Text: Luke 10:38-42
You all know the famous 1st question and answer to the Westminster Shorter Catechism: “What is the chief end of man? Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” It’s such a great answer, mostly because of that unexpected verb “enjoy.” But I’d like to put the focus on the question for a moment. What is a chief end? The word “end” there means goal or purpose, and so the “chief end” is the ultimate or final purpose. A chief end is the most important goal, and so man’s chief end ought to be the thing that he pursues above all else. Everything else in his life should work to support that goal and bring him closer to it. Anything which distracts him from it or pulls him further away from it is working against that goal. The religious term for something like that would be sin. Everything that we do should cause us to glorify God and enjoy Him more and more. And that is what our text is about this morning.
“Now it happened as they went that He entered a certain village; and a certain woman named Martha welcomed Him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who also sat at Jesus’ feet and heard His word.” Now these women, Martha and Mary, were well known to Jesus. We are not sure how well he knew them before this instance, though it doesn’t seem that he is a strange, but they show up again in John 11 and 12, where they are described as being very close with Jesus. These are the sisters of Lazarus, and the Mary here is the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet with oil (John 11:2, 12:3). We are not given any description of the occasion for this meeting in Luke, but it seems most likely to have occurred before the events of John 11 and 12.
The narrative is straight-forward and brief. Jesus comes to these women’s house to eat, and while he is there, Martha does all the work and Mary sits at his feet. Martha becomes upset because she thinks that Mary is unfairly letting her do all the work. Martha complains to Jesus about this, but Jesus surprises her by saying that Mary did the right thing while she was too distracted by all the work. What does this mean, and what is the significance for us today?
Like so much of Jesus’ teaching, this narrative is supported by a contrast. The two women represent two perspectives on life, and so we will look at each of them. Mary is commended as choosing “that good part,” and so she represents the proper perspective. What is she doing?
All that our text says is that Mary sat at Jesus’ feet and that she heard his word. This is the posture and description of a disciple. After he was healed, the Gadarene Demoniac was found “sitting at the feet of Jesus” (Luke 8:35). The clearest example of this posture is in Acts 22:3 when the Apostle Paul says “I am indeed a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, taught according to the strictness of our fathers’ law, and was zealous toward God as you all are today.” To have been brought up “at the feet of Gamaliel” meant that Paul trained under him. He was Gamaliel’s disciple. To sit at the feet of a rabbi was a common expression of this day, and here Mary is clearly being portrayed as a disciple of Jesus.
That this narrative emphasizes women and their roles is not an incidental point. Indeed, for Luke to include a story about a female disciple of Jesus, indeed making that a central point of commendation, would have been extraordinary in his day. Women simply weren’t thought of in such a way, and there would have been a strong current of opposition to the idea of women being disciples of a Rabbi. And so this passage is good proof that Christian women should be good students, good learners, particularly of religious matters and the Word of God. This doesn’t mean that they have to all be professional academics or bookworms, but it does mean that they should actively cultivate their minds. Any notion that study is a man’s field is proven wrong by this passage. Any assumption that it is more important for a woman to be a good housewife than to be a good student is rebuked by this description of Mary.
And this isn’t only an affirmation of the intellect, though it is that in an important way, but it is a strong statement about the need to study God’s word and to eagerly learn it. This is because the mind is connected to the soul, and one’s level of interest in studying the Bible will have a strong correlation to their spiritual well-being. Contrary to popular sentiment, good works are not more important than spiritual knowledge and internal devotion.
Next we come to Martha. We should say that Martha is in no way a villain. John 11:5 tells us that Jesus loved Martha, and the fact that Luke gives her the priority of description indicates that she was the eldest and probably the leading figure of the household. That Martha would be very concerned about hostessing the meal is perfectly reasonable. She is being a typical house manager. But there is a problem here. Martha was distracted by her serving (vs. 40).
In fact, Jesus says that she was worried and troubled (vs. 41). What exactly was she worried about? The easiest answer is that Martha was caught up in all the necessary business and protocol of hospitality. She was trying to get the food ready, to have the tabled bussed, and to make sure everything was just so. In the process she missed out on actually fellowship with Jesus.
There’s a somewhat mundane but nonetheless important point here. It’s important to slow down. Don’t focus so much on all the business of hospitality that you miss actually being hospitable. It is more important to have personal time of fellowship and friendly communion than to put on the best dinner party ever. Conversation is more important than the table-setting. The personal relationship is the most important thing, even over the sorbet.
But there’s something more than just hospitality here. This isn’t just any guest, after all. This is Jesus. And while Martha is “worried” about how the meal is going and what Jesus is going to think about her house and her hostessing ability, Mary is taking the time to listen to Jesus. Martha, despite all the predictable excuses, is focused on herself. Mary is actually focused on Jesus. And we have to keep this same focus today, even amidst the ordinary struggles and daily tasks we face. “Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to everlasting life, which the Son of Man will give you, because God the Father has set His seal on Him” (John 6:27). “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also”(Matt. 6:19-21). Quite simply, Martha had the wrong priorities.
Choosing That Good Part
“And Jesus answered and said to her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things. But one thing is needed, and Mary has chosen that good part, which will not be taken away from her’” (Luke 10:40-42). While Martha thought she was preparing the good part of the meal, Mary actually ate it. She chose Christ and His word, and she made them her central focus. She chose this over her domestic duties. She chose this over external works of service. She chose this over external displays of ceremony and honor. Indeed, Martha thought that Mary was disrespecting both the guest and the household, but missed the central point.
This is an illustration of the greatest commandment, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind” (Luke 10:27). The earlier parable of the Good Samaritan had illustrated the second commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” And while that second commandment is often neglected, we have to remember that it is still, nevertheless, second. Loving the Lord with one’s whole being is more important than good works, however good they may be.
In fact, Luke’s presentation of Mary and Martha is a strong rebuke to the American notion of religious pragmatism, including much of the “missional” ecclesiology. As important as acts of charity and evangelism are, they are still not more important than loving God and focusing your whole being, body and mind, on him. The 1st and greatest commandment is still the first and greatest. And so we, like Mary and Martha, must work to put our priorities in order. We must prioritize Christ.
To bring this back to the beginning, we should always keep in mind our chief end. We must prioritize glorifying God and enjoying Him forever. All that we do needs to promote that chief end and bring us closer to it. Anything which distracts us from it, even if we think it is related, has to be subordinated to the actual focus of God.
And this is why it is so important to enjoy God. Our pursuit of both theology and holiness needs to be a slow, unbusy one. We should make sure that we are so internalizing God that we are finding our joy and happiness in Him. And the great thing is, enjoying God will help you to want to glorify Him. As with any discipline, the more disciplined you become, the more proficient you will become and thus it will seem easier to do better. The child does not differ from a slave, but as he grows he becomes free.
And so we need to pursue this chief end in order to enjoy it. And we can only pursue it properly by keeping the first things first. Put God above all. Take the time to listen to His word, which now means reading the Holy Scriptures. And don’t just burn through the verses, looking to turn pages. Don’t become distracted by your religious exercises. Take it slow. Internally digest the Word. Learn from God.
Now, many of us have probably moved away from the old evangelical “quiet time.” But have you found something better? To exchange intentional and planned study for no study at all is not to better glorify and enjoy God. You are not being like Mary by simply being disorganized and lazy. “Quiet time” was simply one attempt at expressing the universal practice of spiritual meditation and devotion. “His delight is in the law of the Lord, and in His law he meditates day and night” (Ps. 1:2). “Make me understand the way of Your precepts; So shall I meditate on Your wonderful works” (Ps. 119:27). “I will meditate on the glorious splendor of Your majesty, And on Your wondrous works” (Ps. 145:5). If you really love the Lord with your whole being and are seeking to glorify and enjoy Him forever, then you will be like Mary. You will take every opportunity to listen to His word.
And so let us choose that better part. We do not mean that good works and even ceremony are unimportant. They are important, and they do have an ordinary role to play in our life, even in our religious life. But they can never be the focus. Neither the externals of worship, nor the commendable deeds of mercy and charity can take first priority in our spiritual lives. That place is reserved for God alone, to be found through His Son Jesus. Let us enjoy him forever.