First Things First


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Luke 10:38-42

Once again, as is the case with most of this material in these chapters of Luke, we have an incident not recorded in the other Gospels though it concerns people mentioned in the Gospel of John. There is a question as to why it is located where it is. In no other nearby material does the Lord seem to be in the vicinity of Jerusalem, but Bethany, which is where Martha and Mary lived, was but two miles from the capital.  Perhaps the Lord had made a quick trip to the city, of which trip otherwise we know nothing. There is a great deal we do not know about the Lord’s itinerary during the last year of his ministry. Perhaps he had come to the capital for one of the feasts. Or perhaps Luke put here an incident that occurred at another time as a counterpoise to the parable of the Good Samaritan, lest anyone think that salvation was to be earned by good works, as some might conclude from the account of the parable that begins with the question “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” and ends with the Lord’s statement: “You go and do likewise.” [Morris, 209-210; cf. Ryle, I, 389] This is how you inherit eternal life.

Luke was a master story teller and what we are about to read is a perfect demonstration of his art. In a few deft strokes he paints the scene. We can all see exactly what happened; we can even hear the exasperation in Martha’s voice. The human condition is today what it has always been!

Text Comment

v.38     The impression is that Martha was the older sister and the hostess of the home. The parents must have died by now. Obviously there was an already existing relationship. Jesus felt at home with these friends — Martha, Mary, and their brother Lazarus — and they were among his devoted disciples. How that relationship had begun and how long it had existed we do not know.

v.39     This vignette is perfectly consistent with the other information we are given about this Mary in the Gospels. She was a woman who felt deeply and was devoted to Jesus. This was the Mary, you remember, who broke the expensive jar of perfume over the Lord’s feet and them wiped them dry with her hair. That happened, you recall, at a feast held in this same home after Lazarus had been raised from the dead. We read of all that in John 12. There we also read of Martha serving while Mary devoted all of her attention to the Lord.

v.40     It is not hard to imagine Martha’s tone of voice! Had this all happened in the hallway of Covenant High School, Mr. Hannula might have interrupted her: “TOV check, Martha; TOV check!” Tone of voice!

v.41     The double use of her name is an indication of tenderness.

v.42     The point is clear enough in the general sense. Mary is concentrating on the one thing that is always appropriate and absolutely necessary. Nothing, however good in itself, can be allowed to distract us from that. Mary’s concentration on the Lord and his teaching is more important than even Martha’s concern to offer her guests, the Lord included, a good meal. What Martha was doing was hardly wrong, but her attitude about Mary’s non-participation in the serving revealed a mistake in her outlook. Mary wanted more soul-benefit [Ryle] and especially more of the Lord himself. That is and must always be the chief thing, the primary thing, the one thing needful for a Christian. Many commentators make the connection between the Lord’s remark here and the famous statement of Deut. 8:3: “man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the Lord.” A disciple of Jesus can never be too busy to sit at the Lord’s feet, to learn from him, and to commune with him.

Martha and Mary take the places that they take in this immortal scene because, though they were sisters, they were different women. Martha was the older sister and, as we know, that itself can make for significant differences. I have two sisters, one already with the Lord. And it is not at all difficult for me to see Martha and Mary in my two sisters. Christians are not the same. They are inclined to different approaches to life and to the Christian life. All of that is as it should be and will be. The Lord does not mean that we are all to be the same and do the same.

Indeed let’s begin by making sure we know what the Lord did not mean by what he said to Martha. First, following hard on the parable of the Good Samaritan as this short narrative does, the Lord can hardly be taken to mean that Martha’s hospitality and concern for her guests was misplaced or unimportant or unnecessary. Throughout the Bible gracious hospitality is a virtue and a duty to which we are summoned. Hospitality is, indeed, a distinctly Christian virtue. The Lord can be quite stern in rebuking those who for so-called “spiritual” reasons neglect their ordinary responsibilities for others or who refuse to make “guests” of people they meet. The Lord’s gentle rebuke of Martha was aimed at both her attitude of irritation with her sister and the misplacement of her priorities, putting her emphasis on the wrong thing at that particular moment.

The great work of the Dutch scholar De Graaf, Promise and Deliverance is a book that has had immense influence on American Christianity over the last half century or so, especially the American Reformed churches. It was written with Sunday School teachers in mind because they  teach the stories of the Bible to the church’s children. The book is an account of all the stories of the Bible, OT and NT alike, in four significant volumes. De Graaf was concerned that we not moralize the Lord’s message to Martha and miss his point. The point, he reminds us, is not that Martha was doing something wrong and that she should have been sitting at Jesus’ feet as Mary was. Indeed, he says, one can do what Martha was doing in Mary’s spirit of dependence upon and hunger for more of the Lord. The point is that the most important thing is always for us to be abiding in Christ, loving him, and waiting upon his Word. Martha could have been doing that while she was busy fixing the meal and, if she had been, she would not have been either troubled by or jealous of her sister. [iii, 378-379] No one should take the Lord to mean that Martha should not have bothered with a meal for her guests because the Word of God is more important than food. We will see Jesus enjoying a feast in this same home some months later in John 12. Somebody had to prepare and serve the food! I think, these women being who and what they were, Martha may be expected to have learned the lesson the Lord taught her here, but there she is months later serving her guests while Mary was anointing the Lord, just the sort of division of labor we find here in Luke 10. It’s Martha’s attitude or perspective not her activity that is at fault. Think about this. Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God! As he was in the world could anyone have justified doing anything but sit at his feet and hang on every word that came out of his mouth? It is easy to think that anything else would be a great mistake. But then, who would have eaten and how would the Lord have eaten? I don’t think he prepared very many meals for himself during those three years of his public ministry. Virtually all of his food would have been fixed by somebody else, as was right. But if, as a man, he had to eat, someone had to prepare the food! So long as he was in the world was it indeed right only to sit at his feet and hang on his every word. Not if he went hungry as a result!

Second, in a similar way, the Lord’s commendation of Mary’s choice should not be taken, as it has often been, as the recommendation of a particular calling or lifestyle, the contemplative life as opposed to a life of worldly business. That too is not the Lord’s point. Roman Catholic writers through the ages have often appealed to this text as a justification for the monastic or conventual life, the life of monks or nuns. In this way of viewing this incident, Mary represents the monks and nuns while Martha represents the lesser Christians who occupy themselves with secular callings and responsibilities. Mary’s is the higher, Martha’s the lower order of Christian life and discipleship.

Now it was a mistake for many Protestants to reject the principle of the monastic life root and branch. An argument can be found here for what monasteries and convents at their best were intended to be and do. The Scripture itself teaches us that some have been called to a single life for the sake of the kingdom of God, that Christians sometimes have held their property in common, and that there is a sense in which such people are free to live a life of undistracted loyalty to the Lord and his cause in a way married people are not. Doesn’t Paul say precisely that in 1 Cor. 7? Surely it would be wrong to argue that it is never right for Christians to take vows of poverty or to seek a life of daily devotion to the Lord. Some of our Protestant heroes did as much. There was much about developed monasticism that was genuinely objectionable and that world was certainly no more immune to human frailty and sinfulness than the world of family and business. But I hope none of us would criticize the impulse of a Christian man or woman who wished to make Mary’s example here a pattern for his or her own life.

But it is clearly not an either/or that the Lord is setting before us as if we must choose between a life of devotion and meditation on the Word of God or a life of active service, still less is he teaching us to prefer the former to the latter. In John 11, in the account of Lazarus’ death and resurrection, it is Martha who appears in the role of the seeker of truth but in John 12 she is serving once again. Very often in the Christian past an eager seeking after the Lord, after the meaning of his life and teaching, to the virtual exclusion of everything else, has been the first step in what became a life of very active and busy service, in which ever after kingdom work was so pressing and so unrelenting that time for contemplation and meditation could be found only at the cost of much needed sleep. Such, after all, had been the life of the Lord Jesus himself. He would have loved to have had a few more hours in the day to commune with his heavenly Father, to read the Word of God and consider its meaning for himself, but to get that he would have had and he did have to sacrifice the sleep he so desperately needed after his exhausting days of ministry.

After his conversion, Augustine intended and even laid plans for a contemplative life. He actually embarked on such a life with some of his friends. But he was literally snatched from that life by the summons of the church and was forced by the calling of God into that amazingly useful, unrelentingly busy, and worldly life — worldly in the very best sense of the word — that he was to live until the day he died.

What Jesus said to Martha is as relevant to any Christian — no matter his calling — as to any other. It is as relevant to the Christian homemaker as it is to the Christian businessman or woman, as relevant to the worker as to the retiree, as relevant to the Christian politician as to the Christian missionary.

His point in speaking of Martha’s anxious distraction and Mary’s better choice was simply that there is one thing that is more important than anything else and that one thing must command the absolute commitment and attention of our hearts. Even the other important things that we do, even those things we are commanded to do must take their place behind and beneath this other thing, which is the Lord’s place in our hearts and his presence in our lives.

Martha was as much a believing woman as was her sister Mary. No doubt she was serving her guests from the highest motives. She wanted to serve the Lord and we have no reason to think there was any insincerity in that desire. Her house was probably crammed full of the Lord’s disciples — some, if not most of the Twelve — together with her own family and perhaps others as well. And she was glad they were all there; she didn’t begrudge the work but obviously someone had to prepare the meal! Everyone was expecting to eat, the Lord included! We do not get the impression that this was the first time the Lord and some of his disciples had eaten at her home. We learn elsewhere that Martha was a woman of deep feeling herself, of spiritual conviction, and of faith. She was a true follower of Jesus. She loved him and she rejoiced to believe he was the Messiah. It was an honor to have the Lord in her home.

But there was that in Martha’s attitude, betrayed in her irritation with Mary, that indicated she had, at least momentarily, lost sight of the bigger picture. She saw clearly that it was her calling to serve the Lord — and in that she was entirely right — but she had forgotten, as Mary had not, that the essential thing, the first thing, the most important thing was not to serve but to be served. What Christ must do for us, what he must be to us and for us; that is the essential thing; not what we do for him or for others in his name. Our serving him must come from and be a response to his serving us.

Does that sound to you like a distinction too fine, a point too obscure to make so much of? It can sound that like, I’m sure. After all, Christians are to love the Lord and serve him in serving others and Martha did both. But the fact is Martha’s mistake is fundamental and one we make virtually every day.

We are, most of us, not tempted to reject the Lord or to become indifferent to living for him. We love him and we want to serve him. Our danger is far more likely to be distraction such as Martha experienced. We are busy with all the things we have to do — duties and obligations that we must fulfill. Things at home, things at work; activities and responsibilities with our wives or husbands, with our children, with our Christian friends, with the church, and with our neighbors. Our lives are crowded with important, necessary things that must be done. We fully intend to serve the Lord in and by doing all of this, but by a subtle, unrecognized, and unwitting loss of perspective we allow these activities and these duties to displace the Lord himself and his presence at the center of the consciousness of our hearts. We are just doing, we are not in all of that doing actively believing in the Lord, loving him, and acting in the conscious awareness of his presence with us. And, as any thoughtful Christian knows from experience, this unmindfulness of the Lord, this lack of concentration on him, this busyness in which we are forgetful of him and his grace and his presence happens every day and without our conscious recognition. Such it was in Martha’s case and such it very often is in ours. Our Christian life in this way is reduced, at least at that moment, to a set of beliefs and a system of duties; it is not at the moment an affair of the heart, an active dependence of our souls on him, a seeking of the Lord Jesus himself.

The Lord’s response to Martha was a reminder to us all of how easily we can lose sight of the Lord himself and in all our doing not be loving him or consciously serving him. The happy fact is that if we keep the Lord in the center of our conscious life and maintain our relationship and communion with him as the active principle of our doing, we don’t neglect our responsibilities or get less done; quite the contrary. What we do we do more cheerfully, more usefully, and so much better than we would have done it otherwise. What Martha needed then and what we so often need is what Anna Waring described so beautifully in her hymn: “a mind to blend with outward life while keeping at thy side.” Jesus was sitting in Martha’s home, he was her guest, he was just a few feet away. But so far as her mind and heart were concerned he might as well have been far away.

So if we are inclined to reply with some frustration, as Martha did, well, that is all very well, but who is going to fix my marriage, or who is going to serve the needs of my children, or who is going to earn the money to pay the bills, or who is going to solve this problem I am facing, the Lord’s reply is perfectly suited to us as well: “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary…”

You need food and clothing to be sure; you need a healthy marriage and a happy home. To be sure. You have many responsibilities to fulfill; absolutely! You must live an active, responsible,  and busy life as a Christian. But you don’t need to do those things first; they are not necessary as much as he is! All the more because none of them can be done very well in any other way but by doing them in the active consciousness of his presence. This is the mystical nature of the Christian life: the communion of our souls with the person of the Lord Jesus Christ himself. The best way to a healthy marriage and a happy home and a productive job is simply to seek those things and work for those things with you mind alert to the presence of the Lord Jesus, depending upon his grace, and seeking to be faithful to his Word. You see, Martha could have prepared and served the meal and been sitting at the Lord’s feet at the same time. You can meet your responsibilities in life every day while remaining always, like Mary, sitting at the Lord’s feet and listening to his teaching or breaking an expensive vial of perfume over his feet.

Just as John Bunyan’s pilgrim made his entire journey, with all of its daring, danger, and adventure — the Slough of Despond, the Wicket Gate, the Hill Difficulty, Forgetful Green, the Valley of Humiliation, Vanity Fair, Doubting Castle and all those other fabled places, battling Apollyon, Giant Despair, and the rest of his adversaries along the way — I say just as he made that entire trip all the while in his own home, working at his own trade, and sitting at his own fireside, so Christians can do all that they are called to do while sitting at the feet of the Savior, looking up at his face, and listening to him. This is a wonderful truth and an extraordinarily simplifying one. Life can be complicated, but it requires of us but one thing above all: that we keep our minds and hearts fixed on the Lord Jesus himself and do all that we do in the consciousness of his personal presence, his grace, love, and power.

Alexander Moody Stuart, one of the great preachers of the Scottish church in the 19th century, once preached a series of sermons on three of the Marys of the Gospels: Mary the mother of the Lord, Mary Magdalene and this Mary, Mary of Bethany. These sermons were later published as the book The Three Marys. In that book and commenting on this particular incident, Moody Stuart contrived an illustration of the Lord’s point, a way of describing what is always true of the unbelieving mind but which, as Martha learned, can be all too commonly true of the Christian mind. After all, our problem in life, is it not, that in far too many ways we think like, feel like and act like unbelievers instead of the believers that we are? Here is Moody Stuart’s illustration of the point the Lord made to Martha.

“A man is justly condemned to die, having been guilty of a crime deserving death, and for which he has no hope of pardon; but otherwise he is not a reckless man, and he tenderly loves his wife and children. The day of execution approaches, and he is busy in his cell devising and doing all in his power to lighten the heavy blow that is to fall upon his family. From morning till night he is earnestly [writing] letters of consolation to all of them in the bitter prospect, writing [on their behalf] to many friends who may help them in their desolation [after he is gone], and bequeathing to each whatever of his effects may be most valued or most [useful].

The king’s messenger enters the prison [holding a document containing] the sovereign’s [complete pardon] on the simple condition of the prisoner [admitting] the justice of his [punishment], and his grateful acceptance of the pardon. [It’s laid on the table right where the man is writing his letters so furiously.] But how sad the spectacle! The unhappy man is so occupied, that he will not read the king’s message. It will require all his time, every hour, every moment that remains, to accomplish the many things he has to do, and after all he will have to leave them only half-finished. He has not a minute to spare.

O wretched man! One thing is needful for you, and only one; the king’s favour, your pardon, your life, and it is here. The rest are all useless; your head and your hands are full of needless labours; this one grant relieves you of them all. Wife, and son, and daughter need no dying counsels, nor thoughtful bequests, nor helpful friends; for by this one gift your own life is saved, and you are yourself given back to them with all you have, and all you can think or do on their behalf. The wretched man cannot take it in; life is impossible for him; the one great good is hopeless, and he must save every moment for the many little objects that are still within his power. O benighted, miserable man! One thing is needful, and nothing more; those many things are destroying you; this one would save both you and yours.” [The Three Marys, 167-168]

It is an arresting picture of the unsaved man or woman, busy about so many things, brow pursed with concentration on one thing or another, worried about this, anxious about that, not a one of which things is of first importance, not a one of which things will last, while the one thing that, were they to obtain it, would utterly transform their lives forever and fulfill all their dreams of happiness lies unnoticed, uncared for, and ignored.

But that same kind of attitude can afflict the Christian as well. Martha was no unbeliever. Hers was a temporary lapse. But it was a lapse we are all guilty of more than we know. We begin to think only of our activities, our duties, our busyness and forget and ignore the one and his salvation that gives all of that activity true and lasting meaning. We have with us every single moment of every day the active, attentive presence of the Creator of heaven and earth and the Savior of the world and we are always living as if that were not true. That was Martha’s mistake. She should have realized that she was serving the Lord, that he loved her for that service, that it counted for even more because she was doing it for him and doing it alone, and that he would never fail to appreciate her sacrifice because he loved her and loved what she was doing. She should have reveled in the fact that she was making it possible for her sister to sit at the Lord’s feet. But too often the person of Jesus himself recedes into the background and activities replace him in our active consciousness, even those activities that we are ostensibly doing in his name or for his sake. Thoughtful Christians know very well that they can and they have even prayed in Martha’s distracted state of mind, they have even worshipped in that state of mind, they have even spoken of Christ to others in Martha’s distracted, anxious and troubled state of mind.

Admit the danger to yourself, a dozen times a day if you must. Remind yourself that you really need only this one thing: Christ himself present in your active consciousness. If you have him you have everything and you can do all that you must do so much better, so much more wisely, in so much happier and holier a spirit. Whether you are sitting in front of your computer at home or at work, whether you are working or playing, whether you are with your children or with your friends, or worshipping in this house, no matter what you are doing, do what you are doing in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, with your ear open to his voice, your eye fixed on his face. Pause until your soul has remembered that the Lord Jesus is with you and then begin your activity, whatever it may be.

You remember the famous title by Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God. Lawrence was a 17th century Roman Catholic, a lay monk indeed. And yet his book was beloved of both Catholics and Protestants, a favorite of John Wesley and of the 20th century evangelical A.W. Tozer. What is very interesting for us with this particular text from Luke 10 before us this morning, is that Brother Lawrence’s job was in the monastery kitchen. It was amidst the tedious chores of preparing meals and cleaning up after them that he developed his conviction about keeping the presence of the Lord in the center of one’s active consciousness. He came to feel that having a proper heart about tasks made every detail of his life possess surpassing value. “I began to live as if there were no one save God and me in the world.” Brother Lawrence felt that he cooked meals, ran errands, scrubbed pots, and endured the scorn of the world alongside God. Given Martha’s failure at just this point, it is surely striking that one of Brother Lawrence’s most famous sayings refers to his life and work in the kitchen:
“The time of business does not with me differ from the time of prayer; and in the noise and clatter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I possess God in as great tranquility as if I were upon my knees at the blessed sacrament.
He admitted that the path to this living sense of Christ’s presence was not easy. He spent years disciplining his heart and mind to yield to God’s presence.

“As often as I could, I placed myself as a worshiper before him, fixing my mind upon his holy presence, recalling it when I found it wandering from him. This proved to be an exercise frequently painful, yet I persisted through all difficulties.”

We also have found that Martha’s lesson is not easy to learn, nor to remember it and take it to heart every day. But that is the lesson Jesus taught Martha: she needed to practice his presence; not take it for granted, not assume it, not consider it from time to time, but to practice it, to live in the experience of it and the conviction of it, no matter what she was doing at the time. And that is what we are to do: we are to practice the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ until his presence in our hearts and lives dominates our thoughts and our actions and as with Martha our attitudes. The one thing necessary is not finally a thing at all; it is a person, the Lord Jesus himself.