Avoiding the pitfalls of resentment - Luke 10:38-42
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~~Avoiding the pitfall of resentment
It has to be admitted that some of us are natural born worriers. Take the writer Erma Bombeck for example. This is what she says in a moment of refreshing candour: ‘I’ve always worried a lot and frankly, I’m good at it. I worry about introducing people and going blank when I get to my mother. I worry about a shortage of ball bearings; a snake coming up through the kitchen drain. I worry about the world ending at midnight and getting stuck with three hours on a twenty four hour cold capsule. I worry about getting into the Guinness Book of records under “Pregnancy: Oldest recorded birth.” I worry what the dog thinks when he sees me coming out of the shower; that one of my children will marry an Eskimo who will set me adrift on an iceberg when I can no longer feed myself. I worry about salesladies following me into the fitting room….I worry about scientists discovering that lettuce has been fattening all along.’ There are some people I know who start to worry that they have nothing to worry about. As a result worry can have a paralysing effect on your life. But not only that, worry can also have a poisoning effect on your relationships. And that is what we see in the episode from Luke’s Gospel that we are looking at together this evening and the story of Martha, Mary and Jesus.
First of all, we have the poison of resentment, look at v38ff As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. 39 She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. 40 But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”
Here we are given a step by step description of the process whereby something sweet becomes sour.
At the outset everything looks so promising. It is like getting ready for that great Christmas family get together, full of excitement and expectation, but which begins to fall apart in the preparation when tempers flare and old animosities are rekindled. Well, here something very similar is about to happen in the home of Martha and her sister Mary. Nothing would have given them greater delight than to be hostesses to Jesus and his followers. It would appear that Martha is the older sister, for it is described as ‘her home’ in verse 38. This means that she would have been the one to shoulder most of the responsibility to ensure that not only things got done but were done correctly.
Almost by way of contrast, and by way of preparing us for the domestic spat which is to come, Mary is then mentioned. And what is she doing? Getting out the best crockery, ensuring the larder is well stocked; making sure the table is laid for the right number and any taggers on who might happen to turn up at the last minute? No, that is Martha’s domain. She is simply described as ‘sitting’, ‘sitting at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said.’ Martha is the woman with the open home. Mary is the woman with the open heart. Martha is a woman with a mission- a meal to prepare; Mary is a woman with a passion – a message to hear. Two sisters and two personalities, and as long as they understand each other they complement each other, like hand in glove. But when they don’t it is the clash of stone and flint and sooner or later the sparks are bound to fly.
As Mary sits there, hanging on every word of the Master, there is more than a kettle brewing in the kitchen- there a storm. This is not a brunch Martha is preparing, it is a banquet-v 41 ‘But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made.’ Multitasking would have been Martha’s middle name- cracking an egg with one hand whilst stirring the pot with the other. After all, is a big crowd out there, made up of big men- fishermen, and we all know how they can eat you out of house and home in one sitting. And you can imagine her listening in to them talking in the next room with the occasional outbreak of laughter. And it is all beginning to grate. She is hot, she is tired and she is flustered. And that is when the resentful thoughts start to bubble to the surface: ‘While I am standing here slaving away over a hot stove with my varicose veins killing me, what is little sister doing? Nothing, but sitting contemplating. It’s all right for some! Where would we be if everyone decided to slink off from their responsibilities? Nothing would ever get done. Everyone would be hungry. In fact I wouldn’t mind a little sit down myself, but someone has to make sure there is food on the table- meals don’t cook themselves.’ Now, of course you are very familiar with such thoughts because you have had plenty of them yourself and so have I. It is not just the pot that starts to boil over, so does Martha’s temper. Enough is enough. She bursts out of the kitchen into the room like a Spanish galleon in full sail. And who gets the full force of her wrath? Jesus, no less: v 40, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”
I doubt many people would have spoken to Jesus like that. You can bet that an embarrassing stony silence would have gripped the room such that you would have been able to cut the atmosphere with a knife. But resentment can have that sort of effect on you. For a start it can make you say and do things you later come to regret. Some while ago, Reuters reported that a German woman became so angry with her husband that she took a hammer, went outside and started demolishing his car with it, causing the equivalent of £800 worth of damage. That is, she thought it was his car. It was the same make and the same colour, but unfortunately when she had calmed down she realised it belonged to the next door neighbour!
But worry and resentment can also have another disastrous effect; you can end up telling God what to do, for that in effect is what is happening here. Did you notice how after Jesus is named in v38, from then on in the story he is referred to only as ‘Lord’? V 39, Mary sat at ‘The Lord’s feet’, v 40 Martha says ‘Lord, don’t you care?’ v41 ‘The Lord answered.’ Luke is deliberately underscoring Jesus Lordship here which makes Martha’s outburst all the more painfully inappropriate. Can you imagine questioning whether Jesus’ cares? Can you believe that someone more or less orders Jesus around, ‘Tell her to help me’? Well, yes we can. For the chances are we have all done the same when we have felt hard done by. If there is no one else at hand to blame, then you can always turn on God!
Let’s face it, it is hard to feel unappreciated and worn down by cares like Martha, to feel that all the responsibilities rest with you and no one seems to notice or lift a finger to help. Even worse is the thought that God doesn’t seem to notice or is willing to come to our assistance. In a shame culture like this one, not to produce a great meal would have been felt very keenly indeed, and as far as Martha is concerned Mary is the one who is in danger of letting the family name down if it all goes wrong. But as the elder sister it was Martha who would be seen as the one responsible for letting it happen and would become the talking point amongst all the women in the village. And so the resentment in Martha steadily builds up until it finally bursts out.
But do you see what has been happening? Service of the Lord has become twisted into service of self. Look at the very way Martha frames her complaint: ‘Don’t you care that my sister (not Mary) has left me to do the work by myself. Tell her to help me.’ You know, it is so easy to forget who is the servant and who is to be served. Sin and Satan have a sly way of doing this to us. You might think of it like this, Satan didn’t take Martha out of the kitchen; he took away her purpose in the kitchen. Likewise, Satan won’t necessarily turn you against the church, but he will seek to turn you towards yourself within the church and so disillusion you in your service for the Lord. Perhaps like Martha you become distracted by all sorts of things and become worried sick about them. This is a special snare for those of us involved in, for want of a better term, ‘full time ministry’ You feel your co-workers don’t appreciate you, your leaders overlook you, your congregation doesn’t support you and even your spouse doesn’t understand you. That is the way it can sometimes feel with resentment lurking just beneath the surface. It is as subtle as it is deadly. And so with the passage of time your agenda becomes more important than God’s. Instead of seeking to please him in the service of others we slip into pleasing self out of the service of others- looking for the praise, craving the adulation- well, wanting to feel ‘good’. And it is not long before God himself becomes the target of our disaffection if these are not forthcoming. We begin to question whether he really does care and whether he really does know what he is doing and how we are feeling otherwise he would have acted by now to help us out in the way we want. Had Jesus been aware of what was going on why hadn’t he told Mary to help her worn out sister hours ago? Perhaps he is not so in tune with the situation after all? And it may well be that you feel like that too
So what had gone wrong and what is the answer? This brings us to our next heading: the release of right priorities, v41, “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, 42 but few things are needed—or indeed only one.[a] Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
Isn’t the response of the Lord Jesus simply wonderful? It is not a harsh put down, but a gentle rebuke. Of course he cares, ‘Martha, Martha’ says Jesus slowly shaking his head, ‘I know how you feel, I know what is going on in your heart and to be frank it will be the death of you- spiritually speaking- all this worry.’ In v 40 Luke speaks of Martha being ‘distracted’ the word means to be ‘dragged away’, ‘overburdened’. When in v 41 Jesus says she is ‘worried’ he means ‘overly anxious’- a word often linked with unbelief which diverts a person’s proper attention from the things of God. And it is many things which are causing Martha to feel the way she does. And Jesus understands all of that. But he understands the dangers too. In fact he warned of it in the parable which is the key to all his teaching when he spoke of the seed of God’s word being choked by ‘the cares of this world.’ That is precisely the danger Martha is placing herself in. What is a good thing- preparing a meal for Jesus- is liable to become a bad thing displacing Jesus teaching.
When Jesus says ‘only one thing is needful’ what is he referring to? Is it that only one course is required and not the elaborate five courses or whatever that Martha has been so busy preparing? It could be that. After all, we are told in v38 that Jesus and his followers were ‘on their way’ The time he has to spend with the two sisters will be limited, and when he left, it would be a long time before he visited them again. So maybe Martha was to keep the meal simple and maximise the use of the time in attending Jesus teaching. But the stress is upon what Mary is doing, ‘Mary has chosen what is better and it will not be taken away from her.’ What has she chosen, what is the one thing needful for her? Quite simply, to listen to Jesus. That is the priority. Mary is putting into practice what Jesus constantly stressed that ‘Man shall not live by bread alone but by every word which comes from the mouth of God.’ Later on in chapter 11 and v28 Jesus says, ‘Blessed are those who hear the word of God and obey it.’ The problem with Martha is that in all her busyness she has placed herself outside the sphere of hearing of God’s Word, and equally badly resents Mary for not doing that. Before we can serve Jesus we must first listen to Jesus. Before we stand to minister to him at the table we must first sit and listen to him at his feet. And Mary realises this and she is not going to be robbed of its blessing- the one thing which is needful.
When you think about it, what Jesus is doing here is to earth in practice what he says elsewhere as a principle. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warns against excessive worrying which consumes by pointing out the one thing that does matter, ‘Seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness and all these other things will be ours as well.’ In other words, put first things first. And that is what Mary is doing and what Martha is failing to do. And if the truth be known, this is the great snare which is liable to cripple many a professing Christian today, young and old. Why are we so slack on attending church weekly where we can sit at Jesus feet as his Word is opened up to us by His Spirit? It is because we are busy with other things. Why is it that personal Bible reading and prayer often the first things to go when time is at a premium? It is because we have ceased to be people of the One thing. We are not to become so busy working for God that we neglect communing with God.
When you take it back to its most basic, what is all this striving which characterises Martha, and many of us, really all about? Is it not a striving for significance and security? We only feel significant if we are doing something. We only feel secure when we are doing it well. But if, for whatever reason, our work is not perceived to be appreciated then both our signifance and security become threatened. As a result, we slavishly strive all the more and feel all the more frustrated and resentful if the appreciation is not forthcoming. So how are we to be set free from these problem feelings which lead to problem behaviour? Well, by engaging in right thinking. That is, we are to see that both our significance and security are bound up not in what we do, but who we are- a follower the Lord Jesus Christ submitting to the loving rule of his Word- just like Mary. The Christian counsellor Larry Crabb summarises this perfectly. ‘Significance depends upon understanding who I am in Christ. I will come to feel significant as I have an eternal impact on people around me by ministering to them. If I fail in business, if my wife leaves me, if my church rolls drop, if I work in a menial occupation, if I can only afford a small house, I can still enjoy the thrilling significance of belonging to the Ruler of the universe who has a job for me to do….My need for security demands that I be unconditionally loved and cared for, now and forever. God has seen me at my worst and still loves me to the point of giving His life for me. That kind of love I can never lose. I am under no pressure to earn or to keep his love. My acceptability to God depends on the fact that Jesus’ death was counted as a full payment for my sins. Now that I know this love I can relax, secure in the knowledge that the eternal God of creation has pledged to use his infinite power and wisdom to insure my welfare. That’s security.’
Let me ask: do you want to know how secure and significant you feel? Then take a look at how you are spending your time. If it is one frantic activity after another with Christ being pushed further and further to the outer margins of your life, then beware, you could find yourself seething in the kitchen with Martha. And so maybe it is worth pausing and taking a leaf out of Mary’s book at this point. As someone once said, we need to ‘come apart’ and be with Jesus or we will simply ‘come apart.’ Let us pray.
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