The Harried Homemaker: Christ Speaks to the Problem of Compulsive Busyness
February 25, 2001
Listen to this Sermon
Let’s begin with a series of “what-if” questions. Suppose that the folks from Publishers Clearinghouse pulled up in front of your home. Out of the van comes the camera crew and a man with a microphone. If he said, “I’ve got some good news for you. Do you mind if I come in?” what would you do?
Or let’s suppose that the doorbell rings. When you answer it, there stands the President of the United States. What would you do?
If Michael Jordan showed up at your front door, what would you do? What if Oprah Winfrey dropped by for a visit?
And what if you opened the door and found that Jesus Christ wanted to come in and spend some time with you? What would you do then? That’s not as far-fetched as it may seem. In fact, that’s what happened one day to two sisters who lived in a tiny village not far from Jerusalem. Our text tells us how they responded to an unexpected visit from the Son of God.
Jesus and the Sisters
One point needs to be made at the beginning. Both Martha and Mary evidently knew who Jesus was and were glad to welcome him into their home. It is obvious that they were thrilled to have such a visitor even if (as it seems) he caught them completely by surprise. They both loved him and were thrilled to have him stay with them.
As we study this little vignette, it is soon clear that the two sisters were quite different in temperament. Their ways of making Jesus feel at home could not have been more different.
It helps to know that this incident takes place toward the end of Jesus’ ministry, perhaps about six months before his crucifixion. By this time opposition to his ministry has hardened into open hostility. Martha and Mary (along with their brother Lazarus who isn’t mentioned in this story) lived in the village of Bethany, located on the eastern slopes of the Mount of Olives. Jesus has now turned his face toward Jerusalem and is making a final tour of various towns and villages.
Jesus rarely spent a night in a home. He didn’t own a home and depended entirely on the kindness of his followers for all his physical needs. “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20). Even something as simple as a home-cooked meal was a treat. In those days hospitality meant something more than it means today. To most of us hospitality means inviting some friends over to watch a ballgame and eat pizza. Or it means going out with some friends on Friday night. But in Jesus’ day the safest place to stay was in the home of a friend. That’s why it was considered culturally important to welcome strangers into your home, to offer them good food, and if necessary, a place to stay overnight. In later years this practice of hospitality became a key factor in the spread of the gospel as itinerant evangelists carried the Good News into distant corners of the Roman Empire.
I have already mentioned that Martha and Mary were both loyal disciples. They loved Jesus and wanted to show him a proper welcome. It was a great honor to have Jesus stay with them. I think Jesus came to their home because he knew he would be welcomed. It was a safe and welcome haven from the storm clouds of controversy that were gathering all around him.
About this text itself, I should add that there is nothing particularly difficult about it. The words are straightforward and there are no unusual theological problems. Jesus comes to the home, Martha reacts one way, Mary another, and Jesus comments on the difference. That’s all there is. Yet this simple story has confused and sometimes frustrated people. Perhaps because of its simplicity, the urge to take sides is almost irresistible. Which sister was right? Was Martha justified in what she said? Should Mary have done more than sit at Jesus’ feet? And behind those questions are deeper issues involving personal identity, individual preferences, and how we can best serve the Lord.
I. Martha’s Mission 38-40
As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. … But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” (Luke 10:38, 40).
Perhaps the place to begin is with a closer look at Martha. Here is my take on her personality. She is bighearted, generous, hospitable, hard working, a big-project person, a giver, and (in the best sense of the term) a homemaker. She is also a born leader who knows how to do many things at the same time and how to do them well. If she is demanding, she demands nothing of others that she does not also demand of herself. She is also somewhat quick-tempered. In short, she is a classic Type A personality: gifted, driven, demanding, and capable of accomplishing a great deal.
Before we go further, I want to say this in her defense. Regardless of what else we may think, it is clear that she loves the Lord and does what she does out of love and not obligation. She respects Jesus so much that without hesitation she wants to honor him by using her gifts to prepare a meal in his honor. Her motives are pure even if her attitude is not quite right.
Mashed Potatoes and Raspberry Sorbet
It probably happened like this. As Jesus comes in, Martha goes to the kitchen to begin preparing the meal while Mary stays in the living room listening as Jesus speaks. I think we can assume that his disciples were with him (and perhaps some other neighbors as well). Martha immediately begins putting together a meal from her favorite recipes. She has a servant’s heart and does not begrudge the time or the effort. It is a gift of love to Jesus. As time rolled along, she did many things at once. She was folding napkins into swans, basting the roast, making mashed potatoes, preparing the seven-layer salad, and arranging the dinner table with the salad forks to the left of the dinner forks. She even makes homemade rolls and begins scooping the raspberry sorbet into those little dessert cups.
Preparing a big meal is a big job and requires time and effort and true commitment. Meals don’t cook themselves. Not everyone can sit in the living room listening to the guest of honor. Someone has to be in the kitchen or everyone will starve. Thoughts such as those began to go through Martha’s mind.
I think women understand this better than most men do. We tend to think nothing of calling our wives at 5:45 p.m. with the news that we’re bringing five men home for supper. And we can’t understand why this is such a problem. After all, since most men never make a big meal, the mysteries of the kitchen are just that—mysteries to us.
It’s at this point that the true differences between Martha and Mary come into focus. Martha felt responsible to ensure that the meal was properly prepared and served. For whatever reason, Mary did not join her in the kitchen. She chose to sit at Jesus’ feet, a posture and attitude that eventually got under Martha’s skin.
“I Thought This Was a Partnership!”
Leith Anderson points out that this often happens to us. We think we’re involved in a partnership where the other person will bear his fair share of the load. But then we discover that evidently the other person wasn’t thinking that way at all—and we are left to do all the work. Or you thought you were part of a team only to learn you were not only the captain of the team, you were the whole team! In those circumstances it’s not unusual to resent others for failing to help out and it’s not unusual to vent our anger on those we feel have let us down.
When verse 40 says that Martha “came to him,” the translation obscures the force of the original Greek, which means something like, “Martha exploded out of the kitchen.” When she couldn’t take it anymore she marched up to Jesus, rolling pin in one hand and a bowl of green beans in the other, and said, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left all the work to me. Tell her to help me.” It’s hard not to smile when we read those words because all of us have been there at one time or another. And we’ve all said something similar when we’ve felt let down and abandoned by those we thought were going to help us.
“I Don’t Mean to Interrupt But …”
The phrase “Don’t you care?” deserves special notice. Sometimes words mean something different than their literal meaning. If someone says, “I don’t mean to interrupt you but …,” what they really mean is, “I’m going to interrupt you.” If they say, “I don’t mean to contradict you …,” that’s exactly what they intend to do. And if they say, “I’m not saying you’re a jerk,” that’s exactly what they are calling you. When Martha says, “Lord, don’t you care?” she really means to say, “Lord, you don’t care at all because if you did, you would have told Mary to go to the kitchen and help me.”
Doctors sometimes talk about the “presenting problem,” which refers to the problem the patient brings to the examining room. The patient may complain of a sore throat, a runny nose, and an achy back, but it is the doctor’s job to look beneath those symptoms to discover the real cause. Martha’s “presenting problem” is very clear: “Jesus doesn’t care and Mary won’t help!” She is both criticizing Jesus and blaming her sister. Underneath this are her real problems: unrealistic expectations, misplaced priorities, and misdirected anger. To say it another way, Martha’s problem is that she doesn’t think she has a problem. She thinks everyone else has a problem but her. As long as she could blame someone else, she didn’t have to face what was in her heart.
She is busy but not blessed. Jesus has come to her home but she is so stressed out that the joy has been replaced by frustration and anger. And oddly enough, her desire to serve Christ actually pulls her away from time with Christ. The good is crowding out the best.
Most of us would sympathize with Martha. Here are 13 hungry men who have dropped by for supper. There is lots of work to be done! The food must be bought, prepared, cooked, arranged, served, and then everything must be cleaned up afterward. At a minimum, this involved several hours of hard work. And every person—man or woman—who has ever ventured to prepare a meal like this knows one irrefutable truth: Food doesn’t cook itself! Someone has to watch the roast and someone has to mash those potatoes. Viewed from one perspective, Martha is just being a responsible hostess.
In his book When I Relax, I Feel Guilty, Tim Hansel has a wonderful phrase for the Marthas of the world. He calls them “Weary Servants of the Impossible.” Because they feel the weight of the world on their shoulders, they attempt to “do it all” even if no one will join them.
II. Mary’s Position 39
She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said (Luke 10:39).
Evidently Mary never said a word when her sister confronted Jesus. That was probably a good idea. What could she say that would have satisfied Martha anyway?
Mary only appears for certain three times in the gospels—Luke 10, John 11, and John 12. In all three places she is always in the same place—at the feet of Jesus. We never see her anywhere else. In our text she is at Jesus’ feet listening to his words. Consider what this means:
At the Lord’s Feet—Closeness
To his Word—Submission
Those four words reveal Mary’s heart: quietness, closeness, attention and submission. She is utterly devoted to the Lord and wants nothing more than to be near him.
Listening is hard work. It’s not easy to sit in a classroom (or in a church sanctuary!) and listen carefully for 20 or 30 or 40 minutes. Sooner or later, the mind tends to drift off. It’s a rare compliment if someone says, “He’s a good listener.” Many of us listen only as long as we need to figure out what we’re going to say next when our turn comes to talk. Mary was a truly good listener.
Did Mary know about Martha’s frustration? Perhaps. Certainly she knew her sister well and couldn’t have been totally surprised when she burst from the kitchen into the living room. But her desire to be with Christ far outweighed any desire she felt to help her sister. On this sacred day, she would choose to listen to every word Jesus spoke.
And that raises two interesting questions. Who is serving the Lord—Martha or Mary? The answer is, both are serving the Lord. Martha is serving him by preparing the meal, and Mary is serving him by listening quietly at his feet. But who is in the better place at this moment? Mary is. She is able to hear what her Master says and is ready to respond at a moment’s notice. Martha is so distracted that she can’t hear anything Jesus is saying.
How simple it is to sit at Jesus’ feet. Even a child can do it. A mother can do it. A father can do it. A single adult can do it. A widow can do it. A teenager can do it. Anyone with a heart for Christ can sit at his feet. If you cannot sing or preach or speak or teach, you can still sit at Jesus’ feet. If you don’t have money or an abundance of outward talents, you can still sit quietly at his feet. Anyone who wants to can do this anytime, anywhere.
III. Jesus’ Admonition 41-42
“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “You are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:41-42).
How tenderly Jesus speaks to his frustrated servant: “Martha, Martha.” He knows her name and he repeats it twice to assure her of his love. He knows how she feels and he understands her frustration. Even in his words of reproof, there is warmth and compassion in his voice.
In verse 40 we are told that Martha was distracted with many preparations that had to be made. The King James Version uses a picturesque word to describe that distraction. It says that Martha was “cumbered,” an old word related to our modern word “encumbered.” To be cumbered was to be heavily burdened, as if you were wearing a concrete straightjacket. The Greek word is perispao, which means a mind pulled in a thousand directions. One moment she’s worried about the roast, the next the rolls, the next the dessert, and the next she’s wondering why Mary doesn’t come and help her. Jesus told her she was worried and upset. The word “worried” has the idea of a mind in pieces. And the word “upset” means to cause trouble. She is going to speak her mind and spread the misery around!
Verse 40 also says she was burdened by all the “preparations” that had to be made. The Greek word is diakonein, a very common word that often means “to serve at the table.” Other forms of this word are sometimes translated by “ministry” or even “deacon.” That’s a crucial insight. Her massive preparations were part of her service to the Lord. Yet those very preparations had become a snare to her soul.
Note the contrast between “many things” and “one thing.” Here is the heart of the problem. Martha was so pulled in every direction that she forgot the reason for it all: Jesus had come to her home that day! The “many things” had overwhelmed the “one thing” that really mattered.
A Gold-Medal Gymnast
Spurgeon comments that the little word “but” is a very useful pause for all of us very busy saints of God. Many good things that occupy us can squeeze out the “one thing” that ought to be at the center of life. Perhaps an illustration will help. How do you develop a child into a world-class pianist or a gold-medal gymnast or a world-renowned soloist? There is only one way. You must start when the child is only two or three years old. Someone must say, “One thing is needful.” And everything else must take second place. Get up early, practice for hours each day, week after week, year after year. To be the best, you must give up what others call a “normal” life because what you want is not “normal” at all. The “one thing” must take precedence over the “many things.” There is no other way to the top.
Jesus is saying something like this: “Martha, you are so busy serving me that you have no time for me to serve you. I appreciate your love and I recognize that your motives are good, but your heart is divided and distracted. Your zeal to serve me has pushed me to the edge of your heart. Martha, I want to be at the center of everything for you. That is far more important that preparing a fancy meal in my honor.”
Not by Accident
How did it happen that Mary was in the “better” place? Answer: She chose it. Given the same opportunity that Martha had, she chose to go to the living room and sit at Jesus’ feet. It did not happen by chance; it never does. You will never end up at Jesus’ feet by accident. You must choose to go there or it will never happen. Mary did not know when or if Jesus would return to her home. She wanted to spend time with him while he was there. She knew there would always be other meals to prepare, but she might never have another chance to be with Jesus. That’s why she was willing to leave some things undone if necessary in order to be with Jesus. She chose the important over the urgent, the better over the good. And that is why the Lord commended her. This passage is not about cooking versus praying or the active life versus a life of contemplation. It’s about the divided life verses the focused life, a life of frantic activity versus a life centered on knowing Christ.
Knowing Before Serving
Let me suggest what this means in a practical sense. There will always be plenty of work to do. The work set before us will never totally be done. We will work all our days and when we die, the work will continue after we are gone. We are right to work and work hard doing what God has given us to do. But work is not an end in itself—not even work for the Lord. Good work, righteous work, even holy work, even preparing a meal for Jesus, can become a distraction if we are not centered upon the Lord. Knowing Christ must come before serving Christ or else our service will be barren and our hearts will be frustrated.
One writer notes that something eternal is cooking in this home in Bethany, but it’s not in the kitchen. That meal will soon be consumed and forgotten. But the meal Jesus is serving in the living room will last forever. Don’t miss the one while you are preparing the other.
Must we then choose between Martha and Mary? The answer is no. Both have their strengths. Both have their weaknesses. If you were on a sinking ship with Mary, she’d say, “I’ll pray.” Martha would say, “I’ll find the lifeboats.” Both are necessary.
I love the final phrase of the text where Jesus declares that what Mary has gained “will not be taken from her.” What she gained, she would have forever. Meals come and go. Sometimes mothers complain along these lines: “I work for hours to prepare a nice meal and then it’s gone in ten minutes.” But time with Jesus is yours forever. I’m sure Mary never forgot that wonderful day when she sat at Jesus’ feet drinking in every word.
In the end this story is about the danger of distraction while doing good things. The one thing we need most is to sit at Jesus’ feet. It will not happen by accident. And others will not always understand. Including, sometimes, our loved ones.
Martha Will Always Be Martha
But what about the meal? Someone has to go to the kitchen. We can’t all be dreamy-eyed mystics like Mary. True, but Martha could have set aside the meal or she could have prepared something very simple. Or she could have rejoiced that her sister had such a wonderful opportunity and that she had the privilege of preparing a meal for the Son of God. Think of it this way. Martha wanted Mary to be like her. Jesus didn’t agree, but he also didn’t tell Martha to be like Mary. He simply commended Mary for choosing the “better part” that day. Martha would always be Martha—she couldn’t and shouldn’t be anything else. But her attitude under pressure was wrong and that is what Jesus confronted.
One thing is needful: To sit at Jesus’ feet. How happy we will be if we find a way (and the time) to do it. We must not let the good crowd out the best. In a Scandinavian country there is a lovely statue of Christ that stands in a town square. The statue is noteworthy because the face of Jesus is not visible to those who stand in front of the statue. When a traveler complained, “I cannot see his face,” a man replied, “If you wish to see his face, you must kneel at his feet.”
So it is for all of us. It is easy to lose our perspective when we are serving the Lord. No amount of service for Christ can substitute for the value of spending time at his feet. It is right to serve the Lord but first we must listen to him. The world says, “Don’t just sit there, do something.” And Jesus says, “If you are worried and distracted, don’t just do something, take time to sit at my feet.”
Did you see the gospel in our text? It is there very clearly. We are not saved by doing, not even by our good doing of good deeds, not even by righteous service done in Jesus’ name. We are not saved by doing but by not doing. We are not saved by giving but by receiving. When we give up our doing and kneel in simple faith at Jesus’ feet, then and only then are we saved.
Let Every Heart Prepare Him Room
Last week I spoke at Word of Life Florida, a Bible conference center just north of Tampa. On Friday morning I got up very early and took a long walk just after dawn. It was quiet and peaceful, beautiful and serene. As I walked along, I had a kind of epiphany, a new insight from the Lord. I was thinking about this text and about all the Marthas I have known and how much I admire them. And it occurred to me that almost everyone I know is more like Martha than like Mary. Perhaps that is inevitable. We live in such a busy, frenetic, pressure-packed world that we all have to be a little like Martha. And then as I walked along I thought about my wife and all the meals I have watched her prepare over the last 26 years. She is a gifted cook and knows how to prepare a meal for two or three people or for a much larger crowd. Often I have seen her work in the kitchen, calmly moving between the stove and the sink and the counter and the kitchen table, preparing four or five things at a time. How she does it all is a mystery to me. And if a guest comes in, she will start a conversation with that person and still somehow keeps all the various preparations on track. Eventually the moment comes when she announces that the meal is ready. We gather around the table to see everything perfectly prepared and wonderfully presented. Somehow it has come together at just the right moment.
I can think of only one word to describe this: Magic. It is magical and amazing to me. I cannot do it and would not try. But Marlene can do it and she has done it many times.
I thought about all this as I walked along: Martha of the Bible, the many people I have known who identify with her, and I thought about the magic Marlene works in the kitchen. Then I found myself singing out loud, a Christmas carol! I don’t know how it happened but suddenly I was singing as I walked along in the early hours on Friday morning. It is an old carol that we sing every December:
Joy to the world, the Lord is come
Let earth receive her King!
Let every heart prepare him room
And Heaven and Nature sing!
At first I could not see the connection. Then came the epiphany. Jesus has come to Bethany. Joy to the world! Mary understood that and sat at his feet. Martha missed it because she was so distracted. I began this sermon by asking what you would do if Christ came to your home. Joy to the world! Christ has come. He has come to the world. He has come to your home. And every day he comes once again to your heart. Let earth receive her King! He comes in this sacred moment and asks to spend time with you. Let every heart prepare him room.
Will you not make room for Jesus? May God help us to find a place and sit quietly at his feet. Joy to the world, the Lord is come! Amen.