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Don't Just Do Something, Sit There

Spending time with God is more important than getting many things done or doing all things well.


Have you ever wondered how Jesus spent his evenings and his nights? Some of his disciples came to him early on to ask about the fringe benefits of discipleship. Jesus told them the foxes had holes and the birds had nests, but the Son of Man had no permanent place to put his head. So I gather that there were times in Jesus' life when he slept out in the field, with the sky for a blanket and a stone for a pillow.

But there were other times when Jesus enjoyed the warmth and hospitality of good friends. There was probably no home in all of Israel more valuable to him than the home of Martha, Mary, and their brother Lazarus in the village of Bethany. During the closing hours of his life, when other hearts and homes were shut to him, the door of this house in Bethany was open.

In Luke 10:38–42, Jesus and his disciples are on their way to the capital city for the last time. To get there, they have to go through the village of Bethany, a suburb about two miles east of Jerusalem. When Martha hears that the disciples and Jesus have hit town, she insists they come to her home for dinner. She wants to show them through her hospitality how much she loves them.

It's always a bit of a threat, I think, for a woman to have a preacher in her home for dinner. So to have 13 of them sitting in the living room is like an Olympic challenge! I'm still in awe of what skilled cooks are able to do. A good cook can take cold food from the refrigerator at one time, put hot food on the stove at another time, and make it all come out at the same time—and everybody has a good time! From where I sit out there in the living room, the whole thing seems like a kind of minor miracle to me.

But as Martha was trying to pull off the miracle, it wasn't going very well. The stove was giving off more smoke than heat. The bread refused to rise. Pretty soon the whole thing smelled more like a burnt offering than a dinner. Finally, she looked around for her sister to help her. She glanced into the living room, and there was Mary, sitting at Jesus' feet. Perturbed, Martha came back into the kitchen, and she was as burned up as the dinner. Then the volcano inside her exploded.

She stormed into the living room, went up to Jesus, and said: Lord, don't you care that I have to get this meal by myself? Bid my sister come and help me! I'm sure she thought that Jesus would come to her defense and send Mary scurrying into the kitchen. But Jesus responds to Martha as a parent might respond to a fretting child. He says: Martha, Martha—one dish would have been enough. Mary has chosen the good part, and it will not be taken away from her.

You don't have to go to seminary to understand that story. You don't have to take a course in hermeneutics to discover who gets the low marks and the high marks. We all know Martha made the bad choice and Mary made the good choice. That's just the way it is, and we all understand that. The difficulty is that after I come to that conclusion, my head and heart just don't agree.

Martha was not faulted for her service.

I confess that I have a secret sympathy with Martha. Putting it bluntly, Martha is my kind of woman: She is realistic. She approaches life as it is, and she calls things as she sees them.

John 11 records how Jesus was four days late for Lazarus' funeral. When he showed up, the sisters took him to the cemetery, and he stood in front of the tomb. Then he asked that the stone be rolled away. Martha, even though she was plunged in grief, said: Lord, you'd better not do that. I mean, he's been dead four days, and by this time, he stinks.  That's not very couth, but it is pretty realistic. Martha was that kind of woman. She was realistic enough to know that if you're going to get a dinner for 16 people, somebody's got to go out there and hustle to get it. Sitting around at anybody's feet won't get the food prepared.

Furthermore, if it weren't for the Marthas of the world, nothing much would get done. Few sermons would get prepared and preached. Very few missions would ever be undertaken. If it weren't for the Marthas of the world, you could put evangelism to bed. Any pastor who's got a lick of sense is delighted to have some Marthas in the pew. I find some consolation in knowing I'm not the only one who feels this way. Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem called "The Sons of Mary." The last two lines of the poem go like this: [Sons of Martha] sit at the feet—they hear the Word—they see how truly the Promise runs.
They have cast their burden upon the Lord, and—the Lord He lays it on Martha's Sons!

I have sympathy for Martha. You cannot give Martha low marks for serving. Jesus is not faulting her for that. The previous story in Luke is the story of the Good Samaritan. The basic lesson of that story is that your neighbor is anyone whose need you see and are in a position to meet. In this story, Martha is being a neighbor. She recognizes that Jesus and his men have been on the road quite some time, and they are hungry. She has a gift of hospitality, and she wants to meet their need.

I think wherever she went, Mary performed deeds of kindness and love that made life bearable for other people. I think acts of graciousness fell from her life like the falling snow—beautiful and quiet. I think Martha was the kind of person who would sit by a sick child while its mother got some rest. If a family was sick, she was the one to bring over a crock of soup. Martha wants to show her hospitality to Jesus and the disciples. Sure, she wanted to show them the kind of lavish meal they would never forget and would show they were loved and cared for. Martha is being a neighbor, and Jesus is not faulting her for that.

Good service with a bad spirit is bad service.

The difficulty Jesus does seem to point out was not the service but the spirit of the service. Luke says that she was encumbered by the serving. When Jesus responded to her, he said, "Martha, you're worried and upset about too many things." If Martha had gone to her friendly psychologist and taken a battery of tests, he would probably have identified her as type-A personality, kind of obsessive/compulsive. An obsessive/compulsive person's life verse is, "if a thing's worth doing, it's worth doing well."

Martha bought into that. Not only does she intend to prepare a lavish menu, but she's going to do it in a sterile environment. She cleans the house as though there's going to be an operation in the living room. If you asked her why she went to all that trouble, she would say, "Well, if a thing's worth doing, it's worth doing well." But Jesus responds to Martha and says: Martha, look—you're worried and upset about too many things. One dish would have been enough. That's all you really had to prepare.

Some of us need to underline the lesson Jesus offers here. If a thing is worth doing, it may be worth doing simply. Certainly it is good to show hospitality. If you are driven by hospitality to superhuman feats and your spirit is hurt, you need to know that a soup and a sandwich will pass muster. Hospitality is worth doing, and it may be worth doing simply. If you meet your neighbor on Jericho Road, it's certainly worth stopping to lend a hand. But that doesn't mean you have to start the Jericho Road Missionary Society. It doesn't mean you have to serve on the board and attend all the meetings and become the chief operations officer. Sometimes, helping one neighbor is all you can handle, and it's worth doing simply.

Simplifying life can be a very important strategy. Good service should be done with a good spirit. The trick is to know when you're too busy. One indicator is if what you do drives you to distraction—if you become upset, anxious, irritable and hard to get along with—you may need to simplify things. We can tarnish our service by the way we do it. Good service, done with a bad spirit, doesn't do anybody any good.

One old saw says, "Misery loves company." That may be true. One thing I am sure of is that misery spoils the company and the party for everybody else. That happened here. Martha's irritation spoiled the party for Mary. Can you imagine how she felt? She doesn't tiptoe to the door and whisper, "Mary, could you come and help me?" Instead, she makes a grandstand play. She moves into the living room and doesn't even speak to Mary. She goes up to Jesus and says: Jesus, don't you care that my sister has left me to get the meal by myself? Bid her come and help me.

Can you imagine how Mary must have felt? If she was the sensitive soul I think she was, she was embarrassed. When you're irritable, you spoil it for everybody. Martha spoiled it for the disciples. Have you ever gone to a home, and before you got there, the host couple was at each other's throats? Maybe they were arguing when the doorbell rang, but they put on smiles to greet you. Maybe the doorbell didn't stop the arguing? Even at the table they're still upset with one another. I don't care what the menu is or how lavish the meal; all you want to do is leave early.

Irritation spoils the party for everybody. Martha's irritation spoiled her relationship with the Lord. This was going to be a sterling evening in her life. Here in her home is the one who, by her own admission, was the Messiah of God. She was going to entertain him, but now, because of her irritation, she's angry with him. She comes into the living room and says: Lord, don't you care about me? I've got to get this meal by myself.

Strangely enough, Martha would have had a better spirit if Jesus hadn't shown up in her home or in her life. Her irritation has made her upset with him. When irritation is part of your service, it spoils the service. Hear the word of Christ: one dish is enough. If a thing's worth doing, it's worth doing simply.

Now, don't misunderstand; this is not a plea for laziness. There are times in life when you have to reach to your best effort. Blessed is the woman or man who knows the difference between those times and other times. If you can prepare a seven-course meal and do it with great delight and warm hospitality, I'd like to come to your house. I prefer big meals to soup and sandwiches. But if I have to choose between a good meal with a bad spirit and a simple meal with a good spirit, I'll take the soup and sandwiches anytime.

Allow Christ to serve you before you serve others.

Some of us must understand that if a thing's worth doing, it may be worth doing simply. But that's not the end of it. Often when we cut back to what we call a simpler life, we leave greater things for lesser things. Turning away from Christian service to spend more time watching television is not an improvement. Jesus says that Mary has chosen the better thing, and it will not be taken away from her. What was it? Mary sat at Jesus' feet and heard his word.

The previous story of the Good Samaritan was introduced by a conflict between Jesus and a theologian. That man knew the Bible. He could quote the great verses: You shall love the Lord your God with all of your heart and soul and strength and mind and your neighbor as yourself.

In the story, two of the chief actors were a priest and a Levite. Before they left home in the morning, they could quote those two great verses. Yet the verses clearly had no impact on what happened that day on the Jericho Road. Knowing the Bible is important, but that's not what it means to sit at Jesus' feet and hear his word. To hear his word is to allow him to minister to you, to allow him to do something in you before you do something for him.

Jesus says that Mary chose the better part because a ministry to our spirit must precede a ministry to others. The first command is to love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul, strength, and mind. The second is like the first: you shall love your neighbor as yourself. Those commands are always in that order. If you get them turned around, it will destroy you. You'll burn out. Only neighbor-love growing out of a love for Jesus Christ has staying power. Before you become involved in service for others, you must allow Jesus Christ to serve you. Believe it or not, that's what Christ wants for you. He didn't bring you to himself to make you a slave. He brought you to himself to make you a friend. The Sovereign Majesty of the universe enjoys fellowship with us. Mary chose the good part because that's what Jesus wanted when he came to their home that evening.


When I was in seminary, a pastor from a Christian Reformed church in Chicago came to the campus. One evening he told us the story of a mother and her son who were members of his church. The father died when the boy was young. This was back before television, when folks spent evenings listening to the radio or reading to one another. They both enjoyed listening to good music.

In his early twenties, he met a young woman at the church, fell in love with her, and they decided to be married. Since housing was difficult to find, the mother said, "We have a two-story house. I can make an apartment for myself in the second story. You and your bride can live in the first story. The only thing I ask is that we get a chance to spend some time together because I'm going to miss the reading and the music." Her son said, "Mother, you can be sure of that. It's important to me, too."

The couple married. For a while, life continued with the son stopping by a couple of times a week to spend some time with his mom. He was busy, and eventually days and weeks went by between visits. The relationship was not what it had been.

On the mother's birthday, the young man bought a lovely dress, brought it to her, and said, "Happy birthday, Mother." She opened the package and looked at the dress. "Oh, Son, thank you. I appreciate so much what you've done."

He said, "Mother, you don't like it."

She said, "Oh, yes, I do. It's my color. Thank you."

He said, "Mother, I have the sales slip. They tell me I can take it back."

She said, "No, it is a lovely dress."

He said, "Mother, you don't fool me. We've been together too long. What's wrong?"

The woman turned and opened her closet. She said, "Son, I have enough dresses there to last me for the rest of my life. I guess all I want to say is that I don't want your dress. I want you."

I hear God saying that to me. With all of our busyness, we better simplify our lives, because God doesn't want your life as much as he wants you.

For the outline of this sermon, go to "Don't Just Do Something, Sit There."

Haddon Robinson was a preacher and teacher of preachers all over the world. His last teaching position was as the Harold John Ockenga Distinguished Professor of Preaching at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

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Sermon Outline:


I. Martha was not faulted for her service

II. Good service with a bad spirit is bad service

III. Allow Christ to serve you before you serve others