Scripture: Luke 10:38-42
Do you remember the story of Cecilia Gimenez from 2012? Cecilia, a resident of Spain, was a congregant at Santuario de Misericodia, which was the home of 19th century painting entitled Ecce Homo, which is a portrait of Jesus with the crown of thorns. The church, being an older building, was a damp building with a lot of moisture and this began to take a toll on the painting. The family of the original painter realized this and made a donation to a fine arts preservation institute to begin the restoration work. However, when the restorers arrived they found the job had already been done for them. Celicia Gilmenez a woman well into her 80’s had also noticed the painting was in need of repair, and she took it upon herself to do the job. Unfortunately, Mrs. Gilmenez had no actual experience at painting or restoring works of art. The results were somewhat disastrous.
Cultural councilor Juan Maria de Ojeda infamously understated that Celcilia Gimenez had undertaken the project “with good intentions, but it had gotten out of hand.” While very few of us have destroyed priceless works of arts, we have probably all undertaken something with good intentions only to have it not work out. We had the desire to do what was right, only to have something go wrong. Perhaps, like Mrs. Gimenez we got in over our heads, perhaps mistakes were made, or perhaps the circumstances just worked against whatever we were undertaking. When our good intentions go awry we have a few choices. We can stubbornly soldier on until things truly get out of hand, we can just give up and be bitter about how things did not work out, or we can learn and grow as individuals. Depending on temperament (or in my case level of stubbornness), we tend to choose one of the first two options. This morning as we continue our Lenten series that focuses on the Disciples, we turn to two of Jesus’ best known women followers. Mary and Martha may not have been considered one of the “twelve”, but the scripture makes it clear that they were followers of Jesus just as much as Peter, James, or John. This morning’s scripture is one where we see both sisters make different choices, both with the best of intentions. It turns out that Martha did not make the better choice. This was a place where Martha had the opportunity to be stubborn, get bitter, or grow. When we are confronted by this story, we find that we are faced with the same opportunity to grow.
Martha and Mary appear in both the gospel of Luke and the gospel of John, but we know frustratingly little about them. Most of what we can gather is based off of context clues. We get the impression from this morning’s scripture that Mary and Martha lived together. Since their husbands are never mentioned, we also get the impression that they were not married at the time they met Jesus. We also get the impression from the scriptures that they were women of some means. Not only were they able to provide hospitality to Jesus and his disciples on more than one occasion, but the gospel of John records that Mary washed Jesus’ feet with a bottle of perfume that’s value was a year’s worth of wages. It was unusual for women to be unmarried and self-supporting in this time period. It was even more unusual for women to have wealth. Despite being unusual, it is not unheard of in the historical record and there are many theories as to the background of Mary and Martha. The most popular is that they were simply widows from a family of means and they found a way to maintain their financial independence. Others speculate that they were actually aesthetics sworn to celibacy, and they were the caretakers of a poorhouse. There are other theories that range the gamut, but ultimately we just do not know the complete background of these two sisters. What we do know is that when Jesus came to Bethany, Martha opened up her home to him and she went about with the best of intentions to show hospitality.
From our modern day viewpoint, reading this morning’s scripture the application seems so obvious. Martha was filling her day with busy work, while Mary was filling her day with Jesus. The obvious implication is that we should be more like Mary than Martha. That may actually be the end implication of this scripture, but it is not quite as simple as we make it. In first century Middle Eastern culture, hospitality was one of the most sacred virtues. Even today, hospitality is of a high importance in Middle Eastern culture. When Martha opened her home to Jesus and extended hospitality it was on her to do it right. If Martha did not provide an adequate amount of hospitality, then she would be insulting and shaming her guests. The more Martha went above and beyond, the more work that Martha did, then the more she honored her guests. We often see Martha as busying herself, while Mary was showing devotion to Jesus. However, the first century reader may have seen this completely differently. In their view, it was Martha who was showing Jesus devotion by how much she sought to honor him by taking care of all the preparations. By the same viewpoint, Mary was being disrespectful and even shameful in her behavior by not doing her part to prepare and show hospitality. This is why Martha, exasperated, says “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do all the work?” Martha had probably hoped that Jesus would embarrass Mary and expose how shameful she had been by being inhospitable.
That is not what happened though. Jesus told Martha that Mary had made the better choice. It is really important to note that Jesus said Mary had chosen better. He did not say that Martha had chosen poorly. Martha had the best of intentions and sought to honor Jesus with her hospitality. Martha chose to serve Jesus, and there was a lot of honor in that choice. However, Mary made a different choice. This morning’s scripture does record that Mary sat at Jesus’ feet, but she was not just casually resting there. Verse 39 states that she was “listening to what she said.” Mary was actively getting to know Jesus and learning from him. Essentially the choice that Martha and Mary faced was to serve Christ or to know Christ. Mary chose to take the time to intentionally get to know him, and that is lifted up as the better choice.
This is still a choice we face today, and if we are being honest we choose to be more like Martha more often than not. If the culture of Jesus day was one that placed a high value on hospitality, then the culture of our day is one that places a high value on productivity. We tend to be results oriented and we want our results to be quantifiable. We collect statistics, we analyze trends, and we obsess over numbers because we want to prove our results. We value productivity and we applaud hard work. We tend to be do-ers. We love to express our faith through our actions, and we love to get stuff done. We feel like we are being good disciples when we are being productive disciples and doing work. There is nothing inherently wrong with that. There are needs in this world that need to be met. There are hurts that need to be tended. There are people who need compassion, and we absolutely are to let the world know we are Christians by our love. However, the entirety of our discipleship cannot be tied up in how productive we are. Martha was very productive but Mary chose what is better. She took the time to know Jesus. We seek to serve Jesus with the best of intentions, but it is of the utmost importance that we know the Jesus we are serving.
As we seek to make the better choice, I think there are two things to keep in mind. First, we have to make the time to know Jesus. Mary knew the whole list of chores that had to be done to properly honor Jesus with hospitality, but she chose to focus on the most important thing needed, knowing Jesus. If we are going to be faithful disciples of Jesus we have to know Jesus. We can only faithfully follow him if we know what he did, what he said, and what he told us to do. We can do this by taking the time to read the stories of Jesus in the gospels. We should do more though than just read and memorize facts, we need to internalize the stories. We need to let them seep into our mind and heart, so that our words, thoughts, and actions are directly influenced by Jesus words, thoughts, and actions. This is an area many of us could improve in. A 2012 survey found that 80% of self-identified Christians do not read the bible daily, but the vast majority of us want to read it more. The number one reason given for not reading the bible more is a lack of time. I understand that many of us are very busy, but if we are being honest we do not lack time to read the bible. The average American spends 40 minutes on Facebook every day. The average American also spends an hour and a half watching Netflix every day. If you do not do computer stuff then just replace Facebook and Netflix with cable television. If we are being honest, we have the time we just chose not to make the time. If we are going to choose the better way though, we need to choose to make the time. The better way of Mary is when we take the time to sit at the feet of Jesus and get to know him. This is something that is doable for us. If you feel like this is something that you need to do, then I have a challenge for you. If you start today, then before Easter you can read the entire gospel of Mark by reading a chapter a day (plus two days of reading two chapters). Even people who take their time when they read should be able to tackle a chapter in the time it takes to watch a sit-com episode. If you want to do this, but you do not have a Bible then let me know, because we can fix that before you leave here today. This is something all of us can do.
The second thing to keep in mind as we seek to follow Mary’s example and make the better choice is that we need to slow down. Many of us do not do well with slow. A good test of someone’s character is have them get stuck behind a slow car in the fast lane and see how they deal with that. On the Interstate usually the speed limit is around 70 MPH, and most people treat that as a cute speed suggestion as they go 75, 80, or faster. We travel as fast as we can. Jesus on the other hand walked everywhere. We travel 70 MPH or faster, Jesus traveled at 3 MPH, the average walking speed. Given our desire to go fast, it is not wonder that we often get ahead of our savior. It is no wonder we want to jump straight into doing. We want to get to what is important, but in doing so we can miss what is truly important. We can be like Martha we are so busy rushing around that we “are worried and upset about many things.” Not only does slowing down help us find the time to sit at the feet of Jesus, but slowing down helps notice the things we might otherwise miss. When we slow down we might notice the people around us more. We might notice the needs they have and the hurts we can tend to. We might notice the ways that we can better put into practice the teachings and example of Jesus. Jesus said that “few things are needed- indeed only one.” When we slow down, we are better able to remember this. We are able to remember that what we need, what our friends and family need, what the world needs is the forgiveness and grace of Jesus the messiah. When we slow down we are less distracted and we can focus on what is truly important, what is most important.
As disciples of Jesus, there is a time to serve. However, we need to make sure that we first make the better the choice. We can only be a disciple of Jesus if we know Jesus, and that means taking the time to make the better choice. Once we sit at the feet of Jesus, then (and only then) are we equipped to honor him by how we serve and by what we do. As we seek to be better disciples may we learn from Martha and may we follow the example of Mary. May we be devoted to knowing and following whole heartily our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Then, in doing so we will not just be serving with the best of intentions, but rather we will be the very hands and feet of Christ bringing hope and love into a hurting world.