From Romans 7, to Medieval court jesters, to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, to middle-schoolers everywhere being two-faced is a problem. And our text is where it all began: Mary and Martha.
All people are Marthas. We come into this world as Marthas being pulled, distracted, dragged concerning much doing. You hear this in the country song, "I'm in a hurry to get things done/ I rush and rush until life's no fun." You hear it in Jackson Brown's "Running on empty." "I don't know where I'm running now. I'm just running on." It's all the worse when you're doing this for Jesus. Martha was constantly being distracted, dragged, and pulled concerning much service to Jesus.
The pulling, distracting, and dragging are not just imperfects, which means ongoing, they are passive. That means something is causing Martha to be that way. Psychology has terms for this: excessive compulsive, neurotic; the Bible has one: the sinful nature; we all have that. We're like some sharks who can't stop moving or they die. That's physiological reality for some sharks. The spiritual reality for all people is that something keeps pushing, pulling, egging us on, to do, do, do.
Jesus identifies what that something is using another passive word. He tells Martha, "You are worried and upset about many things." Worried is just a simple present indicative indicating what's going on. "Upset" is a passive indicative. Marthas are caused to be troubled by many things. They experience a din, an uproar, are thrown into commotion, made to have agitation of the mind by many things.
Like Alice in Wonderland's White Rabbit, all people are born with this creeping sense that they're late, they're late for a very important date, but they don't know why, with whom, or where. But for the sake of these very important things which they just can't quite put their finger on they pass by the one thing needful: Jesus and His saving Gospel. Did you see how in this account the much and the many that Martha is concerned with are contrasted to the one thing needful Jesus has?
Go home and watch the 1998 movie "One True Thing" or read the 1994 book by that name. How grand and glorious when the many and the much of this fallen world coalesce, condense into the one. The problem with the book and movie is that the 1 true thing is at best a relationship with another sinner or at worst death. No, the one true thing Martha was distracted from was Life Himself in the person of Jesus. That's what all people are born distracted from, pulled and dragged away from by the many and much.
All people, including Christians, are born Marthas and have her all their days, but Christians are the only ones that are two-faced. All Christians are also Marys born again by Water and the Spirit of Holy Baptism. The New Man created in them has the true righteousness and holiness of Christ. With Paul they are drawn to the one thing needful but they see at work in their bodies another will, desire, person. Martha, the Old Man, the sinful nature.
Marys too are acted on. It literally says "after Mary had been caused to sit at Jesus' feet." By strength of your will, by determination, you're not going to stop Martha. O you can do it outwardly, and you've had that experience. Outwardly you're a Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus but inwardly you're still rushing and worrying and doing.
Nope, only something outside of you can cause you to sit at the feet of Jesus. Only something outside of you can cause you to drop what you're doing and come to Bible Class and Church; only something outside of you can cause you to stop running on empty hither and yon and kneel at this altar to receive the One who doesn't constantly change. Only something outside of you can cause you to forego diving into that lake or pool with the thought "now I'm really relaxing" and dive instead into your Baptism.
God operating through His Word and Sacraments is the only thing that causes anyone to stop their mad dash to everywhere and nowhere. Mary was stopped in her tracks when Jesus arrived. "After having been caused to sit at Jesus feet" is what is called the attendant circumstance. It's not the main thing Mary was doing. "Listening to what Jesus said" is the main thing, and that's how the insert puts it, but it's an imperfect. It goes with Martha's "constantly distracted by much doing." While Martha was constantly doing, Mary was constantly hearing the Word of Jesus.
KLBJ tells you the news cycle is constantly changing and you have to listen to them every half-hour. When you're discharged from a hospital, you are given specific instructions, and whoever is giving them requires that you listen carefully. You are called to listen to science, to technology, to people. In other words, you are called to listen to the much and many, but really only one thing is needful; only one true thing do you have to hear, better said would be, do you constantly get to hear.
The message of the world is do this and don't do that. Words, words, everywhere there are words and they are all telling you what to do. And the Marthas in us are very much on board with that. Martha loves doing much and many things, and just wants everyone to do what she is doing. Mary does nothing after having been caused to sit down, but listen to the Word of Jesus, and His Words are all about what He has done:
I've done the 10 Commandments in your place. I've done all that God wishes in your place. I've been the perfect mother, father, sister, brother, person that all your doing can never be. Moreover, I've done all the suffering, sighing, bleeding, and dying that your sins require you to do. Not one sigh, blood spot or tear drop, one pang of suffering or step toward death add to what I've done for you. In fact, what you try to do to save yourself can only take away from what I did to save you.
You've followed the fact that Mary is caused to sit at Jesus' feet and constantly hear His forgiving, empowering, relieving words. Jesus tells Martha that Mary has chosen for herself literally "the good portion." It's true; once the Lord has caused you to sit at His feet and hear His Word a Mary is born and a reborn Mary can choose the good portion. This is the language of a feast. While Martha is rushing about being ate up by her worries and cares, Mary is eating the good portion, and what else can that be but Christ? Augustine says, "I will venture to say that she was eating the One she was listening to" (ACC, III, 182).
You think I've reached the Good News and to some extent I have but I haven't reached the summit. The really Good News is that for Christians when it comes to being Marys and Marthas, one will be taken away; one will never be.
The New Man is constantly led and fed from and by the Gospel. That is never taken away from the Christian. Martha is told specifically that the one good portion will never be taken away from Mary. When Lazarus was sick both Mary and Martha send to Jesus for help for their brother, and isn't that true with you? You can't separate your Martha from your Mary. Even while one is focused on one thing the other is focused on nothing but many things and doing more. But it was Mary not Martha who got the real point.
On the Saturday before Palm Sunday Jesus was again a guest at their house. Again we find Martha serving, but Mary takes a bottle of expensive perfume and anoints Jesus feet in a confession of faith that He is going to die. He had taught His disciples repeatedly that He was going to, but no one believed it, got it, except Mary. Myrrh was normally put on the dead; perfume was for the living. I think Mary is confessing what Jesus also had been teaching but no one had been believing: He would rise on the 3rd day.
What the New Man has forgiveness, life, peace, in the Lord will not be taken away from him even in the face of death. By implication the Old Man will be taken away. The constant struggle of Paul in Romans 7 will end with Mary coming out on top. God took on flesh and blood to end it, to rescue us from this body of death that pulls us every which way but loose. Constantly being dragged, pulled, distracted from the one thing needful will be taken away from us.
That sinful nature is drowned in the Waters of Holy Baptism that Mary returns to daily. That sinful nature is sent away in Holy Absolution so far from us that God never sees the two meeting again. Our sinful nature, is starved by Holy Communion. The Body and Blood of Jesus can do what you and I can't do. They can distinguish between Mary and Martha even when we kneel at this altar conflicted, worried, feeling more like Martha and little like Mary. Jesus feeds Mary with His Body and His Blood for her highest good, but Martha gets nothing here, wants nothing here, and so is starving to death. But you know that starving people will do terribly desperate things, so that's why you often feel Martha raising up, roaring up, asserting that she runs your life and you must run along with her. She lies.
There is a question that hangs over this text every time you read it. "What's next?" Does Martha stop her rushing after many and much and sit down next to Mary at the feet of Jesus while that one thing needful is fed her, or does she stomp out of the room because Jesus wouldn't do what she wanted? Does Martha stop her doing and start having done for her?
Here's where the text breaks down. There are 2 people here. Martha can repent and become a Mary. You and I are one person. Mary and Martha are two faces. Martha's face never becomes that of Mary in you, but the Gospel is it can be taken away from you. Martha's face can be washed away by Baptism; sent away by Absolution; or covered by Jesus Blood. You aren't doomed like virtually every two-faced character in lore or legend to live with the two. The Good News is your being distracted by much doing and being worried and upset about many things will be taken away from you. In heaven you will only have one face at peace with all that God in Christ gives you. On earth, by faith you can live in that reality now. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Ninth Sunday after Pentecost (20160717); Luke 10: 38-42