Tomorrow's sermon, coming to a church in southern Missouri where I have preached eight times this summer, is based on the story of Mary and Martha in Luke 10:38-42, and in part on Colossians 1:21-29.Bethany. We’ve been there before, several times this summer. It was on the road to Bethany, near the Mount of Olives and just outside Jerusalem, where Jesus gave His last instructions to His disciples before ascending into heaven. The home of Simon the Pharisee, where Jesus was dining when a sinful woman washed His feet, was in Bethany. And the house of Martha was also in Bethany.
Mary and Martha are very popular biblical characters, though we know very little about them. They come into one other Bible story, in John chapter 11, where Jesus raised their brother Lazarus from the dead. John actually tells us more about these sisters than Luke does. The five verses Luke devotes to them give us only a very sketchy notion of their character. We may want to let our imagination flesh them out a bit. So Mary comes across as very humble and faithful, dropping everything to listen to Jesus’ Word. And Martha gets a bit of a bad rap, letting other, less important things distract her from the “one thing needed,” listening to Jesus. She even stoops to scolding Jesus for letting Mary sit there while she does all the work. Tsk! What a battle-axe, eh?
Well, no. Martha isn’t really so bad. And she didn’t ignore Jesus’ message. When Jesus rolled into town, four days after Lazarus died, Martha confessed this faith in Jesus: “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died. Even now I know that whatever You ask of God, God will give You” (John 10:21-22). When Jesus told her that Lazarus was going to rise again, Martha confessed: “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day” (John 10:24). When Jesus told her that He is the Resurrection and the Life, in whom all who believe will live even if they die, Martha confessed: “Yes, Lord; I have believed that You are the Christ, the Son of God, even He who comes into the world” (John 10:27). This is as much as Peter confessed in his “great confession”—“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16).
When Jesus chided Martha in Luke 10, he wasn’t dealing with an unbeliever, but with a believer. He wasn't dealing with an enemy, but with a dear friend who had welcomed him into her house. Nor was it always Martha’s habit to come between Jesus and her sister Mary. For we know just one more thing that Martha said, when she went to Mary and told her: “The Teacher is here, and is calling for you” (John 11:28). Maybe this shows that Martha took Jesus’ lesson about the “one thing needed” to heart. Far from trying to keep Mary from listening to Jesus teach, Martha summoned Mary from her private grief and told her to go to the Teacher.
Martha’s problem in Luke 10 is not a matter of unbelief or ungodliness. It is a slip that can happen to any of us, even the most faithful. It is the mistake of being worried and troubled about many things, even to the point where those worries and troubles come between you and the message of Christ.
Last Sunday, I preached at a church where a full breakfast is served every Sunday before the Divine Service. The first lady who showed up to let me into the building was responsible for cooking breakfast that morning. When she arrived with a house-guest in tow, she apologized to me, saying: “I’m sorry I can’t stay for church, but you see I have company at home.” This woman made the same choice as Martha in Luke 10. She was more than willing to serve, out of faithfulness and love. But in her concern about serving her house-guests properly, she didn’t feel able to stop and let Christ serve her.
Many of us have made the same choice as the lady I met last Sunday, the same choice as Martha. We may wonder whether it is even possible to make a different choice. But for Martha it was. And it is possible for us, too. Jesus does not condemn Martha or accuse her of sin. It was she, after all, who felt wronged when Mary sat and listened to Jesus rather than helping her serve. Instead, Jesus points out that Mary’s choice is not wrong. There is nothing wrong with taking time out from works of service to listen to the Word of God. There is nothing wrong with putting the message preached and the doctrine taught in Christ ahead of all other business. In fact, as Jesus points out, Mary’s choice is the “good part, which will not be taken away from her.”
The Teacher’s teaching is the “one thing needed.” Versions of the Bible based on the historic Greek text have Jesus saying, “One thing is needed.” Many modern versions, based on a text pieced together from scraps of manuscripts, put it like this: “Few things are needed, really only one.” Whether you give or take the extra words, the number of things that Jesus says are really needed is the same: One, and really only one! And that one thing, which Mary correctly chose, is to sit at Jesus’ feet and hear His Word.
God does not forbid us to serve Him or to serve our neighbor. But really only one thing is needed, and that is to be served by Him. Far from forbidding us to render to Him love and worship, or to do acts of love to others, God commands them. Remember last week’s lesson about the Good Samaritan: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” But we love as He has first loved us. The highest worship we can return to God is to hear His Word with faith, and to receive His gifts in the Sacrament. That is why we call worship “the Divine Service.” And the highest love we can show our neighbor is to bring them to the Divine Service, and to commune with them in Word and Sacrament.
The highest service of God and your neighbor is to be served by God. "The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve" (Matthew 20:28). This is not the only thing we can do to serve God and our neighbor. But it is one of the few things needed, really the only one. It is the good part that will not be taken away. Every congregation is full of ideas about what a pastor is supposed to do. He should visit every household. He should visit the sick and dying, shut-ins, those in prison or medical institutions. He should make evangelism calls, call on inactive members, keep good records, make good coffee, publish a good newsletter, work with the local ministerium, get involved in the community. He should inspire the youth group, lead by the force of moral example, have a tidy desk, and attend five meetings a week. And if he can’t handle all this while keeping his wife happy and his children in line, he isn’t cut out for the ministry.
But actually, very few things are required of your pastor, really only one: that he be “able to teach” (1 Timothy 3:2; 2 Timothy 2:24). He needs to sit at the feet of Christ, first to study the Word and then to teach it. The church is about few things, really only one: teaching. “Go therefore and teach all nations” (Matthew 28:19). If it’s true for the church, it is certainly true for the pastor. Christ does not forbid him to do any of those other things, though perhaps the pastor need not do them all by himself. The one thing he is really required to do, before all other things, is to teach.
And so, how should we regard our pastor? Look again at the story of Mary and Martha. Picture your pastor as the one teaching. What are you doing in this picture? Do you drop in and out on what your pastor is teaching because you’re distracted by worries and cares? Do you take less than every opportunity to sit at your pastor’s feet and learn? Perhaps you don’t feel you have much to learn, or that he doesn't have anything to teach you. Perhaps you don’t consider digging deeper into doctrinal details as important as serving people, managing the church’s business affairs, and doing whatever it takes to get people into church. “Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things!”
I have known congregations that asked their pastor to concentrate less on teaching God’s Word faithfully and clearly, and to focus more on growing the church. I have known churches whose members voted with their pocketbook, putting more or less money in the basket, depending on how they felt about the pastor's teaching. I have known financially-strapped churches, forced to choose between the ministry of teaching and a piece of real estate; and you know what? They chose the property every time. I have witnessed a Board of Elders telling the pastor he would only get a raise if the church grew; otherwise he would get a pay-cut. I have known voters, church council members, and even elders who came to church only when there was a meeting.
But these are “Martha” priorities. Jesus said that Mary had chosen the better part, which would not be taken away from her. And so you, too, can always avail yourself of the one thing that is really needed, the teaching of Christ. To lose that is to lose Christ. But cling to the ministry of teaching of God’s Word, and it will not be taken from you. Insist on being served with pure doctrine. Support and encourage any pastor who does so. Take advantage of every opportunity to hear the Word and receive the Sacrament. Receive, receive, receive the good portion that Christ gives you. Then, even if you do none of these other things, you will have what is really needed.
In Paul’s letter to the Colossians, he urges no more or less than this. “Continue in the faith, grounded and steadfast,” Paul says. Do not be moved away from the hope of the gospel which you heard preached. Know that your pastor has been given a stewardship from God; that is, responsibility over something belonging to the Lord. And what is that responsibility? “To fulfill the word of God, the mystery hidden from ages and generations, but now revealed to the saints.” What is this mystery? It is the message that surpasses all understanding, the teaching that the Lord has revealed in His Word. What is this teaching? It is that you were once alienated from God and enemies with Him, both by wicked works and a wicked mind; but Christ has reconciled you to God by the death of His physical body; and now before God He presents you as holy, blameless, and above reproach in His sight. This is a doctrine we could study all our lives and never fully understand. It is a fountain of blessing that cannot be exhausted.
It is for this purpose that your faithful pastor toils and strives. It is for this purpose that he offers to you, above all things, a ministry of teaching. It is in this endeavor, above all, that the Lord works mightily in him as he preaches, warns, and teaches everyone in all wisdom; which means, in the full counsel of God, the whole purpose of His Word. He must warn and rebuke sin; he must encourage and build up the weak; and above all, he must proclaim to you the forgiveness of sins so that he, your pastor, may present you perfect in Christ Jesus. Because that is his concern for every one of you, it is an inexhaustible task, fraught with difficulty and pain. But it is also a joyful task, as you and your pastor together receive your share of the sufferings of Christ. For not only does Christ go before you in carrying the cross, but He also suffers with you; whatever afflictions reach you on account of Him, are Jesus’ afflictions too. And since He is the one we preach, He is at work both in your pastor and in you. This is your hope of glory. This is the one thing you really need. This is your good portion, which no one can take away from you. Praise the Lord!