Spare a thought for Martha. The patron saint of every eldest child who has been let down by an idle younger sibling, left to protest: “It’s not fair! ”
Left to run the house, the kitchen, the washing, the animals, all by herself the moment it’s filled with Jesus and his entourage of 12 apostles. While she serves them—cooks, cleans, tends—while she works her cotton socks off to get everything done, Mary just sits on the floor, gazing at Jesus and listening to him talk. When Martha finally snaps and asks Jesus to intervene, he adds insult to injury by reprimanding her and commending Mary. It couldn’t have gone much more badly for Martha.
But the situation was even worse than that. Whatever Martha mumbled under her breath after the embarrassing reprimand from Jesus, she may well have said something along the lines of, ‘‘‘… but you said …” Had not Jesus Himself had said that it is better to give than to receive? Had he not taught His disciples repeatedly about the importance of service, about how it is the one who serves that is greatest of all? When He sent out the 72 disciples, He taught them to expect hospitality wherever they went. And the last bit of teaching, in the verse immediately preceding today’s reading, Jesus concluded the parable of the Good Samaritan by commending the Samaritan for his selfless service to the victim of a highway robbery by these words: “You go and do likewise.”
So here was Martha, giving rather than receiving—while Mary just sat and received. Here was Martha, serving, while Mary just sat and did nothing. Here was Martha, providing hospitality to the Lord Jesus, while Mary did nothing but sit and listen. Here was Martha, putting herself through the paces in order to serve the needs of Jesus and His disciples. And Mary just sat, listened, received, without a thought for giving, serving, showing hospitality—or even helping her increasingly stressed and harassed sister in her need.
Having heard, listened and learned all these teachings of Jesus, she put them into practice in His very presence—and got a gentle but unmistakeable dressing-down for having the wrong priorities. Seemingly, it was better after all to receive, to be served, to neglect hospitality, not to care for the needs of Jesus and His disciples.
You’ve got to feel sorry for poor Martha. By the standards of almost any society at any time, Mary’s behaviour is slovenly at best, and Jesus’ defence of it is just bizarre and more than a little unfair.
But apart from the bare facts of the case, there’s another reason why our immediate sympathy is likely to be with Martha. For Martha is in so many respects like us, and we are so much like her. Martha, we are told, was “distracted” with much serving. She was “anxious” and “troubled”. For her, the presence of Jesus was a burden, an additional demand. Yes, it was probably an honour—but there’s no such thing as a free lunch, and this honour brought with it many cares and troubles.
This, dear friends, is the way of the Law. Martha had heard everything Jesus had said, but they had come to her as law. She was determined to do all that Jesus had commanded: to give, to serve, to show hospitality, to love her neighbour as herself—and more than that, to welcome Jesus into her house in a way that was befitting of both His honour as an esteemed guest and hers as the head of her house. She did everything that was expected of her.
And that was Martha’s mistake. Jesus entered her house, and she sprang into action. It was the wrong thing to do. It was Mary, the one who sat and did nothing, who made the right judgement. She chose the good portion: she chose Jesus and His words. She understood that what Jesus brings to a house is far more significant and important than what the house can provide for Him. And so she sat and did nothing and allowed Jesus to serve, to give, to show her His love.
This was a hard lesson for Martha, and it is a hard lesson for us. The way of the Law is hard-wired into us and it is so ingrained that we find it impossible to escape. “Don’t just sit there—do something! ” We are naturally suspicious of free gifts. In fact, we don’t like them. Have you ever squirmed uncomfortably when someone has given you a gift or treated you to something? Uncomfortably, because it leaves you feeling that you ought to give something in return. Because you are too proud to accept sheer unrequited generosity. Because there’s no such thing as a free lunch, or at any rate there ought not to be!
While the world may think it reasonable enough, there’s no space for such thinking in the Church. As Jesus taught the apostles: “Freely you have received, freely give” (Mt 10:8). This reminds us of the importance of giving freely—but it also reminds us how vital it is to receive freely.
In the Christian church, the only lunch worth having is the free one. The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give His life as a ransom for many. When Jesus enters a house, a home, a heart, he comes to give—to give Himself. He is the King of Glory, but His moment of glory on earth was not the adulation of the crowds, or the triumphant entry to the cheers of bystanders, not even the subjection of demons and nature itself to His power. No, the Son of Man was glorified when He was exalted—that is lifted up—on the cross. The attention that He craves from us is not our gifts to Him, our selfless service. He doesn’t ask to receive anything from us—not even Mary-like devotion—and He doesn’t require any service from us. All He asks for by way of hospitality from us is to allow Him to serve and to give.
Martha meant well. She had taken Jesus’ word seriously. Like Abraham in Genesis 18, she recognised that someone extraordinary had come to her village and she went to great lengths to receive Him rightly. But she had the whole thing back to front. The three angels did not visit Abraham in order to taste the best of Sarah’s cooking; Jesus did not enter Martha’s house in order to be entertained and looked after. And Jesus does not come to us in order to receive from us. Not anything: not our worship, not our service, not our goods, not our lives, our obedience, our devotion, our piety, our prayers, our songs, our thankfulness. The Son of Man came not to be served—with these or any other things—but to serve and to give His life as a ransom for many.
So you can just sit there and do nothing. Nothing at all. Just receive: receive His forgiveness, receive His promises, receive His salvation. Because He is here now. Here, in this house, visiting this church family. Asking for nothing and doing all the giving. Gently but firmly telling you that you can leave the distractions of your life, the stresses and troubles, at the door, because you have come to an oasis, a watering hole, a place of rest and refreshment. Where all the goods are on the house, pre-paid and without limit. If you came to do stuff—to offer your service, to dignify Jesus with your gifts—I’m afraid you came on the wrong day.
But wait a minute, pastor! Am I not supposed to love my neighbour as myself? Am I not supposed to show hospitality? Am I not supposed to serve others, to make myself the least of all? Am I not supposed to be seeking to do God’s will in obedience and to honour Him with my life?
No. Not just now. Just now, you are supposed to sit there and do nothing, to receive and to enjoy your good portion: Jesus present here, for you. On another Sunday, He would be here with the very body and blood that sat in Martha and Mary’s house and was exalted on the tree of the Cross so that we could sit in His presence in an even more tangible and intimate way.
The moment we sing the final Amen this morning, you will again have plenty of opportunity to be distracted, stressed and troubled—and also to love because you have been loved first. But now, just for a moment, sit there and do nothing. Jesus wants to do the doing. For you.