"The One Thing" - Sermon for the Sixth Sunday After Pentecost - Year C - 2019

"The One Thing" - Sermon for the Sixth Sunday After Pentecost - Year C - 2019

Jul 21, 2019

Passage:Luke 10:38-42

Preacher: The Rev. Canon Mike Ehmer

Category: Discipleship

Keywords: discipleship


We've likely heard the story of Mary and Martha before. The Rev. Canon Mike Ehmer helps us to dive deeper into this story, and ask ourselves the question: "What is 'the one thing'?"


"The One Thing"

6th Sunday After Pentecost / Proper 11 (C)

July 21, 2019 / Luke 10:38-42

St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Amarillo, Texas

The Reverend Canon. Mike Ehmer 



A woman bought a parrot to keep her company. The bird, however, would not talk, so she returned to the pet store the next day for suggestions. “Does the bird have a mirror in his cage?” the proprietor asked. “Parrots love mirrors. They see themselves and instantly start up a conversation.” The woman bought a mirror and departed. 

The next day, she returned; the bird was still not talking. “How about a ladder? Parrots love walking up and down ladders. And a happy parrot is more likely to talk.” The woman bought a ladder. 

Sure enough, she was back the third day because the bird was still silent. “Does your parrot have a swing? If not, that’s the problem. He’ll relax and talk up a storm.” The woman reluctantly bought a swing and went home. 

When she walked into the store the fourth day, her countenance had changed. “The parrot died,” she announced. 

The pet-store owner was shocked. “Oh, I’m so sorry,” he said. “Tell me, though, did he ever say anything?” 

“Oh yes,” the woman replied. “With his dying breath he asked, ‘Doesn’t that pet store sell bird seed?’” 

Priorities! Sometimes lives depend on them—literally. And today’s gospel story is all about priorities. We miss the point, however, if we look at the story in isolation. To reap the full effect of today’s gospel we need to read it in concert with last week’s gospel. 

As you may recall, last Sunday we heard what has come to be known as the “Parable of the Good Samaritan.” The passage begins with a lawyer asking Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” 

Jesus, being a good rabbi, responded to his question with a question, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” 

The lawyer replied: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” 

Jesus responded, “You’re right!” But the lawyer wasn’t satisfied. “And who is my neighbor?” he probed. And that’s where the actual parable of the Good Samaritan comes in—where Jesus gives us a concrete example of what it’s like to love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus concludes his conversation with the lawyer by telling him to go and do as the Samaritan did in the parable. 

From there, Luke moves directly into today’s gospel, with Martha welcoming Jesus into her home. Once inside, Martha immediately took on the traditional female role—fixing dinner for her guest. But her sister, Mary—who had no part in inviting Jesus—didn’t lift a finger to help. Instead, she assumed the traditional posture of a male disciple—sitting at the feet of the master and listening intently. 

Based upon Martha’s grumblings, I think it’s safe to say she would have preferred to be doing what Mary was doing but she was distracted. She had duties and responsibilities to attend to. After all, she invited Jesus into her home; she had an obligation to provide him with the customary meal. If only Mary would help, then they could both sit at Jesus’ feet and listen. Finally, fed-up and frustrated, Martha chastised the two of them: “Lord, don’t you care that I’m stuck with all this work? Tell my sister to help.” 

But rather than receiving assistance, Martha got a verbal slap on the wrist and was told that her priorities were mixed up. “Martha, Martha,” Jesus said, “you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” 

Jesus told Martha she was distracted, that “there is need of only one thing.” One thing! But what is it? Jesus didn’t say. 

Have you ever seen the 1991 movie City Slickers? It’s a great film where three men from New York City go out west to “discover themselves” by participating in an old fashion cattle drive. As they’re preparing to hit the trail, Curly, the tough as nails trail boss (played by Jack Palance) says to Mitch (played by Billy Crystal), “You city slickers come out here to figure out the meaning of life, and the meaning of life boils down to one thing.” And he holds up a dirty gloved finger, and stares at Mitch in silence. 

“What, what’s the one thing?” Mitch asks in frustration. 

Curly replies calmly, “That’s what you’ve got to figure out.” 

I bet many of us can identify with Martha in our Gospel story. How often have we lived up to our responsibilities to help our neighbors or our guests just to be told, in one way or another, that we’ve got it all wrong, that we’ve missed “the one thing”? 

It’s easy to understand this story in that way. But if we focus on the chastisement of Martha then we’ve missed the point. ... You see, the story isn’t about condemning Martha; it’s about praising Mary. 

Remember last week’s gospel where, in reference to the Good Samaritan, Jesus told the lawyer to “Go and do likewise.” In other words, go and serve others, be a good neighbor. Why then would Jesus, just a few verses later, chastise Martha for doing the very same thing he just told the lawyer to do? 

What Martha was “doing” was fine. There’s nothing wrong with being a good hostess and fixing dinner for your guest; in fact, it’s expected. The problem wasn’t Martha’s actions; it was her timing. In that situation, with that particular guest, it was Mary who had chosen the best thing to do. It was Mary who recognized and was attentive to the special nature of Jesus. It was Mary who realized that Jesus wanted to serve the women, not to be served by them. 

Had the sisters been entertaining a different visitor, then perhaps Martha’s timing would have been the most appropriate. But the gospel writers, especially Luke, always portray Jesus as one who came to serve others, rather than one who came to be served. 

While Martha’s actions represented the second half of the lawyer’s response to Jesus—loving one’s neighbor, following the example of the Good Samaritan—Mary’s actions exemplified the first part of his answer—essentially, loving Jesus (the incarnate Word of God) with her whole being. She was completely present to God, with no distractions. 

Unfortunately, this narrative has often been used to negate the value of work, especially the stereotypical women’s work of cooking and housekeeping. In fact, Martha actually became the patron saint of housewives and cooks. And during the Reformation, Martha was even seen as embodying the incorrect theology of “righteousness by works,” while Mary represented the correct theology of “righteousness by faith.” Regrettably, the Church throughout the ages has tended to use this passage to emphasize a negative portrayal of Martha, which has caused many women (and men) in the Church, who readily identify with Martha, to feel they are of less value than the quiet, contemplative types like Mary. 

There is, however, another, quite different, presentation of this important woman in John’s gospel. Although the same story is not told, John does discuss Martha and Mary in connection with the raising of their brother Lazarus. Because of her confession of Jesus as the Messiah in that story, John elevates Martha to a highly selective spiritual category, occupied only by the Apostles Peter and Thomas. John portrays Martha as a strong, tenacious, self-confident, leader. Certainly not the norm for women of her day! It’s a shame that aspect of Martha isn’t highlighted more often. 

When we view Martha and Mary collectively they portray the perfect disciple—a disciple who’s priorities are correct, who has figured out the one thing: that by loving God, and through listening to and learning from God, one is enabled to go out and serve the needs of his or her fellow human beings. 

Both of those actions are required; both are important. The challenge God gives each of us in discerning the “one thing” is identifying the right actions, the proper timing, the correct priorities, in which to accomplish both behaviors—loving God and loving our neighbors. 

Today’s gospel story ends rather abruptly. I wish it had described the rest of Jesus’ visit. But, since it doesn’t, in my mind I envision all three individuals sitting down to a wonderful meal that Martha had prepared. Then, when the meal is over, Mary quietly gets up and does the dishes, while Martha lingers at the table with Jesus, listening quietly, totally focused on her Lord, with no distractions.