The text is Mary and Martha which is usually taken as a compare and contrast of two symbols. Martha representing the active life and Mary the contemplative life. But I think that is a bit facile. And I’m basing that on both the immediate context – largely Luke 9-10 – and the life situation that is being displayed. Martha and Mary are not simple cut outs. Both are making choices about actions. And Martha’s request and Jesus’ words are not directed at action, but disordered action. Mary is acting. She is just acting after contemplating the good of the Kingdom. Not what her own anxieties and troubles desired, but what Jesus desired. As a sermon, it is probably a bit subtle. But the take away if I were to force one would simply be ordered action. A gift of the spirit is self-control. In the spirit we have the ability to act with kingdom purpose, not out of our anxiety.
Luke has a habit of telling a powerful story (The Good Samaritan) and following it up with a minor correction (Mary and Martha). That minor correction is the text of this week. (A couple of other examples are the Sermon on the Plain’s teaching about loving you enemies and not judging other (Luke 6:27-42) followed by a tree and its fruit (Luke 6:43-45). The net effect is love your enemy, don’t judge him, but don’t let your brains fall out. Two chapters later you have the parable of the sower & the purpose of the parables (Luke 8:4-15) which emphasize the roll of election followed by the short teaching on a lamp under a jar (Luke 8:16-18). The net effect is that you can’t guess the yield, and many who hear won’t understand, but don’t be overly discriminating is sharing the gospel. Election and mission are not to be placed in opposition.) The Martha and Mary story reminds us of the “one thing needful”. As important as being a neighbor/service is, the one needful thing is Christ. Christ is our neighbor, he came to serve us, so that we could serve others. And the means of that divine service to us is the Word. So this sermon is about the importance of Faith Alone and Word Alone – two thirds of the Reformation Solas – and how because they are Christ’s work, they will not be taken from us.
Recording Note: I’ve left in our closing hymn LSB 583 God Has Spoken by His Prophets. I think the stretch from prophets to now and the focus on the unchanging message of Christ alone captures the solidness of the promise. Nations rise and fall, the world’s despair and turmoil seems never ending, but God abides with us. We have a sure anchor. And it will not be taken from us.
Mary and Martha. That used to be the jumping off point for a bunch of buddy stories. But the text is not about a conflict of personality. The revisionist and womanist (or is it womynist) preacher makes great hay out of this text. Martha is the enforcer of accepted patriarchal social scripts which Mary chooses to ignore. Jesus backs up her choice securing her already grasped freedom. (Just to be clear, Mary moves first, Jesus just gives moral support). But that would seem to be majoring in minors – although there is enough truth you can’t just scoff.
The context is the help. Last week was the good Samaritan and in previous weeks the 70 were sent out and great things are happening. The whole contingent is on the move. They are doing great things. The disciples, and us the reader, could be forgiven for taking the point of the Christian life as being a heroic do-gooder. And then we see the ultimate do gooder. Martha is serving everyone…and Mary just sits. Jesus, do you mean what you’ve been saying?
Like Martha, the church is full of care and distracted by all the things that need taken care of. And there will be plenty of opportunity to serve. Nobody ever gets in your way when you don the role of the servant. But the world, the devil and our own flesh will labor mightily to keep us from the Word. Service not grounded first and firmly in the Word of God is just so much trouble. The one needful thing – the one thing that we can’t go without is the Word. And that is typically presented as a choice. Do we choose the feet of the Jesus, or our cares? Everything else shall pass away, but what is done at the foot of the cross will never be taken away.