Sermon 07-17-2022: “What Can We Learn from Squabbling Sisters?”

Scripture: Luke 10: 38-42

We were on vacation last week, and my son Townshend’s girlfriend, Lydia, joined us for part of the trip. And I’m not saying I should have felt this way, but I felt a tiny amount of pressure to “be on my best behavior.” It’s same pressure you feel when company is coming over for the first time, and you want to make a good impression. With your close friends and family, being on your best behavior is no longer important. They know you already—they know both the good and the bad… And if, after getting to know you so well, they still want to be your friends… well, they must love you enough to overlook or at least tolerate your many faults.

But Lydia doesn’t know me that well… so for about three days I wanted to fake her out. For example, I wanted to make sure that she didn’t notice how grumpy I can often be; that she didn’t see me snap at Lisa in anger; that she didn’t hear me accidentally use salty language—as I confess with shame that I sometimes do.

So I was feeling the pressure, believe me! I mean, I can fake most of y’all out for about an hour each Sunday, but this was different; this was three days! It was going to be tough.

To say the least, I don’t think Martha, in today’s scripture, is as phony as I am. After all, if she felt any pressure to “be on her best behavior” when company comes over—if she felt pressure to pretend to be someone she’s not—well, she doesn’t let it show. She just lets it all hang out. And as a result, Martha is famous around the world and throughout history for losing her temper, not only with her sister, but also with Jesus, for snapping at Jesus, for being petty, for being a “martyr,” in a bad way… for being jealous…

But let’s not feel too bad for her… One preacher, Chuck Swindoll, imagines Dr. Luke interviewing the two sisters after they had grown old—and the two of them laughing about this incident—happily sharing this memory with him in the hopes that we future disciples might learn something from their example.

So let’s do that in today’s sermon: Let’s learn from the example of Mary and Martha. In fact, let’s learn three important things from them: First, let’s learn something about prayer. Second, let’s learn something about personality. Third, let’s learn something about portion

Prayer, personality, and portion. That’s what today’s sermon is all about.

First, prayer…

I want to begin by telling you about a harmful idea that practically derailed my Christian life in my twenties. And I’m sharing this with you because I don’t want the same thing to happen to you! But the problem started when I was in college. The pastor of my church taught a book study about prayer. I don’t remember much about what my pastor said, but I remember the book. And the message of the book—which caused me such great harm—was simply this: Prayer is really hard.

Prayer is really hard.

Prayer is hard because—as this author emphasized—we have to get our hearts right before we pray. After all, we so often come before God with our selfishness, our self-centeredness, our many distractions, our lack of focus, our wandering mind, and our lack of faith—among other problems—no wonder God doesn’t give us what we pray for! 

So we must get our hearts right before we can pray successfully. 

Well, as years of painful Christian experience have taught me—and as God well knows—my heart is not easily made right… And if I have to get my heart right first, before I pray, well, that seems hard!

Also… prayer is hard, he said, because we need to give ourselves an adequate amount of time to do it. And my life was already busy at the time, so I worried that I didn’t have the time to spare! 

And the main reason, according to this author, that we needed so much time to pray is this: we have to make time to listen… to listen for God to speak to us.

And over the years I’ve heard more than a few preachers and teachers say—and maybe you’ve heard this too—that the most important part of prayer is listening.

If you’ve heard this yourself, and you’ve believed it, as I believed it at one time, please resist the urge to throw rotten tomatoes at me, at least long enough to hear me out. I don’t believe that listening is the most important part of prayer. How can it be the most important part of prayer when—in the very first verse of next week’s scripture, chapter 11, verse 1—Jesus’ disciples say, “Lord, teach us to pray.” And Jesus gives them the Lord’s Prayer, the very prayer that is meant to serve as a “model” prayer for us to follow. “If you want to know how to pray, do it like this,” Jesus says. “This is what a perfectly good prayer sounds like”… again, according to Jesus himself.

Where does “listening” come in to the Lord’s Prayer? “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.” That’s asking God to do something: to hallow his name. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” That’s asking God to do something. “Give us this day our daily bread.” That’s asking. “And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” That’s asking. Finally: “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” That’s asking. Then there’s a doxology and Amen

It doesn’t even take very long to pray that prayer, does it?

Jesus seems to go out of his way in the Sermon on the Mount to emphasize how easy prayer is!

My point is, from Jesus’ perspective, if you pray a prayer like the Lord’s Prayer, you can be sure you’ve successfully prayed. Jesus doesn’t add any additional instructions: “And when you finish praying a prayer like this, be sure to allot an equal amount of time to listening.”


Prayer is mostly not about listening… It’s about talking to God. But please don’t misunderstand: Don’t think for a moment that listening to God isn’t incredibly important. But I’ll talk about “listening” in a moment.

Speaking of prayer, the great nineteenth-century English pastor Charles Spurgeon was reflecting on Lamentations 2:19, which says, “Pour out your heart like water before the presence of the Lord.” Prayer is “pouring your heart out like water” before the Lord. I like that! Spurgeon, in preaching on this verse, asks: “How does water pour out?” Answer: “The quickest way it can—that’s all; it never thinks much about how it runs. That is the way the Lord loves to have our prayers pour out before him.”

I guarantee that every morning you have something on your heart—something about the day ahead that’s making you feel anxious or afraid or angry or worried—whether for yourself or someone you love. What is that thing that’s troubling you? Pour it out like water before the Lord! Don’t worry about how you say it. Just tell him about it! He wants to hear from you!

Imagine if “pouring out your heart like water” to God were the first thing we did every morning before reaching for that spiritually deadly device on our nightstand, otherwise known as the smartphone, and “doom scrolling” through all the bad news of the day! But even if you can’t help but grab your phone first thing and doom-scroll through all the bad news about inflation, or gas prices, or the war in Ukraine, or crime, or politics, or anything else—if you feel anxious, tell God about it.

That’s prayer. And that kind of prayer counts!

In fact, while I know that Martha gets a bad rap in today’s scripture, I want to give her some credit: she prays an effective prayer in today’s scripture. You say, “Wait! She’s not praying.” Oh yes she is! What else do you think she’s doing in verse 40: “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.”

If talking to our Lord Jesus is prayer, then Martha is quite literally praying!

But you say, “She’s angry. Her ‘heart’ is not in the right place. She’s being selfish or self-centered. She’s grumbling and complaining. She’s failing to trust in the Lord. She doesn’t have much faith. She’s being presumptuous.” Yes, all that is true. In fact, what she’s saying to Jesus is something like this: “I know better than you what I need right now—and what my sister needs. In fact, Jesus, you’ve fallen down on the job here. You shouldn’t be allowing my sister to treat me this way! Do the right thing, Jesus! Tell her to help me!”

By all means, Martha is praying a “bad”prayer… Yet Jesus seems perfectly okay with it. He does not scold her for it. He doesn’t say, “How dare you talk to me this way! I’m the Lord of the universe. I’m the Creator of the universe. I created you. I’m God in the flesh, the Second Person of the Trinity! Who do you think you are?” 

In fact, in verse 41, when Jesus answers her, “Martha, Martha,” that repetition of the name is a sign of deep compassion and affection. Jesus just loves Martha. In spite of all her faults, he just loves her! The NLT gets this meaning across nicely when it translates his words as, “My dear Martha…” He’s not mad at her. He empathizes; he understands what she’s going through. His response to her is one of great love.

Martha’s prayer is a bad prayer, no question… But here’s what I wish I knew, back in my twenties, when I was convinced that prayer was incredibly difficult: Bad prayers are infinitely better than no prayers at all! Let me repeat that: Bad prayers are infinitely better than no prayers at all! 

I wish someone had told me that when I was in my twenties. I was so intimidated by prayer—so obsessed with doing it correctly—that I rarely did it at all.

How desperately I needed to hear this message back then: Bad prayers are infinitely better than no prayers at all. And our heavenly Father longs to hear them!

And as Martha’s experience demonstrates, even bad prayers can be very effective prayers. Martha’s bad prayer got answered, after all. It wasn’t the answer she wanted, to be sure. And, yes, this prayer revealed that she still had a lot of learning and growing and repenting to do in her Christian life. But if she had never prayed what most of us would consider this bad prayer… she would never even have known the ways in which she needed to repent and learn and grow.

So I would say that Martha’s prayer, even hers, was a very successful one! Wouldn’t you? 

Point Number Two: What do Mary and Martha have to teach us about personality.

Our culture seems obsessed with personality these days… and personality types: We have personality assessment tools like the Myers-Briggs… I’m an “ENTP.” No, I don’t remember what I am! And these days we have the very popular Enneagram: “I’m a two-wing-three.”

Back in the ’70s, we’d say, “I’m an Aquarius. What’s your sign?” I wonder sometimes if these personality tests are any more reliable or useful!

But we also have “Type A” and “Type B” personalities. Perhaps we’d say that Martha—the brash, busy, impulsive, industrious, take-charge person—is a Type A. Whereas her sister Mary, who’s quiet, introspective, passive, thoughtful, “spiritual”… She’s a Type B. The word that commentators keeps using to describe Mary is “contemplative.”

And in church, even when preachers preach on this text, they often talk about how some of us are Marthas and others of us are Marys. And these preachers often say that Mary and Martha represent different personality types. And both are perfectly okay. And these preachers often say that you need both kinds of personalities in church. Or preachers might say, “You need to be a little of both.” Mary needs to be a little more like Martha, and Martha needs to be a little more like Mary—I’ve heard preachers say that before…

But I’m sorry… I think this is actually a terrible interpretation of this text. Look at verse 41 again. Jesus doesn’t say to Martha: “Martha, you’re doing some really good things… but so is your sister, Mary. So, Martha, stop being a busybody, mind your own business, stop judging your sister, let her keep doing what she’s doing… and you keep doing what you’re doing.” “You do you, Martha. But you also should let your sister do her thing. Both are good and necessary.”

That’s what we want Jesus to say. But that’s not what he says. In verse 41, Jesus is telling Martha—gently, lovingly, with great compassion—“You’re wrong, Martha. Not only is Mary doing something good—Mary is doing something that you need to be doing aswell! You need to repent and change, Martha!”

And of course everything that Martha is doing—at the right time and under the right circumstances—is perfectly good. To show hospitality, to prepare a good meal for friends, to do chores so that the house is clean and the guests are comfortable… these things are perfectly good and loving in and of themselves. These things are not sins in and of themselves. They only become sinful when Jesus says that we need to be doing something else—something more important!

And that’s what Jesus is telling Martha! “Please stop what you’re doing, and come sit alongside your sister and listen to me. Because listening to me,” he says, “is actually the most important thing that anyone can do!”1

So how do we “listen” to Jesus today? It’s all right here in this book, in holy scripture. We don’t know exactly what Jesus was teachingto Mary, as she sat at his feet and listened, but we can be confident that the Holy Spirit saw fit to guide the writers of the New Testament to write down and interpret all of Jesus’ teaching for us—in the four gospels, in the writings of the apostles, throughout the New Testament. And of course, we can’t understand who Jesus is and what he accomplished without the Old Testament, which his Spirit also inspired its authors to write. The Old Testament bears witness to Christ and his gospel. And we learn from Old Testament saints how to live, and how not to live, as God’s faithful children.

As I usually do when preparing sermons, I consulted N.T. Wright, one of my favorite theologians, on today’s scripture. His commentary didn’t help me at all… at least at first. I didn’t think his commentary gave me any good sermon material or sermon illustrations to use! Contrary to most Bible scholars, Wright argued that the main point in today’s scripture is one of inclusivity… In other words, Martha’s main objection wasn’t that that her sister Mary was being lazy, while she was doing all the hard work. No, her objection was that Mary was acting like a man… because in the ancient world, before Jesus came on the scene… only men were able to sit at a great teacher’s feet—alongside other male disciples—and listen to him teach. According to ancient belief, women belonged in the kitchen; they were supposed to be doing housework and  other so-called “women’s work.” 

And Wright says that that’s what bothered Martha so much: her sister Mary didn’t know her “place”—“Who does she think she is? She belongs in the kitchen with me!”

And Jesus tells her no—as if he were saying, “Mary belongs here, and so do you, Martha!”

I’m sure there’s something to be said for this interpretation. But… if Wright is correct… and the main point is that Mary and Martha were meant to be sitting at the feet of Jesus, alongside the male disciples… if the main point is that even these marginalized women should be studying under Jesus, listening to him as he teaches—indeed, that this is the most important thing that they or anyone else can be doing… then guess what? 

Neither Mary, nor Martha, nor anyone else is “off the hook” when it comes to “listening to Jesus”! Every single one of us disciples of Jesus has a responsibility to “listen to Jesus” through God’s Word. Which means every single one of us has the responsibility to put God’s Word at the very center of our lives!

And this brings me back to the idea of personality. It’s simply not the case that some disciples are like Mary, and some disciples are like Martha; that this is just our personality, that’s just the way we are, and there’s not much we can do about it. No, that can’t be what Jesus is saying… because he’s saying to Martha, “You need to become like your sister, Mary, at least as it relates to Mary’s desire to sit at my feet and listen to me! It has nothing to do with your personality. It has to do with whether you’re my disciple. If you’re my disciple, you’ll do what Mary is doing.” 

If we are disciples, all of us need to put God’s Word at the center of our lives! Otherwise, how are we disciples at all?

By the way, would it help if I tell you that “disciple” itself is just a fancy biblical word meaning “student”? That’s all it means!

I’m an ordained elder in our denomination… Like any professional, I have to get “continuing education” credit every year as part of maintaining my credentials. In fact, I’m doing it this week, starting this afternoon—when I drive to Epworth-by-the-Sea, on Saint Simons Island, for Georgia Pastor’s School… I know, it stinks, but I have to do it! I don’t have a choice!

But seriously, I’m supposed to get continuing education credits every year… which was a problem in 2020, because there were literally no conferences for me to attend. Everything was shut down. Remember? So I decided to take an online course on biblical Greek instead. I ordered the course—and all the course material came on a single USB thumb drive that you plug into your laptop… Video lectures, textbooks, teacher’s notes, outlines. It was all right there on that thumb drive…

And I guess it still is… Because that thumb drive is still inside the envelope in which it was originally mailed! Because our conference relaxed the requirement for continuing education in 2020, and I was off the hook. So I never actually took the course!

So am I a student of “biblical Greek”? I signed up for the class, after all! 

But of course I’m not a student! You’re not a student by merely “signing up for the class.” You’re only a student if you listen to the professor and do the work!

We students of Jesus must do the same thing by listening to him in his Word! That’s our responsibility!

Finally, this brings us to Point Number Three… I need to talk about what’s at stake when we fail to listen. And this has to do with portion. Let me explain…

Let’s look again at Martha’s complaint in verse 40: “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone?” In another place in the gospels, the twelve disciples were in a terrible storm on the Sea of Galilee. Their fishing boat was swamped with water. They were bailing water and fighting for their lives. They thought they would drown. Meanwhile, Jesus was sound asleep in the stern of the boat. They woke him up and asked him the same question that Martha asks: “Lord, do you not care…?” “Do you not care that this terrible thing is happening to us?” “Have you forgotten about us?” “Do you love us?” “Wake up, pay attention, do something!”

And of course Martha and the other disciples are wrong to doubt Jesus: Of course he cares! Of course he loves us—more than we can imagine! And even if it seems like Jesus doesn’t care—because in that moment he’s not giving us what we think we need—we’re wrong… Our Lord has good reasons for letting us experience this trouble, and we can be sure that he’s using all trouble for our ultimate good.

But we can only know that by listening to Jesus in his Word!

Listen: maybe you’re going through a difficult trial in your life right now… maybe you’re doubting that the Lord cares about you… or maybe you’re doubting that he even loves you…  or maybe you’re doubting that Christ is even real… or maybe you’re doubting that Christianity is even true. If so, I have to ask: Are you listening to Jesus?

Because the main way that our Lord cares for us, the main way he loves us, the main way he satisfies our deepest longings… the main way he reassures us, comforts us, encourages us… the main way he guides us in our lives… the main way he speaks to us… is when we do what Mary does and sit as his feet and let him teach us! And today we do that by by listening to these words that the very Spirit of Christ breathed out for us in holy scripture.

And notice I didn’t say that “listening to God’s Word” is the only way that God does these amazingly good things for us, but it is the main way.

And how do we know that Christ does all these good things for us as we listen to him through his Word? Let’s look at verse 42, one of my favorite verses in all of the Bible: “Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.”

What is this “good portion”? Well, keep in mind that Martha is preparing a meal, a sumptuous meal, a feast—and she’s likely a very good cook! This is probably a source of pride for her, which is partly why she gets her feelings hurt that everyone, including Jesus, seems to be ignoring her hard work. 

James Moffatt, a Bible scholar at Oxford in the 1920s, translated the the Bible into a looser, more contemporary, more conversational kind of English, suitable for people living in his day. 

And I like that way he translated verse 42: “Mary has chosen the best dish, and she is not to be dragged away from it.”

The “good portion” means “the best dish.” It’s as if Jesus were acknowledging what an amazing cook Martha is, but as great a cook as she was, what Jesus is offering to her, and to the other disciples in that house, and to us disciples today, is far better than anything that the world’s greatest chefs can prepare… Indeed, what Jesus offers when we listen to him in his Word is the best thing of all!

Sure, Martha can set her mind on lesser things—like this meal that she’s preparing—but look at what she’ll be missing out on! The greatest meal of all… which is sitting at Jesus’ feet and listening to Jesus teach her.

It’s as if Jesus has set the table for her, he has prepared the greatest meal imaginable. Sit down, my dear Martha! Enjoy it! “Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the person who takes refuge in him.” Psalm 34:8. “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” John 6:35. Finally, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you.” John 6:27.

Dear Lord Jesus, give us a taste of this “good portion,” that we may desire it above all other people, all other things, all other earthly treasures. Let us be so satisfied by your good portion… that we could live off of peanut butter sandwiches for the rest of our lives… so long as we have you, as you give yourself to us through your Word… Let us experience more and more of you, our “good portion.” Give us the desire to listen to you. Amen.

  1. Paul makes this point in 1 Corinthians 10:1-12.

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