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Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed Him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to His teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to Him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:38-42).
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
You all know what it’s like when you’re expecting company. There’s usually a certain amount of preparation that is necessary—cooking, cleaning, bringing out the best dishes and silverware. We want to impress them. We want to make them feel at home. And when the company shows up unexpectedly, it just adds to the stress and busyness—even more so, if it is someone we consider to be above our own social standing.
So. What do you do when the Lord comes to visit?
It was the hottest part of the day. Abraham was sitting in the shade at the door of his tent. Perhaps he had dozed off. Maybe he was in deep thought about the wondrous promise he had received from God—within a year Sarah would give birth to his son. Suddenly, he was aware that three travelers had stopped near his tent. Hebron was on the main road that runs along the ridge of the Judean hills, and occasionally there were travelers who needed food and lodging. Hebrews 13:2 informs us that Abraham did not realize who his visitors were until later. Although they appeared in human form, one was the Lord Himself (Genesis 18:13) and the other two were angels (Genesis 19:1).
Abraham greeted the three travelers humbly and courteously. He bowed to the earth, invited his guests to rest in the shade under the tree, and brought water to wash their feet. By our standards his invitation, and especially his hospitality, might seem overdone, but perhaps our standards need adjusting. The Christian who loves his Lord will learn to look upon people not be interruptions or things to be used but as people designed by God, loved by God, and to be loved and served by us. It is not to our credit if our daily lives touch the lives of others with as little concern as two billiard balls bounce off each other or two ships pass in the night.
At this lazy hour of the day, Abraham’s household suddenly turned into a beehive of activity. Moses describes meal preparation that must have taken several hours. Abraham instructed Sarah to take three seahs—about fifty pounds— of flour and to bake some bread. He ran to the herd, selected a choice bull calf, and ordered his men to slaughter it and prepare it. Curds and milk completed the feast he set before his guests. And the three guests ate Sarah’s fresh-baked bread and the tender veal while Abraham stood by them under the tree.
It soon became clear that the three visitors had not stopped at Abraham’s place just to get a free meal. “Where is Sarah your wife?” they asked. We can imagine how surprised Sarah must have been to hear these “strangers” mention her name as she listened in on the conversation from inside the tent. They were talking about her and had come to bring a message for her: The Lord repeated His promise: “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife shall have a son.”
What a staggering thought! In addition to the promise of a son, Abraham and Sarah were to realize, and you and I are too, that the almighty God, the Lord Himself, wants to share our company as a friend. It is this down-to-earth, seeking, caring love of the Lord that melts cold hearts and wins them to Himself.
What do you do when the Lord comes to visit? You drop everything and spend some time with Him.
As we heard in our Gospel reading a few weeks ago, when Jesus sent out the 72, He told them to take nothing with them but to depend upon the hospitality of those who would hear them and welcome them into their homes. It appears Jesus and the Twelve must have followed the same practice. As Jesus enters the village a woman named Martha welcomes Him into her house.
One can understand why Martha is very busy making meal preparations. It’s not every day when the Lord comes to visit. And if, as seems likely, Jesus’ disciples came with Him, that’s a lot of mouths to feed. She probably could have used some of Sarah’s big batch of fresh-baked bread!
Meanwhile, her sister Mary is sitting at the Lord’s feet doing nothing but listening. Martha becomes irritated and asks the Lord to put Mary to work helping her. Jesus does not agree with Martha’s assessment of the situation. It is Martha who has her priorities wrong not Mary. “Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her,” says Jesus. Martha is distracted over many things; Mary is satisfied with “the one thing [that] is necessary.”
This story is a contrast to our Gospel reading from last week, “The Parable of the Good Samaritan.” The good Samaritan is an example of active doing. Mary is an example of quiet listening. Martha is busy serving her neighbor, but what she is doing is not so essential as what Mary is doing. A work or service that bypasses the Word of God is one that will never last. Hearing God’s Word must be our first priority.
The main point of the story is easy to recognize. Don’t get so distracted and concerned about doing good that you neglect what is most important, namely, to sit at the feet of Jesus and to hear the Word of God. But we should also recognize the problem confronting Martha. Isn’t she also doing the proper thing, namely showing hospitality to the Son of Man, who has no place to lay His head (9:58)? And by receiving Jesus, isn’t she receiving Him who sent Jesus (Luke 10:16)?
Martha’s dilemma can be highlighted by seeing it in the broader context of Luke’s Gospel. Recall that there are three elements to Jesus’ table fellowship: teaching, eating, and the presence of Jesus. One shows hospitality to those workers sent out into the harvest in a variety of ways. One certainly provides for them the food that is essential for table fellowship. But the most fundamental part of the hospitality shown to God’s pastors and missionaries is to receive and hear the preaching of the kingdom.
The one thing necessary is the gift that Jesus has come to bring. In the context of the Church, it is the catechesis of the Church, the teaching of the Word of God. The catechumen shows hospitality when he faithfully receives the Word of God. Jesus’ teaching is the good portion that will not be taken away.
The issue here is whether one is first to serve the Lord or first to be served by Him. This really ends up being a question of the proper approach to worship. Mary has the right liturgical theology. She sits at the feet of Jesus to receive divine service from Him. Instead of trying to serve Jesus first, she allows Jesus first to serve her with His gifts. Hospitality to the Lord is best expressed in faith’s passive acceptance of God’s Word, where the gifts of God’s kingdom will be found. After receiving the gifts, there will be time for an expression of hospitality in response. But first must come the reception by faith of the preaching of the kingdom. Martha makes the mistake of thinking she is the host and Jesus the guest.
For our meal prayer, we often pray:
Come, Lord Jesus be our guest. Let these gifts to us be blessed.
Given our focus from today Gospel, perhaps we’d be wise to add another verse:
Come, Lord Jesus be our host. You are what we need to the most.
What do you do when the Lord comes to visit? Perhaps the more important question is: When the Lord come comes to visit, what would He have you do? You drop everything and spend time with Him. You sit at His feet and listen to what He has to say, to receive what He has to give.
The story of Mary and Martha shows that when the kingdom of God is near, one must choose the portion that is “good” in the absolute sense—good above all others. The posture in which one receives Jesus’ divine service is not the busyness of human doing, but the stillness of listening to the words of Jesus. Faith is the highest worship. A faith comes by hearing the Word of God.
Our hymnal follows the Eastern and German tradition of calling the Communion service the “Divine Service.” The point is that worship is first and foremost God’s service to us. Going to church isn’t doing God a favor. We go to receive the fruit of Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection—His forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life. Sure, we respond to His grace and forgiveness by confessing and praising His name and serving our neighbor, but first things first. Unless we passively sit at Jesus’ feet and listen, let Him wash us in Holy Baptism, let Him take our sins away and give us His perfect righteousness, let Him put His holy and precious blood in our mouths, we are not His. For it is in these means of grace, the Lord comes to visit you.
When the Lord comes to visit, like Abraham and Sarah, you hear the Lord’s promises of salvation and His return. Like Mary, you sit at Jesus’ feet to learn and hear from the Lord of all Creation. It is a privileged place to be if there ever was one! You are not here because of your wisdom as much as Jesus’ instigation. Abraham may have invited the Lord and His angels to stay for dinner, but the Lord came to his camp at the oaks of Mamre first. Martha may have welcomed Jesus into her house, but Jesus is the one who came to the village.
What is more, the one thing necessary—which is Jesus, Himself, of course—will not be taken away from you either! He has given Himself to you—not only as Teacher and Lord, but also as Savior. No one can take away the forgiveness, life, and salvation which is yours in Christ.
What a blessed way to begin a week!
Come here often and regularly to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen. For here you will find the good portion, the one thing necessary, the Lord Jesus and His life-giving Word. Here He has washed away your sins and made you God’s own beloved child, a co-heir with Christ in His kingdom. Here, the Lord feeds you His Supper, His very body and blood given and shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins and the strengthening of your faith. Here, through His called and ordained servant, He speaks to you this gracious Good News: For Jesus’ sake, you are forgiven for all your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.