Mary and Martha

A sermon by the Rev. James P. Cooper

Toronto, May 10, 2009

“Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Therefore tell her to help me.” (LUK 10:38)

I.             The 10th chapter of Luke begins with the Lord sending out 70 disciples to spread the news, to carry His message far and wide.

A.         Then we read how a lawyer asks the Lord how he can earn eternal life. That’s a pretty important question, so we should pay close attention to the Lord’s answer.

1.           Jesus asks what the lawyer understands the law to be.

2.           He answers, “Love the Lord with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind; and love your neighbour as yourself.”

3.           Jesus says to him, “Do this and you will live.”

4.           But he, wanting to justify his lack of care of the neighbour, asks Jesus, “who is my neighbour?”

B.          Jesus does not let this tossed off comment go. He answers that question by telling the lawyer the parable of the Good Samaritan.

1.           We all know the outline of the story well. The key to understanding it is knowing what a “Samaritan” was.

a.            When Nebuchadrezzar’s army carried the best and the brightest people of Judah off into captivity in 586 BC, the dregs of their society were left behind.

b.           The sickly, those too old or young to survive the journey, and those thought to be too unintelligent to be useful were left behind to fend for themselves.

c.            Suddenly without any religious or civil leaders, those remaining in the central part of Israel known as Samaria, formed partnerships with the Canaanites around them, intermarrying and borrowing aspects of their religion. They had no choice.

d.           When the other Jews returned from Babylon the gulf between the Samaritans and the “true” Jews was enormous.

2.           It must have been extremely painful for the lawyer to admit that the Samaritan, lowest of the low, was the hero of the story rather than the priest or the Levite

C.          And then again the Lord says, “Go and do likewise.” Be like a Samaritan instead of a respected lawyer, or priest, or Levite? That’s just crazy.

1.           Or maybe it’s the religion and culture that created people too arrogant and selfish to help someone in obvious need that’s crazy.

2.           With this as a background, the next thing mentioned in Luke is His visit to the home of Mary and Martha.

II.          Once the Lord began His public ministry, He didn’t have a home. He travelled from one village to another. He and His disciples did not have jobs in the traditional sense. They depended on the hospitality of the people they met to invite them into their homes and feed them. When that didn’t happen they slept where they could find shelter (as in the garden of Gethsemane), and gathered the gleanings of the fields for food.

A.         One place He was invited to stay was the home of Mary and Martha. They were sisters who lived together in a little village on the Mt. of Olives, near Jerusalem. When the Lord was passing through, Martha invited Him to stay with them.

B.          When we read the part that says that Mary sat at His feet and heard His word, remember that this is the same women we read about in the lessons, a woman whose life was in a terrible state, but was transformed by the Lord’s forgiveness. 

III.      LUK 10:38-42 Now it happened as they went that He entered a certain village; and a certain woman named Martha welcomed Him into her house. {39} And she had a sister called Mary, who also sat at Jesus’ feet and heard His word. {40} But Martha was distracted with much serving, and she approached Him and said, “Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Therefore tell her to help me.” {41} And Jesus answered and said to her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things. {42} “But one thing is needed, and Mary has chosen that good part, which will not be taken away from her.”

IV.      To understand the full meaning of this story we need to remember its placement in the chapter. Immediately before this was the question from the lawyer about how to get to heaven, followed by an example of how love to the neighbour is expressed.

A.         This little story is also part of the bigger question, how we are to prepare ourselves for heaven. And, it’s especially useful because we can apply it in so many different ways to our own lives and situations.

1.           For example, in the relationship between husbands and wives in marriage.

a.            Husbands and wives can both feel, like Martha, that they are carrying the greater burden of some marriage chore while the partner rests or does something that seems – at lest to the other spouse – to be less important.

b.           This raises the question of how we determine what’s really important, and how we set our priorities.

B.          We also feel this conflict between the immediate pressing needs of the natural versus the more distant, long term needs of our spiritual life in the way we balance the thoughts and feelings in our own minds and hearts. We feel it in the struggle that everyone feels as they try to balance the natural and spiritual aspects of their own life. We feel it as frustration when we’re trying to do something that we feel in important and needed but others don’t share our vision and commitment.

C.          And sometimes it’s just purely selfish, because we don’t like it much when we think that we are doing all the work while the other people seem to be having all the fun. 

D.         We would be mistaken to think that the Lord is teaching us that preparing a meal and caring for the home is not important. It’s just that we need to step back from time to time and view things from the Lord’s perspective, the eternal view.

1.           In regard to the care for the morrow, the focus on our day to day physical needs, AC 8478 says, But a person who views it from … the internal sense, may recognize what concern for the morrow is used to mean – not concern to obtain food and clothing for oneself, and also resources for the future; for it is not contrary to order to make provision for oneself and one’s dependants. But people are concerned about the morrow when they are not content with their lot, do not trust in God but in themselves, and have solely worldly and earthly things in view, not heavenly ones.

2.           The purpose of Divine revelation is so that we can see and be reminded of these things, be reminded of the need to stop from time to time to try to step back see things from an eternal perspective.

V.         The two women, Mary and Martha represent different parts of our own lives, two different ways that each of us serves the Lord.

A.         Martha represents that part of us that is busy, that wants to do something, be active, that is fully involved in the needs and uses of the natural world.

B.          Mary represents the spiritual element, the part of us that is dominant when we feel like sitting still and being quiet so we can think about the future and what we need to do to achieve our long term spiritual goals, and so forth.

C.          And how do we know the difference between our natural and spiritual uses?

1.           We learn the really important differences, the spiritual truths that feed the rational degree of our mind from the Word, by doing the “Mary” work.

2.           Therefore, when Mary sat as His feet, He would not take away the “good part” – the part that comes from Him through the Word.

3.           The “Martha” work isn’t bad, but we need to recognize that like all the other things of the natural world, those things exist only to serve spiritual goals. In that sense, they are of less value.

VI.      There are so many things about living in the natural world that distract us that we tend to be like Martha – thinking that the “house” things are more important.

A.         The point of this story is to remind us of our need to be like both Martha and Mary at various points in our lives – and to keep those parts in balance.

B.          How are love to the Lord and love of the neighbour expressed in our words and deeds?

1.           To do our chores and take care of our natural needs and responsibilities, and

2.           AND To look to the Lord by reading the Word, thoughtfully.

a.            To see the evils within us in the light of the Word, and to approach the Lord in humility and love, asking for His forgiveness.

b.           To begin a new life and to reflect on spiritual things.

C.          In this way, we can both live in the world happily, and by living an orderly live in the world, prepare ourselves for eternal life in heaven. AMEN.


First Lesson:  LUK 7:36-50

Then one of the Pharisees asked Him to eat with him. And He went to the Pharisee’s house, and sat down to eat. {37} And behold, a woman in the city who was a sinner, when she knew that Jesus sat at the table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of fragrant oil, {38} and stood at His feet behind Him weeping; and she began to wash His feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head; and she kissed His feet and anointed them with the fragrant oil. {39} Now when the Pharisee who had invited Him saw this, he spoke to himself, saying, “This man, if He were a prophet, would know who and what manner of woman this is who is touching Him, for she is a sinner.” {40} And Jesus answered and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” So he said, “Teacher, say it.” {41} “There was a certain creditor who had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. {42} “And when they had nothing with which to repay, he freely forgave them both. Tell Me, therefore, which of them will love him more?” {43} Simon answered and said, “I suppose the one whom he forgave more.” And He said to him, “You have rightly judged.” {44} Then He turned to the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave Me no water for My feet, but she has washed My feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head. {45} “You gave Me no kiss, but this woman has not ceased to kiss My feet since the time I came in. {46} “You did not anoint My head with oil, but this woman has anointed My feet with fragrant oil. {47} “Therefore I say to you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much. But to whom little is forgiven, the same loves little.” {48} Then He said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” {49} And those who sat at the table with Him began to say to themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” {50} Then He said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.”

Second Lesson:  LUK 11:1-2

Now a certain man was sick, Lazarus of Bethany, the town of Mary and her sister Martha. {2} It was that Mary who anointed the Lord with fragrant oil and wiped His feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was sick.

Third Lesson:  SE 1573, 1574

1573. About those who are too much engrossed in household cares. I saw a small dwelling quite deep under the left foot, toward the front. There was a large room, with furniture that I did not see, and a long hallway leading from it, as is customary. Through the hallway a woman small in stature, and ugly, was going out.

1574. When I asked what this meant, I was told that people who had overzealously devoted themselves in the life of the body to household chores occupy little dwellings like this, and remain engrossed in their domestic concerns. Indeed, very many of them are from among the common people, exemplified by old women who, even though they are not their responsibility, take those chores upon themselves, neglecting, like Martha, the better things, such as matters of faith [Luke 10:38-42].

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