The Priorities of a Mary Heart (Luke 10:38-42)

Introduction: A Mary Heart in a Martha World

“It’s almost 30 years since Pavel Poloz, who’d been exiled from the Soviet Union, wrote, “In Russia, Christians are tested by hardship, but in America you are tested by freedom. And testing by freedom is much harder” (Moody Monthly, April 1989).

Most of us here today aren’t tempted to reject the Lord or even to become indifferent to him. We love him and we want to live for him. Our danger is far more likely to be distraction. We’re very. Or as one book put it, we’re crazy busy at school, at work, with activities and responsibilities, our kids, our calendars, our Facebook feeds. Our lives are crowded with very important things.

But, when I talk to people about the spiritual danger of this, I compare it to being a single parent. You know most single parents have more to do than you, right? Just ask the single parents here. But in all those responsibilities, you always remember that you have a child that you love and that loves you and needs you. And what are you doing all those things for, if you forget that?

Now we fully intend to serve the Lord in all our busy things. But this is a little exchange that Luke records for us to challenge whether we’ve really made it harder on ourselves than we should have, and whether we couldn’t so much more enjoy the Lord and everything he’s given us to do by realizing that he’s the priority. And that the only thing that’s better than serving Christ is being served by Christ, sitting at his feet and being ministered to by him. That’s the subject before us today.

You were created to work, but were you created only to be a machine? Were you created only to lay brick or sit behind a computer or instruct a class in American history? No. Other lesser creatures were made to work. You were created to know and love God and be loved by him. It’s the richness of our lives. And we can’t let anything take that away.

Before we consider what this passage is teaching, let me tell you briefly what it’s not teaching and clear the way in your mind.

1. Jesus is not teaching something only for women

Some of you husbands may have heard the passage about two women and said, “O this will be a good sermon for my wife.” But that’s not the right way to read the Bible, guys. It could just as easily have been two men, one crazy busy and distracted with much work or chores or something else.

And let me say this. Although frankly many women’s books concentrate on women in the Bible, as though these were the stories most relevant to you, that is not a good approach. What if we started reading the Bible like that in other ways? Well, this part of the Bible is about people in a city, and I’m not in a city so it’s not as relevant to me. I’ll pay more attention when it’s about Jesus teaching in the countryside because that’s more relevant to me than when Jesus talks to the city-dwellers in Jerusalem. No, that’s an obviously ridiculous approach to the Bible. Surely, the Bible does address the difference between the sexes, but those differences, spiritually speaking, are quite small. So Mary and Martha have as much to teach every one of you here than if it had been Maxwell and Myrick. This is as relevant to the Christian homemaker as it is to the Christian businessman or businesswoman, as relevant to the worker as to the retiree, as relevant to the Christian politician as to the Christian missionary. Jesus is not teaching something only for women. And kids, Jesus isn’t teaching you that you don’t have to help your sister with the dishes.

2. Jesus is not exalting the contemplative life over the active life

Raise your hand if you have ever spent an hour preparing an evening meal. I knew it, a bunch of sinners you are! You should have all been praying for an hour instead!

Of course, this is also a foolish way to read the passage. Surely coming away from the parable of the Good Samaritan, we know that practical service is important. It is not wrong to serve.

Nevertheless, Roman Catholic writers through the ages have often appealed to this text as a justification for the so-called higher calling of the monastic life. Mary has a higher calling like monks and nuns, while Martha represents you lesser Christians who occupy yourselves with secular callings and responsibilities. That’s the wrong of the text on so many levels, but I wanted at least to make you aware. But where this does come into protestant thinking is my third introductory point:

3. Jesus is not exalting the contemplative personality over the active personality

Sometimes people read this and think that there’s something wrong with them, that they’re more like Martha than like Mary. As Ryle described: “Martha was active, stirring, and impulsive, feeling strongly, and speaking out all she felt. Mary was quiet, still, and contemplative, feeling deeply, but saying less than she felt.” I’m not like that.

Well, as Ryle says, there’s room for all personalities in the Lord’s work. And again, whole books on character studies are written from just a few lines. We don’t know what these women were like from this brief exchange. But whatever they were like, they both loved the Lord. And it’s repeated in John’s gospel that the Lord loved them. God has made every one of us, as we are, in order that we might all the better serve him. No, the focus here on the difference is not some supposed difference in personality. It is a choice that was made that night, as Jesus explains in verse 42: "One thing is needed [or necessary], and Mary has chosen that good part" (Luke 10:42). And since this is a choice for each of us as well, a choice we’re to make regardless of our personality type, let’s consider the teaching of this passage together in a more positive light.


The contrast here is between what’s good and necessary and what’s called here being distracted. Verse 39, "Mary … sat at Jesus ' feet and heard His word. But Martha was distracted" (Luke 10:39-40). She was distracted by serving of course, something that was useful and lawful and perhaps important, and I’ll return to that in a few minutes. There’s no problem in serving. But the contrast here is choosing distraction over devotion.

I just remembered last night that Kevin DeYoung wrote a book called Crazy Busy. And I didn’t have time to read it, but I did find read dozens of quotes online and I selected a few that summarize what I’m saying to you today:

“We won’t say no to more craziness until we can say yes to more Jesus.” “We have to believe that hearing from God is our good portion. We have to believe that the most significant opportunity before us every day is the opportunity to sit at the feet of Jesus. We won’t rearrange our priorities unless we really believe this is the best one.” And even if we’re busy doing good things in ministry for Jesus, listen to this: “The only thing more important than ministry is being ministered to [at the feet of Jesus].”

If we desire to grow in grace, and to enjoy our life that God has given us, we must beware of the distractions which insensibly eat up our spirituality and bring leanness on our souls. It’s not that we’re doing bad things. Most Christians are brought down to misery and poverty of spirit by lawful things, too much of them. We don’t even realize it, but we’ve allowed other things to have the first place in our hearts instead of God, and our priorities and our time make it too clear.

Ryle says, “Health, and money, and lands, and [promotion], and honors, and prosperity, are all [good] in their way. But they cannot be called needful. Without them thousands are happy in this world, and reach glory in the world to come. The "many things" which men and women are continually struggling for, are not really necessaries. The grace of God which brings salvation is the one thing needful. … If Christ is ours, we have all and abound” (Expository Thoughts on the Gospel of Luke, ad loc).

Let me encourage you with four reasons why you should make sitting at the Lord’s feet this top priority in your life:

1. Instruction: Sitting at the Lord’s feet provides us with the very wisdom of God that we need for all of life’s decisions and direction.

You may think, “It must have been wonderful to sit and hear Jesus speak as Mary did. I wish I could go back and join her.” But the fact is, we all have his word available to us every day, and yet we often can’t find even a minute for it! God, we read, has given us “everything pertaining to life and godliness” in his word (2 Pet. 1:3, NIVO). “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:15-17, NAU). Peter urges us, like newborn babes, to “long for the pure milk of the word, that by it you may grow in respect to salvation” (1 Peter 2:2). Jesus overcame Satan’s temptations by quoting from Scripture that he knew by heart (Luke 4:1-12). As the psalmist declared, “Your Word I have treasured in my heart, that I may not sin against You” (Ps. 119:11). God’s Word gives us knowledge about how to love God and to love one another (Luke 10:27). And yet so many Christians are defeated by sin, their relationships are strained, and they’re still too busy to sit at the feet of Jesus.

It’s as if we’re dying from tuberculosis and the prescribed cure is sitting on the shelf, yet we’re too distracted to use it.

Sitting at the Lord’s feet gives us the perspective we need to face life’s trials, even death itself. So is it any wonder that when Mary sat listening to the word of the Lord, Jesus said that she was doing the one thing necessary?

2. Communion: Sitting at the Lord’s feet puts us in communion him, our beloved maker and redeemer.

Mary’s sitting at Jesus’ feet and listening to his word is a picture of communion or fellowship of her spirit with the Lord’s. The point is to meet with him, to commune with Him as Mary did. Again, think of how absurd it would be for a single parent to be so busy working for his kid that he doesn’t have even a minute for his kid. What’s all that business for?

3. Perspective: Sitting at the Lord’s feet puts all of life’s pressures in proper perspective.

Martha was stressed out by the pressure of preparing a meal for her honored guest. They needed to eat, but she ended up worried about so many things, as Jesus puts it. She even blurts out an accusation against her Lord and against her sister, thus violating the two great commandments! Hey, Lord, don’t you care? See how hard I’m working. Why don’t you rebuke Mary?” She lacks all perspective. Those are pressures she put on herself. What’s she missing?

This applies to us. It’s so easy for us to allow the pressures of life to crowd in on us and get our focus in the wrong place. A few minutes at the Lord’s feet can bring great clarity to our lives, what’s really important. And while much work remains that’s necessary to be done, the word and prayer can lift the burden and give us the Lord’s calm, clear perspective—even though our circumstances haven’t changed.

1. Instruction: Sitting at the Lord’s feet provides us with the very wisdom of God that we need for all of life’s decisions and direction.

2. Communion: Sitting at the Lord’s feet puts us in communion him, our beloved maker and redeemer.

3. Perspective: Sitting at the Lord’s feet puts all of life’s pressures in proper perspective.

4. Permanence: Sitting at the Lord’s feet is that good thing which cannot be taken from you.

What was eaten that night? We don’t know, it’s long been forgotten. But long after what was eaten was forgotten, what was gained by that time with the Lord remains, and remains forever. Mary was practicing the words of Deuteronomy 8:3, “Man does not live by bread alone, but … by [every word] that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord.” You can lose your job, your money, your possessions, and even friendships. But as Paul says at the climax of Romans 8, nothing—tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, sword, not even death itself or demonic powers—can separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord! Invest in what is necessary, good, and permanent.

Ryle again: “Kings must one day leave their palaces. Rich men must one day leave their money and lands. They only hold them until they die. But the poorest saint on earth has a treasure of which he will never be deprived. The grace of God, and the favor of Christ, are riches which no man can take from him. They will go with him to the grave when he dies. They will rise with him in the resurrection morning, and be his to all eternity. Instruction, communion, perspective, and permanence: Sitting at the Lord’s feet is that good thing which cannot be taken from you.

So let me conclude with two brief lessons:

Lesson #1: Choose what is good and necessary and cannot be taken away.

We must work. Work is not a sin. The lack of work is sin. But again I put it to you: you were created to work, but were you created only to be a machine?

And if you’re not a Christian, I ask you especially, is there not something deep inside you that says, “What’s the point of all this? What am I doing it all for? Am I living like a sheep, going out to the pasture today, just doing what everyone else is doing? Is this the only purpose for my existence? Is this the only reason a person has such faculties as I have live?” I wonder, dear friend, has your life been robbed of any more purpose than to be a worker bee in the hive? God didn’t make you a worker bee, busy but ignorant of his maker. God made you to know him, to love him, to be able to understand the meaning for what he’s doing in the world and how you fit in. But many people just put off the question indefinitely. When are you going to have time to think about why you exist? When are you going to have time to think about what’s filling up all your time? You’re forgetting the one thing that’s necessary!

Jesus tells the people not to labor for the food that perishes but for the food that endures to everlasting life, which he will give them. But what’s it going to profit you, he asks, if you gain the whole world and lose your soul? And why should people pack their days so full of things that make that one thing necessary even more difficult to get.

Alexander Moody Stuart had a vivid picture of this in his book, The Three Marys. “A man is justly condemned to die, having been guilty of a crime deserving death, and for which he has no hope of pardon; but otherwise he is not a reckless man, and he tenderly loves his wife and children. The day of execution approaches, and he is busy in his cell devising and doing all in his power to lighten the heavy blow that is to fall upon his family. From morning till night he is earnestly [writing] letters of consolation to all of them in the bitter prospect, writing [on their behalf] to many friends who may help them in their desolation [after he is gone], and bequeathing to each whatever of his effects may be most valued or most [useful].

The king’s messenger enters the prison [holding a document containing] the sovereign’s [complete pardon] on the simple condition of the prisoner [admitting] the justice of his [punishment], and his grateful acceptance of the pardon. [It’s laid on the table right where the man is writing his letters so furiously]. But how sad the spectacle! The unhappy man is so occupied, that he will not read the king’s message. It will require all his time, every hour, every moment that remains, to accomplish the many things he has to do, and after all he will have to leave them only half-finished. He has not a minute to spare.

O wretched man! One thing is needful for you, and only one; the king’s favour, your pardon, your life, and it is here. The rest are all useless; your head and your hands are full of needless labours; this one grant relieves you of them all. Wife, and son, and daughter need no dying counsels, nor thoughtful bequests, nor helpful friends; for by this one gift your own life is saved, and you are yourself given back to them with all you have, and all you can think or do on their behalf. The wretched man cannot take it in; life is impossible for him; the one great good is hopeless, and he must save every moment for the many little objects that are still within his power. O benighted, miserable man! One thing is needful, and nothing more; those many things are destroying you; this one would save both you and yours” [167-168]. My first lesson: Choose what is good and necessary and cannot be taken away.

2. Cut back on everything else.

We don’t so much as lack time as waste it. Locate the power off button on your TV. Apply thumb. When the call comes, say no. Even if you think you’re overdoing it for Jesus, you’re not, you’re just overdoing it.

Sitting at Jesus’ feet is something Mary chose to do. It won’t happen accidentally, because there are too many other things, too many other important things, to crowd it out. You can’t just choose once for life and it’s settled. You have to keep choosing what is good over and over again, day in and day out. And as my mom reminds me, the good is the enemy of the excellent.

We’re often reminded that we have more leisure time now than at any previous time in history. But we don’t feel that way because we’re distracted with many things. You remember the illustration about the business consultant who put in the big rocks, and asks, “Is it full?” And then puts in the little rocks, and then the sand, and then the water, and asks what’s the point? And someone says, “You can always fit a little more in.” But he says, “No, the lesson is, if you don’t put the big rocks in first, you’ll never get them in at all.”

Now today is the Lord’s day. Jesus, who taught on it twice as much as Moses, said it was created for man, for you. A day to do good, to heal, to bless and be blessed. Do you have enough of those things? Isaiah says it’s to be a delight. Do you have enough delight in your life?

You say, “I’m too busy for all that delight.” No, you’re just too busy. You’re acting like a slave, when Christ has set you free. Remember the Sabbath day, it says in Deuteronomy, for you were slaves in the land of Egypt, and the Lord brought you out with a mighty and an outstretched arm. Here’s one of the big ten.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. If you can’t get your work done in 6 days, God often sees to it that you don’t get it done in 7. You simply can’t get ahead by slighting the Lord. In the long run, you’ve got to delight in the Lord.

Here’s Kevin DeYoung again, “The antidote [to crazy busyness] is rest, rhythm, death to pride, acceptance of our own finitude, and trust in the providence of God.” For that reason, “God gives us Sabbath as a gift; it’s an island of get-to in a sea of have-to.” “God does expect us to say no to a whole lot of good things so that we can be freed up to say yes to the most important things he has for us.”

You’re distracted, you think the Lord doesn’t care that you’re working so hard, what’s wrong with the other person. The Lord says, you need to start choosing blessing over busyness.” And today, God blessed the Sabbath day. It’s not blessed for him. It’s blessed for you, silly. Now start choosing blessing over busyness.