When Jesus spoke people listened…most of the time. At least they heard his words. Jesus’ words were electrifying words, guilt-applying words, polarizing words, dividing words – and people often reacted in those ways. They fell down afraid when he said, “I am he,” in Gethsemane. They took offense when he called them “whitewashed tombs”. They furiously drove him toward the edge of a cliff when he claimed to be prophecy fulfilled. They foamed with anger and crucified him when he declared his return – the Son of God riding the clouds and judging in righteousness. So many things they thought were better; so many things they thought they needed more than those Jesus-words.
I imagine the courtyard of Martha’s home might have echoed with Jesus-words as the Savior sat to eat with her and her sister, Mary, and her brother, Lazarus. Under the cover of gold-tinted, early-fall leaves they might have sat – under the cover of their temporary leafy booth, the one Lazarus would have built for the upcoming Feast of Tabernacles. And though scent of spice and a busy bustle filled the air nothing would have electrified it so as those Jesus-words. Which is why we find Mary seated there, at Jesus’ feet. She knew the electric-words, the guilt-lifting words of Jesus. She was content to listen, content to learn, and content to continue to do so – no matter what things “needed” to happen.
Martha could have told us all the things she and Mary needed to do. Martha wasn’t running on the electricity of Jesus-words. She was busy being hostess; after all, if you had seated in your courtyard the Messiah of the world wouldn’t you be busy too? Her mind was pulled in ten different directions: he must be welcomed and made comfortable and served well – honor your guests – especially the one who is God himself. Of course, as the afternoon wore on, Martha was also running more on building, boiling anger – as she stopped to huff or tsk or harrumph from a doorway – because Mary’s “honor” for Jesus didn’t seem nearly as important or remotely as appropriate – not what was necessary.
That was the kind of energy that finally pressed Martha to suddenly appear, hovering over them, demanding a solution to this problem, a solution with which Jesus would, of course, be in complete agreement. However, of all the Jesus-words spoken that day, the first to finally catch Martha’s ear didn’t say that what Martha was doing was best. Those Jesus-words called her to leave it all behind for a while to listen with Mary to what Martha truly needed. There’s only one thing you really need, they said.
That can be a hard lot to swallow. We came in cars, dressed in clothes, from homes with food and pets, and toys and comforts. We’d be hard-pressed to pare down those blessings to a necessary five, let alone one, wouldn’t we? And some of those things, like Martha’s “needs”, are good service to God – like changing baby-diapers, and eating cereal with the kids; like helping with Sunday School, or leading a church-group; like playing with friends, and doing homework – things that your Spirit-changed lives offer in love to the Lord. It’s sort of a question of who rules…
In the 1960s, Charles Hummel wrote a small pamphlet that became widely used in business networks. It was entitled The Tyranny of the Urgent, and at its core was the idea that “we live in constant tension between the urgent and the important. The problem is that many important tasks need not be done today, or even this week. Extra hours of prayer and Bible study, a visit to an elderly friend, reading an important book: these activities can usually wait a while longer. But often urgent, though less important, tasks call for immediate response—endless demands pressure every waking hour” (Charles E. Hummel, Tyranny of the Urgent, rev. ed., 1994).
Our children’s activities are not evil. The time we spend working to provide for ourselves and our families is not sinful. We all understand that everything we do can be done to honor the Lord (1 Corinthians 10:31). But even the God-pleasing-good crowded together with all the others that aren’t so good – they’re always demanding urgently – pulling our hearts and minds in a hundred different distracting directions. Often, more than distracting – distracting to the point of worrying and stress. Even to question like Martha, “Lord, don’t you care?”
Of course, Jesus indicated for Martha and for us immediately which is most important. He said, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary (by listening at Jesus’ feet) has chosen what is better…” Or literally, “Mary has chosen the good part.” The situation is sometimes good things vs. the good thing.
In the midst of all the potential and urgently calling good things, it’s good to stop and listen to the words Jesus speaks – to remember their importance. Let some of those beautiful Jesus-words catch your ear again and you’ll see that is. “The Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost (Lk 19:10),” – his word of love for you, whom he found. “This is my body…this is my blood…for the forgiveness of sins (Mt 26:26,28),” – his word of comfort for us who need forgiveness. “My God, my God why have you forsaken me (Mk 15:34)?” – his word for the black solitude of our sin on him. “It is finished (Jn 19:30).” – his word of the payment made complete once and for all – all our distractions against his perfection – sins paid to make you and me righteous. Without which we would hear nothing but judgment-words against our sin. This is why God’s Word, which serves up Jesus’ words, is the one thing you need. The story of Jesus’ love in God’s Word is the answer to Martha’s question, “Lord, don’t you care?” Yes, the one thing we truly need is God’s care for us. It’s the good from which all of our good things flow. It’s the good without which we could not be who we are; could not do what we can; could not love and truly serve. As Jesus sits in Martha’s courtyard, he reminds us that the care and love of God for us in Jesus’ Word is the one thing we really need. You can see that truth too, when you size up your service to God.
We live lives of love for the Lord: we serve him in many thousand different ways. We serve directly and indirectly: for God’s church or in our families and lives that are equally as much God’s. And yet, there’s something about our service that’s passing isn’t there? Doesn’t our service grow as we do and slow as we do? Service is pretty limited when we’re a week old, but as we grow so does our ability. Sometimes it’s easy to serve through life, with family or without, and sometimes service slows down and changes as we get older. Simply by living and working everyday we serve, and yet at best, the service we give to God will last for a lifetime? Or a few days or hours?
God’s service is wholly different. It is the one thing you really need because it is the good that he’ll never take away. You heard that from Jesus words in Martha’s courtyard – the good part Mary chose “will not be taken away from her.” Jesus wasn’t going to deprive her of his Word. But it’s genuinely true. God never fails to serve. His promises to Mary and Martha, to you too, have been these: “[The Lord] will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged (Dt 3:8),” or in Jesus-words, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away (Mk 13:31).” God’s Word is the only service that takes us all the way to eternity and never falters or changes along the way. He will never take away the love and the care he showed in the cross or in baptism or in faith. His Word always works.
That’s a fun aspect of this Mary/Martha story, I think. Don’t you ask, sometimes, when you read it, “It can’t end that way, can it? What happened after Jesus’ words?” That’s a good question. How important were those Jesus-words to Martha who was so busy and distracted? In the moment, I don’t know… Later on though, when Mary and Martha’s brother Lazarus died, Jesus came to visit and he spoke to Martha. Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” “Yes, Lord,” she told him, “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world (Jn 25-27).” What amazing words – so unlike the distracted words Martha shared with Jesus in her courtyard! They are the fruit of faith, produced by the service of God in his Word – which was never taken away.
There are so many things around us, so many ways to live and serve. This morning, we take the time to evaluate what we truly need, because Jesus speaks to us in His Word – whether we read it on our couch or hear it in these pews or share it with our friends; at his feet we learn that he cares for us like no one else can with life-giving words he’ll never take away. Listen like Mary. And don’t be worried or troubled about the rest; your Lord truly does care for you – it’s there in the one thing you really need – those precious Jesus-words.