First things first

A United Methodist minister was a passenger on a jet when one of the engines stopped functioning.  Not a cause for major alarm, but there was a bit of distress when a second engine began to malfunction.  When this happened, one of the flight attendants came to the minister and said, “I noticed on the list of passengers that you are Reverend Brown.  This is a priority situation.  Can you do something religious?”  So the minister did.  He took up an offering.

First things first.

Dr. Jim Laney, President Emeritus of Emory University wrote about the time that Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa met with him while the archbishop was in residence for a few months at Emory.  Bishop Tutu looked around and said, “Jim, I think before we begin to talk, we should have a word of prayer.”

Dr. Laney wrote, “It was a very lovely, gentle, kindly affirmation.  That prayer actually changed the context of our conversation.  The archbishop wasn’t trying to get anything from me, but it really made things different.  When he left, I felt better because he had been there.”

Emory Magazine, Summer 1993, 13.

First things first.

When Martha welcomed Jesus to her house, her first priority was on the many tasks that were required of her as she hosted Jesus.  Compare Martha’s priority on tasks with the priority of her sister Mary, whom the closing verses of the 10th chapter of Luke reports is on relationship with Jesus as she sat “at the Lord’s feet.”  Distracted by the fact that Mary was not helping her, Martha came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself?  Tell her then to help me.”

It is through this divergent portrait of priorities that Jesus responds to Martha by saying “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is a need for only one thing.  Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

To appreciate the portrait that Luke is painting, it is important to understand that in first-century Palestine, the responsibility of women was to do all of the cooking and food preparation.  It was very unusual for Palestinian women to join male guests before they were done with all the food preparation.  Failure to be a good hostess was a sign of disrespect to the guest.

Added to Luke’s portrait of first things first is the likelihood that Martha was the owner of the house where Jesus was the honored guest.  Luke’s statement that Martha opened her home to Jesus implies that Martha was an independent woman and financially stable.  Martha may have been a widow because there is no mention of her husband, and she owns and manages her house.  The concerns that Martha brings to the attention of Jesus are the concerns that any Palestinian Jewish homeowner would express to ensure that Jesus felt welcomed.

According to the tasks of first-century Palestinian hospitality, Martha was correct in the concerns she brought to Jesus about Mary.  Likely exhausted by the burden of hospitality, her appeal for Jesus to tell Mary to assist her was not unreasonable, but Martha was the owner of the house, not Mary.  As the owner of the house, Martha was the person who bore responsibility for the task of hospitality.  Acknowledging Martha’s exhaustion, Jesus also acknowledged Mary for having “chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her” as she focused on her relationship with Jesus first.

Rev. Niveen Sarras,

So, how do we interpret the meaning of this story about Jesus, Martha, and Mary?

One possible interpretation is that Jesus is declaring Mary’s priority of focusing on relationships as being of more value than Martha’s priority of focusing on tasks when he said, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is a need of only one thing.  Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

Another possible interpretation is that Jesus is redefining the reality of discipleship as Mary sits at his feet in a position of discipleship that men historically assumed.  Jesus is making a clear statement that Mary is a disciple who has answered the same role-defining call that Jesus’ first disciples answered in Luke 5:1-11 when Peter, Andrew, James, and John brought their fishing boats to shore, leaving everything, and following Jesus.  Mary has joined them in the same role defining moment of discipleship for Mary as she sits at Jesus’ feet.

A third possible interpretation is that Jesus acknowledges that both Martha and Mary are his disciples as he teaches them about first things first.  Mary is a disciple who learns as she sits at Jesus’ feet and listens.  Martha is a disciple who learns as she engages Jesus in open and direct conversation.  Jesus is inviting both Martha and Mary to choose what Jesus calls “the better part” as they practice the discipline of first things first.

In a writing entitled, If I Had My Life to Live Over,  an 85-year-old woman named Nadine Stair described what first things first looks as she reflected on her life.”

I’d like to make more mistakes next time.  I’d relax.  I would limber up.  I would be sillier than I’ve been this trip.  I would take fewer things seriously.  I would take more chances. 1 would climb more mountains and swim more rivers.  I would eat more ice cream and less beans.  I would perhaps have more actual troubles, but I’d have fewer imaginary ones.  You see, I’m one of those people who lives sensibly and sanely hour after hour, day after day.  Oh, I’ve had my moments, and if I had to do it over again, I’d have more of them.  In fact, I’d try to have nothing else.  Just moments, one after another, instead of living so many years ahead of each day. I’ve been one of those persons who never goes anywhere without a thermometer, a hot water bottle, a raincoat, and a parachute. If I had to do it again, I would travel lighter than I have.

Too Perfect, Allan E. Mallinger and Jeannette De Wyze (New York: Fawcett, 1992) 10.

Whether you are a Martha or a Mary, Jesus invites you to be his disciple as you choose what he defines as the better part.  Jesus invites you to follow him as you put first things first.

First Things First
by Pastor Marc Brown
July 17, 2022

Accompanying Scriptures: Luke 10:38-42

Fort Hill United Methodist Church
Order of Worship for July 17, 2021

Scripture Lesson   Luke 10:38-42

The Good News        “First Things First”

Music                          “Change My Heart Oh God” by Eddie Espinosa



Closing Music      “Fairest Lord Jesus” arr. Carol Tornquist

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