Luke 10:38-42

It’s All In the Timing

By Dr. Randy L. Hyde

If you had your druthers, who would you rather live with – Mary or Martha?

Consider the options…  If you lived with Martha, the house would always be spotless and there would be three square meals on your table every day.  Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?

Well, maybe you better think again.  You’d have to put up with her constant fretting about this or that.  And don’t you dare leave your towels and underwear on the floor!  You would get a chewing-out that would make your ears burn!  “Get your feet off the furniture!”  “Don’t even think about leaving your shoes in the den.  You know where they belong.”

No sirree, Martha runs a tight ship, and in Martha’s house you better toe the line.  She isn’t going to put up with any of your foolishness.  Not for a minute.

Then, there’s Mary.  If you lived with Mary, you would eat off paper plates… if you got that much.  You know what a PB&J is? That’s short for peanut butter and jelly.  With Mary, that’s a gourmet meal.  And before you sit down, be sure to wipe the dust off the chair because it’s at least an inch thick.  Pray you’ve got enough money for Merry Maids because this Mary isn’t going to lift a finger to keep things tidy or make sure you’re well-fed.  She’s got things to do and they don’t include a lot of doing.  Know what I mean?

So let’s ask again.  If you had your druthers, who would you rather live with – Mary or Martha?

It appears, from Luke’s story we read a few moments ago, that Jesus has cast his vote.  He’ll go with Mary. She “has chosen the better part,” Jesus says.  Or, as Eugene Peterson puts it in his paraphrase The Message, using an obvious pun, “Mary has chosen… the main course.”  Jesus isn’t too big on eating lavish meals anyway.  If you set a big dinner in front of him, he’d probably start looking around for a hungry person to give it to.  And for someone who admittedly doesn’t even have a place to lay his head, a little dust isn’t going to matter, now is it?  No, it seems that Jesus takes Mary’s side of this argument.

Have you ever wondered why?  John, in his gospel, gives us a clue.  There, you’ll find another story about the sisters in the eleventh chapter.  In John ‘s narrative, their brother Lazarus, who isn’t mentioned in Luke, is introduced to us.

Lazarus has died, and Jesus has gotten there too late to do anything about it.  Or so they think.  Martha is the first one to run out and greet Jesus when he does finally show up.  And in typical fashion, she chews him out pretty good.  “If you’d been here my brother wouldn’t have died.”  She knows they got word to Jesus of their brother’s illness in plenty of time for him to come and heal him.  She’s upset over a lot of things, which happens sometimes when a person is in grief.  Now, given the opportunity, she takes it out on her friend. Martha is not one to hold back on her opinions or feelings, is she?

What does Jesus do?  He responds gently, but also forcefully.  He gives her a theology lesson about life and death and resurrection.  Martha’s response, interestingly enough, shows that she hasn’t spent all her time in the kitchen.

“Your brother will rise again,” Jesus tells her.

“I know,” Martha says.  “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”  Hmmm.  That’s actually pretty savvy for a woman in the first century.  Women knew their place, and it wasn’t generally where the rabbis gathered to teach.  Martha has picked up some good “Bible learnin'” somewhere.  Still, Jesus continues to teach her, and in so doing reminds her of who he is.  “I am the resurrection and the life,” Martha.  “Those who believe in me, even though they die, yet shall they live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.”

The words are hardly out of his mouth when Mary comes running up.  And you know what she does?  She gets a little mouthy with Jesus too.  Runs in the family, doesn’t it?  In fact, Mary says the same thing to Jesus that her sister had said just a few moments before.  “If you’d been here my brother wouldn’t have died.”  If we didn’t know any better, we’d think they had rehearsed their lines.  Actually, I think they probably had said it to each other over and over while waiting for Jesus to show up.  “If Jesus were here our brother wouldn’t have died.”   “If Jesus were here…”

So Jesus goes over it again with Mary.  “I am the resurrection and the life.  Those who believe in me, even though they die, yet shall they live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.”  No, wait a minute. Jesus doesn’t say this with Mary, does he?  What does he do?  He weeps.  I can just see him take Mary’s hand, and as they make their way silently to the tomb where Lazarus has been buried, without a word passing between them, the tears stream down his face.

Maybe with Martha, Jesus isn’t too sure how much she knows about life and death and resurrection.  After all, she spends so much time in the kitchen, it’s hard to know how much Martha has learned over the years about such things.  But Mary… well, Jesus knows she knows.  You can’t get anything by Mary.

I had a young friend like that in a previous church.  We had two morning worship services.  She would sing in the choir for the 8:30 service, go to Sunday School, help with extended care for the children at 11:00, and when her duties were completed she’d slip back into the balcony and listen to me preach the same sermon yet again.  In a phone conversation years later – I mean years later – she reeled off to me sermon titles and things I’d said in the pulpit that I didn’t even remember.  Couldn’t get a thing by her.

That’s Mary.  Jesus doesn’t have to tell her he is the resurrection and the life.  She knows.

Or, could it be that Jesus has a special fondness for Mary that he doesn’t have for Martha?  Is it hard for you to believe that Jesus simply likes Mary better, that he has feelings for her he doesn’t have for her sister?

Do you want to know where I got this idea?  From the imminent biblicist and theologian in our family – my wife Janet.  That’s what she thinks!  She believes Jesus had a love for Mary that is greater than his affection for Martha.  So if you disagree, take it up with Janet, not me!

If that is true, it’s pretty odd.  After all, Jesus makes it clear that he prefers people who back up their talk with action… who walk the walk and don’t just talk the talk.

“Lord, let me first go and bury my father.”  “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”

“I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to my family.”  “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

Yet, Mary has chosen “the better part,” the “main course,” which is to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen to what he has to say.

How do you feel about that?  My guess is that you have a little bit of sympathy for Martha and think she gets something of a raw deal in this story.  That’s the way Giuseppe Belli looked at it.  In his 19th-century sonnet “Martha and Magdalene,” he has Martha coming back at Jesus.  Notice how there’s always somebody who wants to rewrite scripture?  When Jesus says Mary’s choice is the more important of the two, Martha responds, “So says you, but I know better.  Listen, if I sat around on my salvation the way she does, who’d keep this house together?”1

By golly, that’s a good question.  If everybody acted like Mary, nothing would get done!  And we thought Jesus liked to get things done.  After all, he has just confronted the lawyer with the parable of the Good Samaritan.  The lawyer is skilled in Scripture, but has trouble hearing – really hearing – the word of God.  So Jesus offers him an example – the Samaritan.  Now, we find Martha, who is so busy serving she does not hear the word.  So, Jesus offers her an example – her lazy sister!  “To the man, Jesus said to go and do; to the woman, Jesus said to sit down, listen, and learn.”2  Strange, isn’t it?

Fred Craddock warns us not to make a cartoon out of this story.  And he is right.  In fact, I’ve come pretty close to doing that already, haven’t I?  If we’re not careful, we’ll get a picture of Martha who always sits at the dinner table sideways, ready to leap into action every time somebody needs something from the stove.3 And Mary will be so lazy she doesn’t even stoop over to tie her shoes.  “If we censure Martha too harshly, she may abandon serving altogether, and if we commend Mary too profusely, she may sit there forever.”4

It all comes down to timing.  There is a time to get up and go and do.  That is why, every Sunday morning when worship is about to be completed, I encourage you to take what we have talked about and put it into action.  It doesn’t do any good for us to learn what God’s word says to us if we’re going to sit around on it all week and not do anything about it.  But, there is also the time to sit and listen and reflect on what God is trying to say to us.  After all, it also doesn’t do any good for us to go off half-cocked without knowing what to do.  Being a good disciple of Jesus is knowing what to do and when to do it. I t’s all in the timing, you see. It’s all in the timing.

Let’s put it this way… Jesus is paying a visit.  He’s coming to your house.  We’re not talking about Bethany, a small village a couple of miles outside of Jerusalem, and it’s not the first century.  So this is not a story many miles and many moons away.  Imagine it, if you will. Jesus is paying a visit to your house today.  In fact, he’s coming over right after church.  How do you prepare for Jesus?

Near the end of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus talks about those who pass the test of hospitality.  He says, “I was hungry and you gave me food.  I was thirsty and you gave me drink.  I was a stranger and you welcomed me, in prison and you visited me.”  If I didn’t know any better, I’d say it sounds to me like he’s looking for a few good Marthas.  But not Martha Stewart!  Jesus will take leftovers.  Just whip up something that takes a couple of minutes.  When he comes, he doesn’t want you to spend all your time in the kitchen laboring over a stove.  He wants you to spend time in the living room with him.  He would prefer that you behave like Mary.

And by the way, he’ll probably bring a few of his friends with him.  In fact, that might have been the cause of Martha’s consternation.  It’s not that she’s always a fuss-budget, but if Jesus is accompanied by all his disciples, they have a houseful.  That’s why Martha blows a gasket.  She’s got all these people in her house and no one is lifting a finger to help, especially her sister.  It’s her house too, you know.  You’d have reacted the same way.  Come on, admit it.  You would have.  There’s a bit of Martha in all of us.

And these strangers in your house, who have come because Jesus is there… they won’t be like you, and not like anyone you’ve ever invited before.  They won’t smell very good or be well-dressed.  Straight off the street, that’s what they are.  Some might even grovel at Jesus’ feet and stain your carpet with dubious-smelling foreign substances.5

How are you going to react to all this?  That’s what Luke is asking with this story.  How do you take Jesus and his traveling troupe of unsavory characters?

Or, perhaps Luke is asking, how is Jesus going to take you?  Does he care if the floors are spotless or the table is laden with goodies?  Evidently not.  He would much prefer that you take the time to sit at his feet… and listen.  When Jesus comes calling, he simply wants you to listen.  There will be plenty of time later to go and do.  After all, it’s all in the timing.

Lord, help us with our timing… to know when to do the right thing as far as you and your kingdom is concerned.  Find us faithful in serving you, whether it’s by listening or by doing.  In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.


1Quoted from Divine Inspiration: The Life of Jesus in World Poetry by Stephanie Frey in “Living with Martha,” The Christian Century, July 13, 2004, p. 16.

2Fred Craddock, Interpretation: Luke, (Louisville, Kentucky: John Knox Press, 1990), pp. 151-152

3Frey, Ibid.

4Craddock, Ibid., p. 152

5Joy Jordan-Lake, “Jesus Makes Me Nervous,” quoted in Pulpit Resource, Vol. 32, No. 3: Year C, July-September, 2004, p. 15.

Copyright 2004 Randy L. Hyde. Used by permission.