July 17th, 2016
"Martha and Mary and Vocation and Faith"
Some years ago a psychologist named Abraham Maslow put forward a theory of human needs which was expressed in the form of a pyramid. At the bottom of the pyramid, according to this system, Maslow recognized the most basic human needs – the physiological. Air, Food, Water. Then, above that, on the next level were the needs of safety. Above that, needs for love and belonging. Then self-esteem and confidence, and on the highest level – the needs of “self-actualization”, which is a little more nebulous, but included things like problem-solving, creativity and morality. For Maslow, the more basic concerns in the pyramid always outweighed those above. If you have no food, you aren't so much worried about being loved. If you aren't loved, you won't be able to feel self-esteem. And if you have no self-esteem, then you will never reach the ultimate goals of human morality and self-fulfillment.
I'm no expert in Maslow or in the field of psychology, but I'm pretty sure he would be at odds with what our Lord Jesus Christ teaches us today in the Gospel reading. It's a simple enough story. Two sisters, Mary and Martha, are honored when Jesus comes to their home. Mary sat at Jesus' feet, listening to his teaching. But Martha busied herself with all manner of concerns. “Much serving” as Luke puts it. Jesus gently scolds her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary.” And he commends sister Mary for choosing the better part, the good portion.
What are we to make of all of this? Be like Mary and not like Martha? Don't worry? Learning is more important than doing? Shall we all go off and live in a monastery, ignoring the concerns of this world and focusing only on those of the one to come? Is it a stark choice between hearing and “doing”? What does Jesus mean?
For one, Jesus is not condemning Christian acts of service and love, in and of themselves. That would be preposterous. It would also not be in accord with so much else of what Scripture us about loving and serving our neighbor. Caring for the widow and orphan. Doing good to all men, especially to those of the household of faith. Jesus himself commends the sheep for clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, visiting the prisoners, etc... In his parables, he illustrates love for the unlovable – like in last week's about the “Good Samaritan”.
Likewise, we Lutherans especially emphasize the doctrine of vocation. That is, that our service to God is rendered most especially not in pious works of religious holiness, but in the everyday callings of life – where God works through the offices of parent and employer and employee and citizen and friend – to accomplish his good purposes. To feed the hungry and help the helpless. To protect the innocent and uphold justice. And even, yes, to clean houses and serve tables.
And I suspect she was also a little resentful of her sister, who wasn't lifting a finger to help. Who simply sat there listening to Jesus. Didn't she know there's work to be done? Does she think the meal is going to cook itself?
Luke, of course, doesn't give us a window into Martha's head, but many of us have been in a similar spot. We become so caught up in the doing of the works we're called to do that we may even become prideful. We may become resentful of those who aren't pulling their weight. Especially in the church. But also at home, and at work, and in general. We grade our own works of service on a bit of a curve, but we tend to be somewhat harsh with others when we think they're not rowing as hard as we are.
Or worse, perhaps Martha fell for that universal temptation that plagues us all from time to time- to think that our good works are worth something before God. To think that we, in some manner or fashion, can earn God's favor, love, or our salvation, by what we do. That if we work hard enough, he will overlook our sins. That if we decide firmly enough, or pray earnestly enough, God will know we really mean it, and we'll pass the test. Or that if we sacrifice the good life, spend our spare time doing church stuff, keep the commandments as best we can, and just generally try and help others and be nice...
But it's hopeless. All Martha's cooking and cleaning, and all your serving and working, no matter how hard or sincere, all of it will fall far short of the perfect standards God demands. There is only one who did it all – and did it well enough. Like us in every way, yet without sin. There is only one whose good work is acceptable to the Father, who was obedient in all things, even unto death, even death on a cross. And only with him, do we have hope.
But it's not a hope based on serving him. It is, rather, in receiving, passively, what he gives. It is by grace we are saved through faith in Christ. And faith comes by hearing.
Mary chose the better part. Not because good works and service are bad. But because hearing the word of Christ is so much better. It is the one thing that is necessary. It is the one thing by which God does what he wants most to do – save poor sinners like you and me. By hearing the good news of Jesus Christ. Faith is planted and watered and nourished. And faith grows in us. Faith in Christ's word is the one thing that is needful.
Jesus himself knew it well. When he was hungry, fasting 40 days in the wilderness, the Devil came to tempt him, first of all, where he thought Jesus was most vulnerable. “Take some stones and turn them into bread, IF you are the Son of God.” But Jesus' answer shows he knows the one thing needful. “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”
Mary was feasting on the bread of life, by simply hearing the Words of Christ. And so you, dear Christians, today, join her at table. As you gather today to hear the word of hope that Jesus brings and proclaims, a word of sins forgiven because of his blood shed. As you hear the absolution from the pastor, recall the promises included in your baptism, and receive the forgiveness given in body and blood under bread and wine. Christ's word is the one thing needful. And he gives it to you freely and fully. Receive it faithfully.
Fred Danker comments on this passage, “Martha made the mistake of thinking she was the host, and Jesus the guest.” Of course, it's the other way around. He's always the host. The meal is his. The work is his. The serving is his. The word is his. And he gives it all... to you.
And it is this word in us, received in faith, worked by the Spirit, that brings about “much serving”. In its proper place, in its right priority, not in worry or anxiety, and never for merit or personal gain, but out of love inspired by the love we've received.
The truth is we Christians are both Marthas and Marys. But let us first be Marys – hearing and receiving the word, the one thing needful, even Christ himself. Let us first and always receive, so that we may be faithful Marthas – fulfilling our vocations, not in worry, but with joy.
For the sake of Christ crucified and risen for us. Amen.