learn at the feet of Jesus, her teacher; it was enough for Mary to hear the words of instruction. But Martha required something different. Because she would not slow herself down in the presence of her Lord, Jesus made a point of slowing Martha down. It was an object lesson of the most profound kind: Jesus allows Lazarus to die, and waits four days before bringing him back to life again.
Mary was eager to learn; Martha was more reluctant, but at the end of the day, Jesus taught them both, and both responded in faithful service.
Martha thought that the sermon could wait. Martha imagined that there would be time enough for studying when all the work was done. Martha was wrong. “One (thing)” is truly necessary is what Jesus told her. Mary understood that sitting at the feet of Jesus, her teacher, was a most precious privilege. Martha, too, would come to better appreciate the wisdom of her Lord.
Friends, do you know the sweetness of sitting at the feet of Jesus, our teacher? Seek Him in the Scriptures, seek Him in prayer knowing that, in this life, there is only one thing that is really necessary. Amen.