In Sunday’s gospel (Luke 10:38-42), did Martha walk away disappointed because Jesus didn’t sanction her well-meaning but distracted busyness by rebuking Mary? Or, perhaps, initially stunned when Jesus’ gentle, loving rebuke came her way and not Mary’s, did she follow his implied gracious invitation and take a load off her feet (and heart) by sitting down at his feet?
I can’t say for sure what she did, but that doesn’t matter now. What matters now is how you and I respond to Jesus’ gentle, loving rebuke when we allow the busyness of serving Jesus (a good thing) get in the way of his gracious invitation to be served by him (the best thing).
Let me get at that question by asking another question sparked by Sunday’s Prayer of the Day. Here’s the prayer many of us will speak on behalf of God’s people:
Grant us, Lord, the spirit to think and do what is right that we, who cannot do anything that is good without you, may by your help be enabled to live according to your will; through Jesus….
Do you believe what the words of that prayer state? Of course, you do. I do too. But please pause long enough to consider the implications of just what we are praying! The prayer pleads for God’s Spirit to enable our spirit to produce genuine and joyful and abundant fruits of faith. That we can indeed “do nothing good without” our Lord is the same reality Jesus spoke: “apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).
Now take that implication one more step! How does the Spirit enable us to do “anything good”? There is only one means of grace that produces genuine and joyful and abundant fruits of faith. Only the good news of Jesus in Word and sacraments empowers lives of loving service to God and neighbor.
And what does that say to us when, like Martha, we are so busy with the good (service to Jesus and those his blood has ransomed) that we neglect the best – that which alone can empower us to continue to serve with joy under the cross?
Yes, I know, my brother, you’re very busy with many important things. You’re serving Jesus!
So was Martha! And lest Martha suffer undue abuse at my hands, let’s acknowledge her fruits of faith. Jesus and his disciples would not be spending this evening brushing dust off their feet from another rejection because Martha warmly welcomed them into her home. Her faith was evident as she provided a place to stay for the Savior who had no place of his own to lay his head.
But when such genuine and joyful and abundant fruits of faith are not nurtured on what alone produces them, they quickly morph into something else! Beginning with humble love for Jesus, Martha slips into a petulant rebuke of the Savior for failing to observe – her words imply he would clearly see things her way if he’d pause to notice – that Mary was failing as welcoming committee co-chair. Coming up to Jesus suddenly – perhaps after shooting Mary, and then Jesus, some pleading glances followed by some loud throat clearing? – she implies that for Jesus to allow this to go on would be a breach of concern for Martha and bad precedent for Mary’s proper domestic training.
But it was not Mary who was distracted from what was most important. It was Martha. What had begun as a fruit of faith was spiraling quickly into burdensome distraction and sisterly consternation.
“Martha, Martha, you are being dragged away by many things that are causing you to be anxious and troubled. Yes, you see Mary sitting here at my feet, but she has not chosen poorly. My dear daughter, you have! Dear Martha, please sit down! The grace and forgiveness and peace Mary is receiving won’t be taken from her. I’m not going to shoo her away so she can be as distracted as you. In fact, what Mary is receiving is the one thing no human being can live without. And not only will it not be taken from her now, but once it has entered her heart, what she has will be her possession for eternity. So, Martha, may I suggest that the one who has chosen poorly – that would be you my dear sister – imitate the one who has chosen well. Sit down and let your heart find rest in the one thing needed: my grace, my forgiveness, my peace. And yes, then the time will come – and the strength will be there – to finish the service you lovingly began. My dear sister, please sit down!”
The eyes of Jesus are turning toward you, now, my brother. He sees you – he sees me – so often so anxious about many things. Yes, he knows they are important things. Things he has given us – called us – to do. And to grow weary and tired in such work is not sin. Service to Jesus deserves something far better than a punch-clock mentality. But the danger in our service is that we forget what we will pray this Sunday! Our service under the cross will not continue with a joyful heart if what is most important doesn’t take precedence over every other important thing.
But as his words to Martha are spoken to us, please hear more than a rebuke! Hear in his words a gracious, pleading invitation! “My dear brother, my dear brother, I see that you are often anxious and bothered by many things. Yes, I know, I’ve entrusted you with many things to be vigilant about. And you are serving eternal souls – many who don’t even know me yet! And yes, I know, the devil never takes time off in advancing the causes of his kingdom. I am delighted that you want to be eager and active in my kingdom’s work. But you will soon lose the strength to serve with joy if you forget that those important things come second after the one thing needful. It is my service to you in my gospel that enables any true service by you. Without that, frustration and irritation with others – yes even with me – will grow. That’s why, my dear brother, I long for you first of all not to be busy on your feet but rather be sitting quietly at mine! There, my dear brother, and there alone, you find my strength to carry out the work I’ve given you in all your callings. There, at my feet, my dear brother, I confront honestly the wickedness within you that is always your greatest danger. There, at my feet, my dear brother, you are wrapped again and again in the comfort of my forgiving embrace for you that writes “not guilty” in the bold red letters of my blood over all your wickedness. There, at my feet, my dear brother, you find the one thing in all the world that no one can take from you: my peace which surpasses all understanding. And yes, I know, you will need to stand back up again, and go back to serving. But then you won’t be standing on your own two feet (or, stumbling over them), but you will be serving in my power and strength. That, my dear brother, makes all the difference in the world!”
I wish I could profess, my brothers, to having learned that wisdom early in my ministry. I did not. I still wrestle with being a proud, chronic achiever. I am happiest (so I deceive myself) when I have 20 items on my to-do list for the day even if the day’s reality means it’s only large enough for 10. I’ve spent years whittling away with Martha on my self-made cross of anxiety and concern, while often growing irritated with others (and with Jesus) for not seeing how hard I’m working – and for not joining me – in my self-imposed martyrdom.
It has only been in the past 10 years where his pleading for me to sit down at his feet has finally begun a bit more quickly to penetrate my proud skull (about the time it dawned on me that his pleading was chiefly gospel invitation and not law rebuke!). I say that with no boasting, since the reason I still need to sit down is that there is so much wickedness in my heart that would otherwise be left dangerously unaddressed. It is the growing, humbling conviction of the sobering reality I’ve confessed with my lips my whole life: I have no strength to maintain joyful service unless his forgiving and empowering grace gives it to me. So patiently he has pleaded with the Martha within me to believe that I don’t really get less done when I pause for an extended time each day at his feet. In fact, the opposite is true. Even though the clock wants me to notice how loudly it’s ticking in the background, when I sit at Jesus’ feet, he gets more done through me in the time that is left because…wait for it…without him I can do nothing good!
So, when the clock of your day is ticking loudly, and the tasks have piled up over your head, and the anxiety list is long, especially then, listen for it. Do you hear it?
“My dear brother, my dear brother, please sit down!”
Wisdom’s highest, noblest treasure,
Jesus, can be found in you.
Let me find in you my pleasure;
Make my will and actions true,
Humility there and simplicity reigning,
In paths of true wisdom my steps every training.
If I learn from Jesus this knowledge divine,
The blessing of heavenly wisdom is mine.
(Christian Worship, 290:3)