Jesus, Mary, and Martha: On Devotion

April 23, 2023 ()

Bible Text: Luke 10:38-42 |


Jesus, Mary, and Martha: On Devotion | Luke 10:38-42
Brian Hedges | April 23, 2023

We’re going to be in Luke 10 this morning if you want to turn there in your Bibles—Luke 10:38-42.

This morning I want to invite you to join what A.W. Tozer once called “the fellowship of the burning heart.” It is an invitation to draw near to God, to move in closer and to go deeper in your relationship with God.

As I think of those who belong to this fellowship of the burning heart, I think of people like John, the beloved disciple, who gave us his Gospel that reveals the heart of Jesus. I think of St. Augustine and his Confessions, who invented spiritual autobiography as he wrote out the confessions of his sins as well as his desires and his need and pursuit of God and of God’s grace in his life. We might think of Bernard of Clairveax, that twelfth-century monk who preached sermons from the Song of Songs all about the love of Christ, the Bridegroom, for his church. Or perhaps we might think of Amy Carmichael or Christina Rosetti and these women of faith who gave us such beautiful sacred poetry; or of the hymns of Charles Wesley or the letters of John Newton; or the treatises of an Isaac Ambrose, who wrote that wonderful devotional book Looking unto Jesus, and who, I just recently learned, every year would spend a month in a little hut in the woods seeking the face of God. Or of A.W. Tozer himself, that evangelical mystic and prophet of the twentieth century, who wrote about The Pursuit of God.

We might also consider Mary of Bethany, a figure that we meet in the Gospels and whose interaction with Jesus we will consider this morning.

I want to invite us into this deeper fellowship with Jesus, and if there’s something in your heart that maybe is a little resistant at first to an overly experiential or emotional approach to faith, I would just answer that certainly we should not emphasize experience to the neglect of truth, nor emotions to the neglect of rationality. There’s always a danger of subjectivism. But on the other hand, if we believe in a personal God who has revealed himself to us in Jesus Christ and who indwells our heart through the Holy Spirit, if we believe that this God is in personal relationship with us, then it stands to reason that, as with any personal relationship, there are varying degrees of closeness.

Think about any personal relationship. Think about relationships in a family. Children who are equally the children of their parents can have varying degrees of closeness and intimacy with their parents. I have a great relationship with my dad; I’m going to go visit him this week, flying out to Texas in the morning. I look forward to it, I enjoy time with him greatly, and we’ve had a great relationship for all of my life.

But, simply by reason of proximity, I don’t see him as often as my younger brother Andy does, who works with him every day. I’m sure they have more conversations; they’re just together more often, and probably that is reflected in a closeness in their relationship. I don’t think I’m any less loved by my dad than my brother is, but there’s a closeness that I’m sure they have just because they’re together more often.

I think something like that is true in the Christian life. While we are all equally loved by God as his children, we vary in how much we ourselves love him and in how much we enter into the depths of warm and intimate fellowship with him.

This morning it’s an invitation to go deeper, deeper in relationship with God, deeper in relationship with Jesus. We have a model for this—in fact, a set of contrasts—in Mary and Martha, in this passage we’re going to read about in Luke 10. This is part of our series “Conversations with Jesus,” and we’re looking at these encounters that people had with Jesus, recorded in the Gospel of Luke. We’re looking at episodes that are distinctive to Luke’s Gospel; only Luke records these. Each one of them teaches something important about the Christian life, and today the focus is really on Mary, the heart of Mary and her devotion to the Savior, and his interaction with her. But I want us to look at this passage, Luke 10, beginning in verse 38. We’re going to read Luke 10:38-42. You can follow along on the screen or in your own copy of God’s word. It says,

“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.’”

This is God’s word.

I want us to see three things this morning. I think all of us will be able to relate to at least part of this. I want us to see: the problem of distraction, the acts of devotion, and the portion that satisfies.

1. The Problem of Distraction

Of course, you have it in Martha. We don’t want to be too hard on Martha. Martha was a disciple of Jesus. In John 11 Martha makes one of the greatest confessions of faith in Jesus that’s found anywhere in the Gospels, second perhaps only to Simon Peter’s in Matthew 16. Martha was probably a patron of Jesus, one of these women who gave of her wealth to help support Jesus and his disciples in their ministry. She was a wonderful hostess, and at her home in Bethany—we know the house was in the village of Bethany from John’s Gospel—Jesus frequently visited this house. Martha would host Jesus and serve him there, and it was no doubt a great pleasure for her to do that. It was part of her own service and love for Jesus.

But we can also say that Martha was the patron saint of Type A personalities. She was something like an overachiever. She was always busy. She was very forthright, she was very direct, and sometimes impatient, and that comes out in this passage. Luke tells us in verse 40 that she was distracted with much serving.

It’s a vivid word. I. Howard Marshall in his commentary says that “the verb means to be pulled or dragged away, and hence to become distracted, busy, overburdened.” He says the implication is that Martha wished to hear Jesus but was prevented from doing so by the pressure of providing hospitality. She’s pulled away. She’s distracted, and in that distraction she grows impatient, frustrated with her sister Mary. You can see some of the sibling rivalry here as she comes to Jesus with really something like an order. She’s telling the Lord what to do.

You see it in verse 40. 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.”

Then you see Jesus’ tender response to her: “Martha, Martha.” Only about fifteen times in the Bible do you have someone's name repeated in this way. One of the commentaries says that this is a Jewish idiom of personal affection. “Abraham, Abraham.” “Moses, Moses.” Here it is, “Martha, Martha.” You can hear the affection, the tenderness in Jesus’ voice. “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, and it will not be taken away from her.” She is somewhat rebuked by Jesus—gently corrected. It’s not a severe scolding, but it is a correction.

It’s not a correction because she was serving. The serving was good, and in fact in Luke 7 Jesus will correct Simon the Pharisee for not showing him hospitality. The problem was not that she was serving, the problem was that attitude with which she did it and her criticism and complaint about Mary. As one of the commentaries says, “She was scolded not for hustling and bustling, but for fretting and fussing.” She’s distracted, she’s anxious; she’s troubled.

I just want to ask you this morning, are you distracted? Distracted in your relationship with God, troubled and anxious, fretful, fussing, and not really attending to that which is most necessary, most important.

Just think about the distractions in your life. I think we live in probably the most distracted society, the most distracted generation in the history of the world. We live with the constant press of busyness, things to do. We work more hours, we fill our leisure hours with innumerable extracurricular activities, and then we fill every bit of space in our lives with technology.

You know, when I moved here twenty years ago the iPhone hadn’t even been invented yet. In the last twenty years everything changed. I remember the first time someone showed me an mp3 player and explained what an iPod was. I remember the first time I saw an iPhone; I was at an Atlanta Braves baseball game, and there was somebody in front of me with an iPhone with all these icons on it.

Now almost all of us have them, and we live with this constant interruption, the constant pervasive presence of technology in our lives. Now the psychologists and the sociologists and the scientists are beginning to observe how this is changing the fabric of human society; in fact, it’s changing the very structure of our brains.

There was a man a few years ago named Nicholas Carr who wrote a book called The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. Carr observed that he was losing his capacity for deep reading and deep reflection. He says,

“What the net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. Whether I’m online or not, my mind now expects to take in information the way they net distributes it, in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in a sea of words; now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”

I wonder if you can relate to that, that in the last decade of your life your capacity for quietness, for solitude and silence, has diminished. Your capacity for deep thought—for what Callum Newport calls “deep work”—has diminished. Maybe you see the effects of that in your spiritual life, where at one time you were pretty faithful with quiet times and devotions, regular time in the presence of Jesus. Now you find it difficult to even get still and find that stillness of heart where you’re able to have any kind of meaningful, direct interaction with God.

It’s the problem of distraction: we all face it. I face it, and even yesterday as I was working on this I found myself more in the shoes of Martha than of Mary. I kept recognizing, “I’m so distracted with multiple things,” part of which is the trip that’s coming up, but there were multiple things in my mind and in my attention. It was hard to focus and try to enter into the same character that Mary had.

The problem of distraction. I want you today to do some heart work and ask yourself, how much is this true in your own life?

2. The Acts of Devotion

Then I want you to see the contrast between Martha and Mary. If Martha’s the patron saint of the Type A, distracted, hyperactive personality, Mary is portrayed for us as a model disciple, a devoted follower of Jesus.

We see this in her acts of devotion. That’s point number two, the acts of devotion. I phrase it that way because I want us to notice here the behaviors. I want us to see the practices, what Mary actually does, because what we do matters. Of course what we do reveals what’s in our hearts, and the heart must be engaged. But we see Mary do several things that I think are crucial to the life of a Jesus follower.

(1) The first thing we see is that she sat at Jesus’ feet. This is the posture of a student or of a disciple. David Garland says, “The idiom ‘to sit at someone’s feet’ meant to study with that person or become his disciple.”

As an example, you might think of the apostle Paul, who in Acts 22 describes how he was brought up “at the feet of Gamaliel.” He was the student of this rabbi Gamaliel; that’s what it meant to sit at someone’s feet. It meant to be his student, to be an apprentice, a disciple, a learner.

Here is Mary, sitting at the feet of Jesus, the posture of discipleship. Of course, sitting at Jesus’ feet meant that she was not doing other things. She was not with Martha tending to all the other duties; there was a stillness and there was a focus, there was an attention that was given to Jesus at that moment. All of us need those moments where our attention is focused on Jesus and on him alone.

She sat at Jesus’ feet, and this was unusual for a woman. In fact, one of the things that’s going on in this passage is an overturning of cultural conventions and expectations. It was really unusual for a woman to take the place of a disciple in this kind of setting. In fact, later rabbinical tradition says things like this: “May the words of the Torah be burned, they should not be handed to a woman.” Or, “The man who teaches his daughter the Torah teaches her lechery.” I mean, it was just frowned upon for rabbis to teach the Torah to a woman. A woman was not to be a student of a rabbi in the same way that a man was.

In Jewish culture at that time there were actually separate spaces in a household, so the women would often gather in one part of the household, the men in another part. Here’s Martha, who’s attending to the conventional womanly duties of the hostess, but Mary (perhaps surrounded by Jesus’ male disciples) is sitting there at Jesus’ feet as a student, and she’s taking in his teaching.

Perhaps part of what Martha is frustrated about is that Mary has gotten out of her place, she’s out of her lane, as she sits there at Jesus’ feet.

This is a part of one of the themes of the Gospel of Luke. Over and over again we see that the kingdom of God overturns your expectations, it turns things upside-down, as Jesus invites into his inner circle people who would have normally been on the outside.

We saw it last week in Brad’s sermon about Zacchaeus. Here’s Zacchaeus; he’s a tax collector, he’s a mob boss; he’s like the godfather. And Jesus comes to his house and brings salvation and brings him into the kingdom of God.

We see it in the parable of the Good Samaritan, which precedes this in Luke 10. It’s the Samaritan, it’s the half-breed, it’s the person who’s considered a racial inferior to the Jews—he’s the one who helps the man on the side of the road.

We see it as Jesus brings women and children and the poor and the outcasts and the sinners into his kingdom, while often the more religious, respectable folks are left on the outside.

Here’s Mary, a disciple of Jesus, who sits at Jesus’ feet.

(2) Notice the second thing she does: she listens to Jesus’ teaching. She is attending to the words of Jesus, hanging on his every phrase. This is what discipleship involves. A disciple was an apprentice, a learner, someone who is receiving the instruction of a teacher; and Jesus here is the teacher, and Mary is the student, the disciple, who is learning the teaching of Jesus, listening to him.

This is part of what discipleship means for us as well. It means that we are listening to Jesus’ words, that we are attending to his word as it is recorded in Scripture. It’s the whole realm of disciplines that have to do with Bible study and meditation on Scripture and the devotional life. We could say that our devotion to Jesus is seen in part in our devotion to his teaching.

Another feature of this is that it’s the words of Jesus, coming from his lips, his mouth, his authority. It’s not the typical rabbi who’s teaching the Torah, but it’s Jesus who comes and replaces that, teaching something even better. He’s teaching the good news of the kingdom.

So Mary sat at Jesus’ feet, she listened to Jesus’ teaching.

(3) The third thing we see is that she worshiped in Jesus’ presence. I think that’s implied here, and in fact, every time we see Mary we see her at the feet of Jesus. You see it again in John 11 and especially in John 12. In John 12 it’s the week of Jesus’ crucifixion, and there’s a scene, once again in the household of Mary and Martha and Lazarus, and Mary seems to perceive something. She comes and she anoints Jesus, perceiving that something is coming. Jesus says, “She has anointed my body for burial,” and she expends this lavish, lavish gift on Jesus, as she is lost in wonder, love, and praise, worshiping in his presence.

I wonder how long it’s been since you have spent this kind of personal time at the feet of Jesus, listening to him, worshiping him, in fellowship with him. Of course we’re at the feet of Jesus, in a sense, this morning as we gather for corporate worship, and I would never say anything to denigrate the importance of that. That’s crucial. But there is this private aspect to the Christian life. There is something personal for every single one of us in our relationship with the Lord. A.W. Tozer one time wrote an essay called “The Saint Must Walk Alone.” There is this solitude that is one aspect of the Christian life where we have to personally and privately deal with the Lord.

Jesus himself taught his disciples to pray and to go into the closet and shut the door, to find that quiet place, that secret place where they seek the face of God. I wonder how long since you’ve done that, since you’ve been in his presence.

Why should we seek that? Why should we desire this kind of close relationship with Jesus? The answer to that is in the third point, the portion that satisfies.

3. The Portion That Satisfies

I word it that way because of the way it’s translated here in the ESV, the English Standard Version. You see in Luke 10:41-42: “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.’”

Isn’t this interesting? Jesus gently, lovingly corrects Martha and he defends Mary. Why does he do that? He does it because Mary had chosen the one thing that was necessary.

You know, there are many things in life that compete for our attention. There are many things that we have to give attention to. There are deadlines to meet, there are meetings to attend, there are bills to pay. Many of us live in households that have other people there, either roommates or family members, and we have to attend to all of those relationships. Those things are necessary in a sense.

But at the end of our lives, one thing will be the most important thing. When we are finally on our deathbeds, when we are preparing to meet our Creator, when we are right on the edge of eternity, we will look back on our lives and if we have the presence of mind we’ll survey what we have done, the relationships we’ve had. There will be many things that we have given our attention to which, in the long run, will not have mattered very much. But the one thing that will be most important, most central will be this central relationship with God himself. The one thing that is necessary, the one thing that gives the greatest and the deepest, most lasting meaning to life.

Christina Rosetti was a great nineteenth-century British poet. Many of her poems speak to the heart of Christian devotion. In one of her poems she said,

As froth on the face of the deep,
As foam on the crest of the sea,
As dreams at the waking of sleep,
As gourd of a day and a night,
As harvest that no man shall reap,
As vintage that never shall be,
Is hope if it cling not aright,
O my God, unto Thee.

If you just study the imagery there, she’s saying that there are all of these things that are passing, they are temporary, they quickly pass away—froth on the face of the deep, foam on the crest of the sea—it’s there and the it’s gone. She’s saying that’s what hope is “if it clings not unto thee, O my God.”

The only hope that really lasts is the hope that is anchored in Jesus, that is connected to him. That’s what gives deep and lasting and profound meaning to everything else in life.

One thing is necessary, Jesus says. “One thing is necessary, and Mary has chosen the good portion.”

That word “portion” is an important word. It’s a word that is used in the Greek Old Testament, the Septuagint, to describe a portion of food, the portion of a meal. But it’s then used in a metaphorical sense to speak of God as one’s chosen portion. For example, Psalm 119:57: “The Lord is my portion; I promise to keep your words.” There are many other references in Hebrew poetry. They will say, “The Lord is my portion.”

I’ll never forget, many years ago, one of the very first books I read from the old English Puritans was a book by Thomas Brooks, the Puritan. It was an interestingly titled book, and it was really short. Maybe that’s what attracted me to it; it was only about seventy or eighty pages long. The book was entitled An Ark for All God’s Noah’s in a Gloomy, Stormy Day; or, The Best Wine Reserved Till Last; or (you see, Puritans had multiple titles for their books!) or, The Transcendent Excellency of a Believer’s Portion above All Earthly Portions Whatsoever.

It essentially was a seventy-five or eighty page meditation on how God is our portion and what kind of portion he is. Brooks just went through eighteen or twenty characteristics of God as our portion—he is a present portion, he is an immense portion, he is an all-sufficient portion, he’s pure and he’s safe and secure and suitable and so on. He used all these different metaphors to describe how God is our bread and our drink and our shelter. He’s everything that we need.

I’ll never forget reading that on a Sunday morning in Weatherford, Texas, before preaching that day, and how my heart was just lifted in rapture and worship to God as I considered, more deeply than maybe I ever had before, how God is our portion.

Have you found that God is the portion that satisfies your heart and your soul? You see, what I’m inviting us to is a deeper kind of relationship with God where we receive greater joy in him and in our salvation.

Now, don’t misunderstand me. Those who enter into this fellowship are not more justified than any other believer, but I think they enjoy their justification more. They’re not any more accepted into the family; they are sons and daughters of God equally with every other son and daughter of God; but they have a warmer relationship because there’s more time spent in his presence. They are not more born again, they’re not more spiritually alive than any other believer who’s regenerated by the Holy Spirit, but they experience a greater fullness of the Spirit in their lives.

I think the reality is that you can be saved without knowing these depths of love and intimacy, but isn’t there something in your heart that hungers for this? To know God, to know Jesus, to be this deeply connected to him? There’s peace and contentment and satisfaction in him. He is a good portion, the best portion, that which we should choose.

Mary has chosen the good portion, Jesus says, and it will not be taken away from her. It shows us that this has to be chosen; it has to be sought. You have to want this and then you have to intentionally seek it.

I think one of the great benefits of all the literature that’s now available on spiritual disciplines and spiritual formation and practices for living the Christian life is that they show us how to intentionally set our sails to catch the breeze of heaven. They show us how we can engage with God in an intentional, disciplined, decisive way. That will be necessary. You have to choose this; you have to want this. Especially in our day, you have to do something to minimize the distraction, to get enough solitude and enough time alone and enough quiet in your heart that you can begin to open up to the presence of God and you can begin to receive from him.

A.W. Tozer put it this way. He said,

“Every Christian will become at last what his desires have made him. We are all the sum total of our hungers. The great saints have all had thirsting hearts; their cry has been, ‘My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God; when shall I come and appear before God?’ Their longing after God all but consumed them. It propelled them onward and upward to heights toward which less ardent Christians look with languid eye and entertain no hope of reaching.”

Believer, I just want you to know that more is possible for you than what you have experienced so far. More is possible for you. You can know God more deeply. You can enjoy him more fully. You can experience the warmth of his presence in a greater way than you have up to this point.

I want to ask you this morning as we conclude, where are you in your Christian life? Let me give you three takeaways. These are things you can do this week to help you put this in practice.

(1) Number one, take inventory. Take inventory, and ask yourself—maybe even write this down—where you’re distracted. What’s distracting you? Where does your mind wander to when you’re trying to spend time with the Lord? Instead of ignoring that, just face it, and maybe write it down. Where are you anxious and troubled? Where is there turmoil in your life? Where do you find yourself lacking peace? Just face it.

The tendency in our culture is to dissociate, and instead of facing our emotions and our experiences and the fretful condition of our hearts—instead of doing that, we escape into our phones or laptops or whatever. Instead of doing that, why don’t you sit down, take inventory, and look at your heart, look at your soul, and honestly write down where you are? Take inventory.

(2) Secondly, remember what’s most important, what’s most valuable in life. At the end of the day, we will lose all earthly possessions, all earthly accomplishments—I mean, we lose all of that at the end. But there are very few things that have lasting and eternal consequence, so look at your life and the activities of your life and ask yourself, “Will this matter a year from now? Will this matter ten years from now? Will this matter in eternity?”

That’s not to say we should neglect earthly responsibilities. I don’t think we should be legalistic about this. Certainly we should give attention to our relationships. Those are important.

But there’s one fundamental relationship that’s most important; there’s one thing that is most valuable; there’s one treasure in the field for which we should sell everything to obtain that treasure, and it is Christ himself.

So remember what’s most valuable and consider making a change—maybe a social media fast, maybe removing email from your phone, maybe shutting off the notifications—doing something that allows you to regain some mental space to engage with the Lord.

(3) That leads to the third application. Would you spend some time this week at the feet of Jesus? Actually carve out some time, maybe forty-five minutes or an hour one day. A pretty day; hopefully we’ll get some spring days this week. If you get nice weather, go out to a park, take your Bible, take a journal and a pen, leave your phone in the car, and go out and sit outside and just be in the presence of God, open his word, and listen to the voice of the Spirit speaking to you through the Scriptures. Spend some time with the Lord.

Why should we do that? Because he’s worthy, because he’s the most valuable treasure, because he is the most satisfying treasure; he is that good portion. If we choose him, he will not be taken away from us. Let’s do this, brothers and sisters, and in so doing let’s become a part of this fellowship of the burning heart. Let’s pray together.

Gracious God, in many ways this is a simple message, and perhaps nothing new for us. Most of us have heard this before, we’ve thought about this before, and exhortations to open our Bibles and spend time in prayer are nothing new. Yet we find ourselves constantly in need of spiritual renewal and of repentance from our lesser loves and even disordered loves, so that we turn to you once again as our greatest treasure and our chief love.

Lord, I pray that you would so work in our hearts today that we would desire this, that there would be something in us that is stirred, that would cause us to hunger and then prioritize by spending time in your presence, time in solitude. Lord, we need that this week. I ask that you would help every one of us to seek it out.

As we prepare our hearts now for the Lord’s table, we ask you to draw near to us as we draw near to you. Help us, Lord, to examine our hearts, help us to repent where we see sin; help us especially to embrace afresh Christ as our Savior, our crucified and resurrected Lord, who is our life, our salvation, our everything. May we come before you in these moments with reverence and with love and adoration. So draw near to us in these moments, we pray in Jesus’ name and for Jesus’ sake, amen.