The Voice: The One Thing in Two Stories
38 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!”
41 “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, 42 but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” (NIV)
28 “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’
31 “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”
Over time, any preaching ministry will discover two certainties.
One, if you preach about Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38–42), you will discover the very people you preached to will still harbour sympathy (if not, empathy) with Martha. “She had a point” will be the invariable defence from members of the congregation.
Two, if you preach on the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11–32), you will discover the very people you preached to will still harbour sympathy (if not, empathy) with the elder brother. “He had a point” will be invariable defence from members of the congregation.
Perhaps the reason for the similar response to these stories is the sheer humanity evident in both. Both the elder brother and the elder sister attend to their duties. As we hear their story, it evokes within us, at best, a sense of responsibility to attend to our duties, and at worst, resentment towards others if they don’t follow our example. Both stories indicate the issue is not so much what these two siblings have put their hand to as much as what they have allowed their heart to become: estranged. In becoming estranged from their siblings they have by implication become estranged from their God.
Any virtue of their service in the field or the home has been hollowed out by simmering resentment towards the sibling in question. In response to the elder sister, the Lord appeals to her to see her younger sister anew (i.e. Luke 10:42 – she “has chosen what is better”). In response to the elder brother, the father appeals to him to see his younger brother anew (i.e. Luke 15:32 – he “was dead and is alive again; was lost and is found”). In both stories, the path of approval to the authority figure is through renewed relationship with the person who is mistakenly seen as an obstacle in it all. In both stories, the apparent problematic sibling proves to be the sibling with the solution. And if you are the one with the simmering resentment, that revelation can feel like death! How galling! How humbling! The very person you complain about to God turns out to be the one he uses as a role model. A classic kingdom of God lesson and one which never gets any easier to digest.
This kingdom lesson is further emphasised in a subtle yet significant way. The elder sister in Luke 10 is a character in an actual event. The elder brother in Luke 15 is a character in a parable. When we place both narratives side-by-side it is as if they are intwined. If both stories were told as stand-alone stories, I doubt we would be able to identify which was the parable and which was the historical event. Further, both stories provide a shocking new vision that was counter-cultural in that day; a younger offensive brother welcomed home as a son; a younger offensive sister welcomed as a disciple. Both stories are orientated to the nature of the kingdom of God. Both stories remain unfinished. We are not told whether the elder brother or the elder sister walk into the new space they are invited into. Only you know what ending you will give both stories by your response. Both stories remain counter-cultural and both stories still orientate us to the kingdom.
That both stories could either be true or a parable is due to Jesus. Whether he tells the story or is involved in the story makes no difference. He is requiring a response and he is not impressed when religious duty trumps spiritual devotion – in whatever form. Whether that is spiritual devotion in the form of joining in the celebration of a repentant sinner or joining in the practice of a responsive sister.
The overarching presence of Jesus in both stories is as Lord. Luke uses “Lord” three times in Luke 10. Perhaps it is no accident that Martha’s name carries the feminine meaning of “lord, master” and so there is the dynamic of who is in charge; Martha as Lord of her home or Jesus as Lord at her home? The presence of two lords captures the tension in Martha’s home and heart. We see the same kind of battle in Luke 15. The elder brother assumes the role of a lord of the household in attempting to correct the lord of the household, his father.
The father will not side with his son’s bitterness and coldness. The father offers his son one thing: come and dance. To no doubt, dance with the very person who causes him such deep offence.
Jesus will not side with his daughter’s distraction and worry. The Lord offers his daughter one thing: come and sit.
And here is the thing.
We often read the Mary and Martha story that the one thing is for Martha to sit and listen to Jesus. Yes – that is true. But not true enough.
She is being invited to sit and listen to Jesus with the very person she is angry with.
The counsel of Jesus to Martha, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one” (Luke 10:41–42), has not lost its relevance or revelation.
You cannot join in with the work and presence of God without joining with the people of God.
“Mary has chosen what is better . . .” (Luke 10:42) says Jesus.
“This brother of yours . . .” (Luke 15:32) says the father.
Choose the one and better thing.
It involves sitting at the feet of Jesus and listening to him.
It involves moving your feet in dance and celebrating his redemption.
It involves being with the very people who drove you to complain to God.
It involves being corrected by God through the agency of the very people you thought were wrong.
 All bible references from NIV.
 While the biblical text does not explicitly state the birth order of the two sisters, it is a reasonable assumption that Martha is probably the older sister given she is the hostess, and the home is hers. Darrell L. Bock, Luke 9:51 – 24:53 Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament(Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1994/2006), 1040.
 Bock, Luke, 1040.