One Size Does Not Fit All
by Jack Wald | August 25th, 2019

Luke 10:38-42

Jesus had many disciples. There were seventy-two he sent out on a short-term mission trip and among those, he chose twelve to train to be leaders of the church that would emerge after he died and resurrected. Of the twelve, three were closest to him: Peter, James, and John. Jesus also had friends who were not disciples who traveled with him. Three of his closest friends lived in Bethany, a town just 5.5 kilometers east of Jerusalem.

When Jesus traveled to Jerusalem he passed through Bethany and when he was in Bethany, it seems he stayed at the home of Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. John writes, (John 11:5)
Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.

On one of his visits, Mark tells us in his gospel that Jesus had a meal in the home of Simon the Leper. (Mark 14:3)
While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head.

Not much is known about Simon the Leper, except that at the time of the dinner, he no longer had leprosy. If he had leprosy, he would not have been permitted to be in his home with the others at the dinner. Had Jesus healed him of his leprosy? Perhaps. We don’t know.

John records the same incident and has a few more details. (John 12:1–3)
Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. 2 Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. 3 Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.

Here we learn that at that dinner, it was Martha who served the meal and it was Mary who anointed the feet of Jesus with expensive perfume. Because Martha served the meal, some have speculated that Martha was the wife or daughter of Simon the Leper.

Mary anointed the feet of Jesus with expensive perfume and wiped his feet with her hair. This is not to be confused with another incident Luke records (Luke 7) when a prostitute anointed the feet of Jesus who was eating in the home of a Pharisee and dried his feet with her hair. The two incidents are often confused and as early as the second century, Origen had to clarify that these were two separate incidents.

Martha was the oldest sister, perhaps Lazarus a younger brother. Oldest sisters tend to be highly responsible people and this was the case with Martha. And, second sisters often tend to have less of a sense of responsibility. Martha served the dinner for Jesus while Mary took an expensive bottle of perfume, broke it open, and anointed Jesus’ feet. Martha was working in the kitchen and Mary went to her room, took the bottle of perfume, perhaps a family heirloom, and anointed Jesus. Two sisters, two different personalities.

Later in John 11, when Jesus came to Bethany after hearing that Lazarus had died, Mary stayed in the home and Martha came out to meet him. (John 11:21-27)
“Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”
23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”
24 Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”
25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; 26 and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
27 “Yes, Lord,” she replied, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.”

This is a marvelous affirmation of faith. It stands right up there with Peter’s affirmation of faith when Jesus asked the disciples who they thought he was. (Matthew 16:16)
Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

Martha comes across in a negative light in the text for today, but she was a woman of great faith.

So let’s take a look at the text for this morning.

As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. 

This was Martha’s home. It was not the home of Lazarus or Mary; it was Martha’s home. When you step into someone’s home they ask you, “Can I get you anything to drink?” This is politeness. But in the culture of Palestine, and in the culture of Morocco, it is far more than being polite. It is a matter of being hospitable. Not to offer hospitality to someone who comes into your home is to bring shame on yourself and the entire family.

So when Jesus stopped on his way to Jerusalem, Martha opened her home to him. She immediately began to prepare something for him to eat. She had to chop vegetables. Perhaps she needed to make some bread. She needed to kill a chicken or some other form of meat. There was a lot to do and as she stood in the kitchen, hard at work, she asked herself, “Where is Mary?”

Martha stepped out of the room where meals were prepared and saw Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus.

She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. 

Number one, this is not where a woman was supposed to be. The culture had roles for men and women to follow. Women prepared the meals, men ate the meals.

In Genesis 18 Abraham was visited by three men. Abraham was an important man. He had fought battles against kings and come out victorious. He was wealthy and influential. But when he saw them, he hurried to meet them and bowed low to the ground. He invited them to wash their feet and rest under a tree. Then he hurried to the tent where he told his wife Sarah to make bread. He ran to the herd of sheep and selected a choice, tender calf and gave it to a servant who hurried to prepare it. Then he brought the meal to the men and set it before them. Sarah never left the tent. She peeked through a slit in the tent and she listened to the conversation from behind the tent wall, but she never left the tent to come out to be with or to be seen by the three men.

Here in Morocco, when I have been invited into a home to eat, the meal is prepared by the women in the kitchen and then brought to the table where I eat with the other men. When we are finished, the platter is taken into the kitchen and the women and children eat what is left over.

Mary was not where she was supposed to be. She was not with Martha in the kitchen, helping to prepare the meal. She was sitting at the feet of Jesus, listening to all he had to say.

To readers of this story in the early church, this was highly surprising. Just before this account of Jesus at the home of Martha and Mary, (Luke 10:25-37), Jesus told the parable of a man who was beaten and robbed. A priest passed him by without helping him. A Levite passed him by without helping him. But then a Samaritan came along and it was the Samaritan who helped the man, took him to an inn, and gave money to help him get well. To those who heard Jesus tell this parable, it was, “a Samaritan (gasp – shock) who helped the man.”

Mary was doing the unexpected (gasp – shock). She was breaking cultural and social taboos. Mary was breaking the mold and Jesus, by affirming her right to sit and listen, also broke the mold.

Number one, this is not where a woman was supposed to be. Number two, I suspect there was a long history between Martha and Mary with Martha being the responsible one and Mary not feeling the same sense of responsibility.

The verbs in the text are clear. Martha is working alone. Martha is slaving away. And Mary, from Martha’s perspective, is relaxing, doing nothing.

Martha is irritated. She is angry. She began working and it was ok. But then as she continued to work alone, she began stewing, just like the food in the kettle on her fire. She was working and talking to herself, getting heated up.

“Why is it just me doing all the work to get the meal ready? Why doesn’t Mary help me? Why is it always me that gets stuck doing the work? Why is Mary never here when I need her? Doesn’t she think that I would like to hear Jesus also? I should go in and talk to her.” So Martha goes to the room where Jesus is speaking and tries to get Mary’s attention, but Mary has eyes only for Jesus. Martha says, “Psst,” trying to get Mary’s attention, but Mary has ears only for Jesus.

Martha goes back to the kitchen, stews some more, mutters some more. Hospitality is a big deal and it is not fair that all the work be put on Martha’s shoulders. Finally she is angry enough that she is willing to break a social taboo and interrupt Jesus. A guest is to be treated to a nice meal and a pleasant atmosphere, not put into the middle of a family quarrel. She asks Jesus, really more of a demand than a mere asking, to tell Mary that her proper place is in the kitchen helping Martha to prepare the meal, not sitting at his feet.

So she steps into the room and interrupts Jesus.
“Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”

Martha is irritated at Mary, but she is also irritated at Jesus. “Lord, don’t you care?” Didn’t Jesus see that she was working all by herself? Why didn’t Jesus tell Mary to go help her sister and then he would talk with her later? Martha is irritated at Mary, irritated at Jesus, irritated at everyone.

Jesus responds to Martha, “Martha, Martha.” Jesus sees she is overwhelmed, losing control of her emotions.

On the road to Damascus Jesus said to Saul (Paul), “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

“Saul, Saul”
“Martha, Martha”

There is tenderness in saying the name twice. There is care and concern being expressed. Martha is irritated, angry, but Jesus loves Martha and understands her frustration. Martha is looking for justice and Jesus understands her need for justice. Martha does not think it is fair for her to do all the work without getting any help from Mary and Jesus understands this. He knows she needs help, but he wants her to see a deeper truth.

“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, 42 but few things are needed—or indeed only one.

After Jesus fed the four thousand with seven loaves of bread and a few small fish, he set out with his disciples to sail across the Sea of Galilee. The disciples forgot to bring bread and Jesus said to them, (Matthew 16:5–12)
“Be careful. Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”
7 They discussed this among themselves and said, “It is because we didn’t bring any bread.”

They were thinking about food and Jesus was thinking about something more important than food.

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus taught, (Matthew 6:25–34)
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?
… 31 So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

Food is important. If we do not eat we will die. Hospitality is important. When we treat people who come into our homes with respect and honor, we feed them physical food but also the emotional food we all need to be healthy people.

Jesus understands and sympathizes with Martha but he tells her,
“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, 42 but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

Jesus fed the multitudes, but they are all long dead. Jesus gave sight to the blind but they went to the grave and their eyes have disintegrated. Jesus made the lame able to walk again but their legs are now just dust. Jesus healed the lepers but their skin has rotted away.

Feeding the hungry, healing the sick, bringing justice to those suffering from injustice – all these have value, but none of them last forever.

Jesus said,
“Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

Jesus said, (Matthew 24:35)
Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.

I get this. I understand this. But I struggle with this story. Where will the meal come from if no one prepares it? Is Jesus expected to miraculously provide meals for people who listen to his teaching? If there is a coffee hour after church, someone has to be downstairs preparing the coffee, tea, juice, and whatever we will have to eat. If there is a conference, someone has to prepare the food that will be eaten, unless everyone decides to fast for the conference. Each year during Holy Week, we have a Seder meal. Someone has to do the work to prepare that meal for us to enjoy.

Martha’s problem was not that Mary was not helping her, her problem was that she was not cooking for Jesus.

Brother Lawrence was born Nicholas Herman around 1611, in Lorraine, France. At the age of eighteen he fought in a war and was wounded. The horrible things he witnessed led him to give his life to Christ. He tried various occupations and did not do well at them. At the age of twenty-five he applied to work in a monastery.

At the monastery, he spent most of the time in the kitchen. Initially, Brother Lawrence, the name he assumed when he entered the monastery, hated this. For a full decade, he chafed against his situation. “I must tell you, though, that during the first ten years I endured great suffering.” Though his first decade as a monk was full of spiritual anguish, one day he experienced a profound peace that never diminished. “I suddenly found myself changed and my soul, which up till then was always disturbed, experienced a profound interior peace.” From that day on, Lawrence was overcome with an unusually intense awareness of the presence of God. It was so strong that sometimes he had to consciously keep himself from laughing in the company of others. No longer dreading work in the kitchen, he now felt as close to God peeling potatoes as he did kneeling at the altar.

Before too long he had such a radiant peace and a constant joy that the monks began going to him in the kitchen for counsel and help. The highest officials of the monastery would often go down to the kitchen to receive encouragement and guidance. Visiting dignitaries to the monastery would ask if they could talk for awhile to Brother Lawrence.

After his death, some of his writings were put into a book titled, Practicing the Presence of God. It takes about twenty minutes to read, but this is not the kind of book you read like that. You read a bit, put it down, think and reflect about what you have read, and then the next day or next week you pick it up again and read some more.

Brother Lawrence writes:
Let him then think of God the most he can; let him accustom himself, by degrees, to this small but holy exercise; nobody [around him] perceives it, and nothing is easier than to repeat often in the day these little internal adorations.

Brother Lawrence was able to do his common work for the love of God because he never let God’s presence get far from his mind. He continually came back to God as the central focus in his whole life, including his work.

There are stages in life when we have to do things that are not fulfilling. It is mothers who most often take care of children when they are young. I am not being sexist, but this is the reality. Fathers need to change diapers, do laundry, help with the care of a new baby, but mothers carry most of the weight.

Some mothers love young babies. If they could, they would keep having babies because caring for them is so fulfilling. Other mothers find caring for young babies very difficult. It is not that they don’t love their babies – they do, but caring for them is not fulfilling. Some mothers are better with their children when they are young, other mothers are best with their children when they get older. But regardless whether or not the mother finds caring for babies and toddlers a fulfilling task, they need to be cared for.

Because of economic necessity, we sometimes do not have the option of working at a job that is fulfilling to us. We have to work at the job because we need to earn money to support our family.

There are times when we do things we would prefer we did not have to do and this is when we need to follow the example of Brother Lawrence and discover that we can work for Jesus wherever we are.

We can cook for Jesus, peel potatoes for Jesus, change diapers for Jesus, dig ditches for Jesus, do bookkeeping for Jesus.

Martha needed to recognize that she was cooking for Jesus and then she would not have boiled over in her frustration.

Another struggle I have is that when I read this story, Mary is doing the right thing and Martha is doing the wrong thing – but I identify more with Martha than with Mary. It is when I am working for Jesus that I feel closest to him. When I work on a sermon and ideas come to me, I know that God is working in me. When I am talking with someone, thoughts come to my mind and I know that God is feeding me those thoughts. So I feel closer to God when I am working with him.

When I sit at the feet of Jesus with my bible and spend time reading and praying, I often feel distant and unconnected from Jesus. When I work on a sermon the bible comes alive to me. When I read it for devotions, it is not often that it speaks to me in the same way.

So I prefer working with Jesus rather than sitting at his feet listening to him. Now, if Jesus were speaking to me face-to-face the way I am speaking to you now, that would be a different story. Then I would be delighted and wish it would never end. I would gladly give up a meal for that treat. I would munch on a crust of bread rather than miss the teaching of Jesus.

There is a bias in the church against those who think and feel like I do.

Brennan Manning wrote about a French medieval tale of shepherds visiting Mary and Joseph and their new son, Jesus, just after his birth. The tale is about four shepherds who came to Bethlehem to see the child whose birth had been announced by angels. One brought eggs, another brought bread and cheese, the third brought wine. And the fourth brought nothing at all. People called him L’Enchanté.

The first three shepherds chatted with Mary and Joseph, commenting on how well Mary looked, how cozy their home was, how handsomely Joseph had arranged it, what a beautiful starlit night it was! They congratulated the proud parents, presented them with their gifts and assured them that if they needed anything else, they had only to ask.

Finally someone asked, “Where is L’Enchanté?” They searched high and low, up and down, inside and out. Finally, someone peeked through the blanket hung against the draft, into the crèche. There, kneeling at the crib, was L’Enchanté. – the Enchanted one. Like a flag or a flame taking the direction of the wind, he had taken the direction of love. Through the entire night, he stayed in adoration, whispering, “Jesu, Jesu, Jesu – Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.”

I like that story and have used it for Christmas devotionals. But the truth is, if I were there, after saying, “Jesu, Jesu, Jesu,” just a few times I would be silent, having nothing more to say. My mind would be racing with other things to do. Ideas would pop into my head and I would drift off into contemplation of other things. Eventually I would be so bored I would drift off into sleep.

I like learning new things about Jesus and Christian faith. I get tired of repeating the same thing over and over again.

“Sitting at the feet of Jesus” is a metaphor for being with Jesus and there are more ways to do that than sitting all night in adoration, whispering, “Jesu, Jesu, Jesu.”

I talked about this a few weeks ago: there are different ways in which we relate best to God. Gary Thomas writes in his book, Sacred Pathways, that there are nine pathways to God.

  1. Naturalists: Loving God Outdoors
  2. Sensates: Loving God with the Senses
  3. Traditionalists: Loving God through Ritual and Symbol
  4. Ascetics: Loving God in Solitude and Simplicity
  5. Activists: Loving God through Confrontation
  6. Caregivers: Loving God by Loving Others
  7. Enthusiasts: Loving God with Mystery and Celebration
  8. Contemplatives: Loving God through Adoration
  9. Intellectuals: Loving God with the Mind

An inventory was passed out a few weeks ago that will help you to identify which is your preferred pathway. On the way out of church the ushers will have some copies to give to you.

The fourth shepherd, L’Enchanté, was a contemplative. Mary was a contemplative. I am not a contemplative. My primary pathway to God is intellectual. I like to learn new things, get deeper understanding. This is why I love writing sermons. When I sit down with a text and work with it, reading the commentaries, I am drawn into a wonderful world of discovery and I feel close to Jesus.

You may be more like Mary or more like Martha – or you may be unlike either of these sisters. Discover the way or ways you relate best to God. Drawing near to God is the goal, not the pathway that takes you there. The pathway is only a tool.

Don’t feel belittled or inferior because your pathway is different than someone else. We draw near to God, we honor God in many different ways. One way is not better than another. Contemplation is not better than loving God in the rituals of the church or loving God in the natural world.

The Juggler of Notre Dame is a religious miracle story by the French author Anatold France. It was published in 1892 and is based on an old medieval legend. It tells the story of a juggler turned monk who has no gift to offer a statue of the Virgin Mary except for his ability to juggle well. Because he has no other gift, he juggles for the Virgin Mary and is accused of blasphemy by the other monks. But as they accuse him, the statue comes to life and blesses the juggler.

Paul writes in his Colossians letter about worship and concludes: (Colossians 3:17)
And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

For the follower of Jesus there is no division between the secular and the sacred. Peeling potatoes, juggling, managing an office, writing a novel, teaching a class, sweeping and dusting, painting a door or painting a work of art, all can be done in the name of the Lord Jesus.

Jesus is not more present with us in church or in a Bible study than he is when we are at work or caring for our children. Like Brother Lawrence, we need to be aware of his presence.

Again in his Colossians letter, Paul tells slaves – the modern equivalent of slaves would include teachers and doctors as well as housekeepers and cooks, (Colossians 3:23–24)
Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, 24 since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.

Take this truth with you into your week. Maybe you can wear a ring that will remind you of who you belong to. Maybe you can put a picture on your desk that will remind you of who loves you. Print out a verse that reminds you who you are and put it where you can see it during the day. Find someway to remind yourself throughout the day that you are a beloved daughter of God, a beloved son of God. Practice the presence of God.