Sermon Luke 10:38-42 “Martha vs. Mary” July 21, 2013

         I’ve always fantasized about what it might be like to have a sister. I have a brother…a real nice one whom I love very much, but I do wonder what it would be like to have a sister. Older or younger, I’m not particular on the birth order position in the family; just a sister who I could confide in and share clothes perhaps, talk fashion and hairstyles and yes, even ministers have egos, unfortunately. At one level, I know I’m romanticizing a bit on the idea of how close sisters might be. Too often, families being what they are, there can be conflict between siblings and perhaps, even more so, between sisters. 

We could make the assumption that that’s exactly what’s happening between Martha and Mary…a life-long antagonism that becomes highly heated when Martha sees Mary not carrying her weight, not sharing the duties of hostess to Jesus and his clan. But, I don’t think so. That would oversimplify the situation and ignore both a long held tradition of hospitality and a woman’s role in a very ordered society. Mary knew what was expected; she just decided, in Christ’s words, “to choose the better part.”

These words have puzzled feminists and conservatives alike. What is the “better part?” There are certainly famous sisters who have demonstrated a public antagonism to one another including Eppie Lederer and Pauline Phillips. Names not familiar? Well, they weren’t to me either until I read that Eppie Lederer and Pauline Phillips are two of the most well-known and favored advice givers…Ann Landers and Abby Van Buren of Dear Abby fame. Since the two chose to offer written advice to write-in strangers, it may not be all that unusual that there would be some measure of competition between them. Apparently, there was. Their styles were different…Ann offering homey advice and Abby, witty and a bit sarcastic. Throughout their writing careers, their competitive digs at one another were well known.[1]

So, I suppose we could wonder is something similar going on here between Martha and Mary? Certainly, they had different approaches to offering hospitality…Martha taking on the traditional role of serving her guests and Mary sitting devotedly at Jesus’ feet, listening, learning. Were they competing for Christ’s attention? Or is it simply a matter of personality…Martha, likely the first born is consumed with the details of responsible living thus leaving Mary to enjoy a less rigorous role in the family structure. Mary could be, perhaps, far less responsible and caught up in details. She could be infuriatingly thoughtless to both her older sister’s stressed out situation and the needs of their guests. Maybe they were competing a bit for Christ’s attention but if so, Mary was winning. She had, in Christ’s words, chosen the better part. As one commentator put it:

“Mary’s approach to life proved to be marching more in line with the priorities of the kingdom of God. Yes, both sisters were simply trying to love their Lord. One tried to love him with all her activity, her busyness and her attention to culturally expected details. The other loved him by dropping what was expected and dealing with, dwelling with, and focusing on the immediate activity and presence of God.”[2]


Christ’s compassion for Martha is evident. In the moment when Martha comes to complain to him, there’s almost a sadness expressed in his response as he gently repeats her name. “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things” In that moment, I can almost hear Christ speaking my name, repeating it and offering the wisdom I keep forgetting… “Pay attention, I’m here.”

How do our days get so busy, so busy we tend to forget that God is here, in this very moment, but then, where are we? Well, its been pointed out far too often that we are usually plugged into something…a cell phone, email, blogging, social networking. Like Martha, we get busy caught up in the kitchens of our lives doing a minutia of worries and details. We get busy being busy, doing everything but listening for God’s voice and relishing God’s presence.

More than one professional will tell us we work more hours now than ever and even those who claim retirement wonder how they ever found time to work at a paying job. We’re busy all the time and it’s taking its toll on our physical, mental, and spiritual health. Just one-statistic points out the fact that almost 10 percent of the U.S. population suffer from some form of depression.[3] A recent ABC News cast reported that Americans work more than people in other industrialized countries. We take less time away for vacations, work longer hours, and tend to retire later than those in other countries too. But we don’t seem to be much happier and our health issues are increasing. In two recent books on the ongoing dilemma of too many hours spent doing far too much, the authors found “…evidence that many Americans are overstressed and overworked in trends that are not necessarily measured with a punch clock; trends such as road rage, workplace shootings, the rising number of children in day care and increasing demands for after-school activities to occupy children whose parents are too busy or still at work.”[4]

So, we live in a Martha-world but our faith in Christ calls us to pause, listen, learn, and embrace a different pace and model for living. Taking time to just be, to just rest in God, to enjoy family and friends, to just relax and take a deep breath…we aren’t very good at this stuff. And believe me, I’m listening to my own words. I can hear Christ repeating my name and saying compassionately…choose the better part Ricki. I wonder if you can hear your name being called? I bet, if you listen, you will? Amen.

[1] Internet sources including

[2] Homiletics July-August 2013 Volume 25 Number 4, 27.

[4] ABC News May 1, 2013 online resource