Sibling Rivalry

Posted: February 12, 2017 in Luke

Luke 10:38-42, “Sibling Rivalry”

Sibling rivalry can make for some interesting times.  The story is told of a Sunday School teacher who was discussing the Ten Commandments with her class.  After explaining the commandment to "honor" thy Father and thy Mother, she asked, "Is there a commandment that teaches us how to treat our brothers and sisters?"  Without missing a beat one little boy (the oldest of a family) answered, "Thou shall not kill."

Few things are worse than one sibling looking at the privilege/blessing of another sibling, and coveting it for himself.  How bad is it?  Don’t forget, sibling rivalry was behind the first murder in history (Cain & Abel).  It can get bad!

Sibling rivalry was bad between Martha and Mary on this particular day with Jesus.  What should have been a joyous occasion was marked with petty sniping and jealousy.  The Lord Jesus Christ was in their home – one would think that everything else might get set aside in order for the whole household to spend time with Him, yet that wasn’t the case.  One sister set to work, while the other sister sat down, and the sibling rivalry began.  Martha’s jealousy and irritation with her sister boiled over to the point of her taking her complaint to Jesus, to which Jesus responds with incredible gentleness and compassion.

Question: Is Martha a bad person?  Certainly not!  Martha is no worse than any of us.  She was just a Christian having a bad day…something all of us experience at some point.  The contrast between Martha & Mary is often held up as evil/good, sinner/saved, and that’s not the case.  The contrast here is not one of salvation.  Both sisters had faith in Christ, believing Him to be the Messiah.  The contrast regards their activity & interaction with Him.  Martha was distracted by her circumstances; Mary was attentive to the Lord.

It is Mary’s attention to Jesus which makes this fit the overall context so very well.  Chronologically speaking, we do not know when this happened in the life of Jesus.  Jesus had “set His face to go to Jerusalem” (Lk 9:51), and although the home of Martha & Mary was certainly on the way, this seems to be rather early for Jesus to arrive.  We need to remember that the gospel authors do not always arrange things chronologically, but thematically.  Such seems to be the case here.  Luke doesn’t show Jesus arriving in Jerusalem until Chapter 19, but He’s only two miles from Jerusalem here.  Thus, this probably indicates that Luke is recounting an earlier event – one that fits with the general thematic context Luke had arranged.

What was that?  The parable of the Good Samaritan.  After rejoicing over the experiences of the disciples as they prepared towns and villages for Jesus’ arrival, Luke shows Jesus being questioned by an expert in Jewish law regarding how to inherit eternal life.  Having the question turned back around to him, the religious lawyer recited the two greatest commandments: to love God wholeheartedly, and to love your neighbor as yourself.  In addition, he tried to justify himself with the second, giving himself a loophole out of loving quite everyone, which Jesus used to show him the truth.  It is impossible for anyone to keep the law and earn heaven for themselves – and the religious expert didn’t understand true love for neighbor anyway.

So how does this fit?  Remember there were two commandments quoted by the lawyer: love God & love others.  The parable of the Good Samaritan demonstrated what it looks like to love your neighbor; the contrast Martha and Mary show what it’s like to love God.  One sister gave her Lord everything – every bit of attention with her heart, soul, mind, and strength.  The other sister allowed herself to get distracted, and in her jealousy, attempted to take her sister with her.

Don’t get distracted from Jesus!  Choose the good thing: devoted discipleship.

Luke 10:38–42

  • The contrast

38 Now it happened as they went that He entered a certain village; and a certain woman named Martha welcomed Him into her house.

  • Who are the “they”?  The disciples.  They say nothing in this event, but their presence is silently felt.  Again, due to the fact that we don’t know when this took place chronologically, we don’t know how many disciples were with Jesus at the time.  The full 70 mentioned earlier in Chapter 10 seems unlikely – if it was, they certainly did not all stay at this one house.  Yet even if Jesus only had 1-2 other disciples with Him at the time, we can easily imagine the stress level growing on Martha.  Although she was glad to have Jesus with her, just hosting one other person can be difficult – much less 12 or more!
  • It’s interesting that the village remains unnamed, as Luke only labels it: “a certain village.”  From John 11 & 12, we know that Bethany was the home of Lazarus, Martha, and Mary.  Lazarus is unmentioned entirely, which isn’t all that curious, considering he doesn’t have anything to do in this particular event, but keeping the village unnamed seems to fit the thematic arrangement by Luke.  He isn’t drawing attention to the village’s proximity to Jerusalem; he’s showing what took place there.
  • And what took place was a good thing!  Martha “welcomed Him.”  She received Jesus as a guest into her home.  Already there is a contrast with the earlier Samaritan village (9:51-56), and the instructions Jesus gave to the disciples about villages that might reject Him (10:10-11).  In this particular town, there was someone who gladly welcomed Jesus, receiving Him into her home as an honored guest.  Although it’s doubtful that this was the first time Jesus met Martha & Mary, this is still a good thing.  (Again, Martha isn’t set up as the villain…be careful not to think of her in those terms.)
    • Welcoming Jesus is good; worshipping Him is better.  Not that Martha did not/would not worship Jesus…she just became overwhelmed, and would need a bit of prompting to do so.

39 And she had a sister called Mary, who also sat at Jesus’ feet and heard His word.

  • If there were any doubts, the fact that Martha’s sister was Mary seems to confirm this was the same Martha & Mary of Bethany.  Mary’s name was extremely common in 1st century Judea, but for her to have a sister named Martha, and for both of them to be so well-known by Jesus that He stated at their house narrows down the possibility of people pretty quick.
  • Mary’s interaction with Jesus was different.  More than welcoming Him as a guest, she “sat at [His] feet.”  More than simply sitting down, this potentially signifies something different: the mark of a disciple.  Just as Paul was brought up at the feet of Gamaliel (Acts 22:3), so did Mary sit at the feet of Jesus.  Keep in mind that any interaction between women and Jesus would have been considered somewhat striking at the time to ancient readers – to show Mary in the position of a disciple would have been downright shocking.  Could women be disciples?  Absolutely yes!  It seems silly for us to even consider today, but we’ve got the benefit of 2000 years of Christian history, and we live in a culture fundamentally influenced by Christian values.  Around the world, and throughout history, that is not the case.  In areas around the world where other religions are the predominant influence, women are routinely treated as inferior, pushed to the side (or worse).  It is the gospel that has been the primary elevating force for women, as they have been properly shown to have equal value.  There is neither male nor female in Christ – we are all one (Gal 3:28).
  • How can we know this was discipleship?  Because this was no passive presence; Mary actively listened to Jesus and “heard His word.”  Mary drank in the teaching of Jesus, not wanting to miss a single thing He had to say.
    • How do you hear the word of Jesus?  Mary had something we don’t, in that she was able to physically sit at the feet of Jesus and listen to Him.  At the same time, we have access to something Mary did not: the entirety of the written word of God.  We have the full revelation of the Scripture from Old Testament to New Testament, inspired by God the Spirit, handed down to us through the ages.  And the amazing thing is that the entirety of the book is about Christ!  From Genesis to Revelation, it is about Jesus.  We learn about God’s plan to redeem the world in Genesis.  We learn about the holiness of God and the blood of sacrifice in Leviticus & Deuteronomy.  We learn about the promise of the Kingly Messiah in Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles.  We learn about the prophetic acts of Christ in the Psalms.  And the list can go on & on.  Want to learn of Jesus?  Read the Bible!  Drink it in deeply & richly.  How to do it might look different from person to person, but just do it.  When Jesus gave the Great Commission to make disciples of all the nations, He said to do so by baptizing people into the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (i.e. evangelism), but also by teaching people His commands.  Matthew 28:19–20, "(19) Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, (20) teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age."  How do we know His commands?  By reading His word.  A fundamental aspect of discipleship is Bible study.
      • Again, this looks different for different Christians, but we can surmise at least this much for everyone: we need it all.  Not just a verse-a-day (or less!); we need to take time in the word of God.  And yes, it does take time…but it’s worth it!
    • Keep in mind, hearing the word of Jesus includes Bible study, but it isn’t limited to it.  Prayer plays an essential part in Christian discipleship.  It is through prayer that we not only speak our requests to God, but we listen to Him, exactly as Mary did with Jesus.  Granted, we aren’t likely going to hear His audible voice, but we will know Him speaking to our hearts.  We will know His leading & His guidance.  This is especially true when we combine prayer with Bible study.  As you read the Scriptures, read it with a mind (and ear) towards Christ.  Look to what it says about Him, and ask God the Spirit to reveal to you the things He wants you to know.  Bible study is never dry when you’re doing it under the guidance of the Spirit!
  • Again, keep our context in mind.  The Good Samaritan demonstrated what it was like to love his neighbor as himself, loving even an enemy to the extent that his needs were fully provided for.  Mary demonstrates what it’s like to love the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.  She has wholehearted devotion to Jesus, hanging upon the words He spoke.  Granted, this is just a snapshot in time – there were other moments when Mary surely did serve, and do other things, just like there were times that Martha listened to Jesus.  But in this moment, Mary’s attention was firmly fixed upon Christ; something of which could not be said of Martha.  Full attention to Jesus is full devotion to Him, and that is exactly what He desires from us.
    • This sort of active attention is exactly what will guard us from legalism and simply going through the motions, in regards to Bible study & prayer.  It’s one thing to let your eyes run down the words on a page; it’s another thing to actively read them.  Likewise, it’s one thing to spit out the same words you always pray; it’s another thing to mean the words that you say & take time to listen.  God deserves our full attention.  Think about it: we know when someone is answering us, but really ignoring us…  God knows the same.  Pay attention to Him – be active in your devotional time.  It’ll make a difference.
  • The complaint

40 But Martha was distracted with much serving, and she approached Him and said, “Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Therefore tell her to help me.”

  • What was good for Mary was disturbing to Martha.  She now felt all alone in her various acts of service, most likely that of meal preparation.  The word for “distracted” speaks of being pulled away, busy, overburdened – and no doubt that exactly described the state of her mind & heart.  Too many things needed done – too many tasks needed to be accomplished.  Many a household cook has felt the same way at Christmas or Thanksgiving.  There’s the turkey, the dressing, the casserole, the pie – not to mention the table needs setting, the house needs cleaning, etc.  Whatever it was Martha had to do, she was doing it alone, and it was enough to drive her to distraction.
    • Question: Who was it that gave Martha these many tasks to do?  No one but herself.  There is no record of Jesus requesting an elaborate feast, yet Martha took it upon herself to provide one.  That was her first problem.  No doubt, she did all of this with the best of intents – after all, to honor Jesus with a feast is a wonderful gift. But when she took so much upon her that it took her away from Jesus, she had a problem.  Imagine it: the Lord Jesus Christ is in your home, and you’re rushing past Him to the kitchen.  He’s engaged in teaching, and you’re excuse is: “Just a minute, Jesus, I’m getting dinner ready!”  At that point, priorities are out of order.
    • Yet isn’t this what so often happens?  We get so involved with good things in life: our families, our friends, our careers, our church – which can all be wonderful things in & of themselves – but over time we find ourselves too busy for Jesus.  We can’t spend any quality time in our Bibles or in prayer because we’re too busy trying to get out the door & on to the day.  We tell ourselves we’ll do our devotionals at work, or on our break time, but that comes & goes.  We tell ourselves we’ll do it when we get home, and our families require our attention, etc.  The weekends are no better – there’s always something to do.  And when we do have a few free moments, we just want to zone out for a while and relax.  What’s happened?  We’ve done exactly the same as Martha.  What started out as good things ended up distracting us from Jesus, and we missed the Best Thing.  Our priorities got out of order & they need to be reshuffled.
  • Of course, Martha hadn’t realized any of this yet.  She was in the midst of her stress, and the reacted, taking her complaint to Jesus, tattling on her sister.  Martha was running herself ragged, and her sister was just sitting there.  If she couldn’t guilt her sister into action, maybe Jesus could.  Note that in addition to this, Martha actually blamed Jesus. “Do You not care?”  As if Jesus was willfully ignorant of her situation and wanted to see her stressed out and suffering.
    • Again, be careful not to paint Martha in your mind as a bad person.  She simply had a bad day.  Any of us can become irritable from time to time, snapping at the people we love – even snapping at Jesus.  We blame God for our problems & our stress, when many times our problems are of our own making (just as it was for Martha).  Thankfully, God is gracious with us, just as Jesus was with Martha.  He is a merciful God!
  • How did Martha propose to solve the problem to her stressed-out jealousy?  She wanted Jesus to force Mary to help her.  Think about this for a moment – this was precisely the opposite of what she could have done.  Martha didn’t ask Jesus if it was alright for her to sit down alongside Mary.  She didn’t even ask Jesus if she and Mary could trade places for a while. She certainly didn’t ask Jesus if it mattered to Him if dinner was late.  No – Martha was not planning on spending time with Jesus, and she wanted to pull Mary from Him as well.  And if that wasn’t bad enough, she wanted Jesus to force the issue.
    • It’s bad enough when we neglect spending time with Jesus.  It’s worse when we cause others to do the same.  It’s a sobering thing to consider the events of your day and think about the times you may have distracted someone from Jesus.  Maybe it wasn’t pulling someone away from prayer or their Bible time – but it certainly could have been a poor witness to them, being irritable with them, or acting in some other way that doesn’t reflect Jesus.  Remember that Jesus said that every idle word spoken would be accounted for on the day of judgment (Mt 12:36).  The fewer, the better!  (And thank God for His grace through Jesus!)
  • The correction

41 And Jesus answered and said to her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things.

  • If Martha was callous towards Jesus, Jesus was compassionate towards her.  “Martha, Martha…”  He patiently responded to her, ministering to where she was at, emotionally.  As God the Son, Jesus had the right to firmly discipline her for her impertinence, but He didn’t.  She had blamed Jesus, accusing Him of being uncaring towards her – all at the same time that He was personally sitting in her home proclaiming the word of God.  Her personally-inflicted stress had caused her to lash out at the Son of God, something which is foolish (at the least).  Yet Jesus responds to her in tremendous kindness, calling her back to Himself.  “Martha, Martha” – the double name calling her gently to attention.  People perk up when our names are mentioned, but to have Jesus look into her eyes and do it twice?  No doubt all of her distractions fell away in an instant, and she finally gave her full attention to Jesus – probably for the first time since He arrived.
    • God knows us and understands us…and He still loves us!  Praise God!  We who are so unlovable, are beloved by God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  He created us, and knows exactly who & how we are.  He understands our stresses better than we do, in that He knows exactly what’s causing us to get so stressed.  He knows our reactions before we ever experience them, because He knows precisely how we think & even what hormones are physically firing off in our brains.  He knows us!  That doesn’t excuse our sinful attitudes, but we can take comfort that God our Father loves us and patiently helps us through our struggles.  God isn’t looking to punish us; He wants to help us.  (Because He does want to help us, it means He will discipline us when necessary, but that’s not His primary goal.  His goal for us is to know Him better and be transformed into the image of His Son by the work of the Spirit.)
  • Jesus specifically demonstrated that He understood Martha’s struggles when He said she was “worried and troubled about many things.”  He was not ignorant of her stress, especially as she watched her sister sit by Jesus.  He knew exactly how much Martha was doing.  He knew & cared about the details in her life (just as He does with us).  He also knew that her attention was pulled away from Him by “many things.”  This was the opposite of what Jesus had taught others (although we don’t know what subject Jesus was teaching that very night).  Matthew 6:31–33, "(31) “Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ (32) For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. (33) But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you."  Birds of the air didn’t worry about food, neither do flowers of the field worry about being clothed – God the Father cares for them.  Neither should we be worried about the little things in our lives.  Trust the Lord!  Seek Him first & foremost, and let the rest come.  But again, Martha was doing the opposite.  She was worried & anxious about everything.  She allowed everything else to gain her attention besides Jesus.
  • What were these ‘tremendously important’ tasks?  We’re not told specifically, but it seems obvious it had to do with the preparations for Jesus’ visit.  Perhaps it was preparing many dishes for an elaborate feast, with Jesus as the guest of honor.  Perhaps it was making room for all the extra people in her house.  Whatever it was, it was all ultimately unnecessary, because Jesus & the others were already there & apparently in need of nothing.  If Jesus had needed anything, He would have asked.  Keep in mind that the main event wasn’t the meal; it was the Messiah.  Martha could have served the 1st century Jewish equivalent of PB&J, and it would have been enough.
    • Do we try to give things to Jesus that He doesn’t want?  Sometimes it seems that we try to replace listening to Jesus or being a disciple of Jesus with acts that are ultimately unnecessary.  I.e. we’ll feel good about our walk with Christ because we listen to Christian music, even though we haven’t read the Bible on our own for weeks.  Or we get involved with all kinds of activities (even good ones), while neglecting our own prayers and devotions. What good can we be to others when we are malnourished in God’s word?  How can we direct others to Jesus when we never spend time with Him ourselves? 
    • What is it Jesus wants most of all from you?  You!  There is not a single thing you can do, or activity in which you can participate that will make you ‘more valuable’ in the sight of God.  If you’re a parent, think of it in terms of your children.  Do you want them to obey?  Absolutely.  But does their cheerful obedience ever make them any more or less your child?  Absolutely not.  Parents love their children simply because of who they are.  Likewise with God.  Our Heavenly Father loves us because we are His children, and He wants us far more than any activity or ritual from Him.
    • Keep in mind, this goes hand-in-hand with the gospel!  We are not saved by our activities; we’re saved by the grace of Jesus.  There’s not a single work we can do to earn our forgiveness from sin or our place in heaven.  Salvation comes only by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ.  If that’s the case for our initial salvation, why would we think it’s any different in our daily walk & relationship with God?  Do we honestly think that we are saved by grace, but walk in works?  Heaven forbid!  We are justified by grace, sanctified by grace, and will eventually by glorified by grace.  Everything we have in God is by the grace of Christ Jesus, or we have nothing!  Certainly, our works are important, but our works are not what make us important to God.  He loves us, simply because we belong to Him through Jesus.
    • For some of you, this ought to be incredibly freeing, because you’ve tied yourself up in your works & activities.  Although you believed upon Jesus as the Son of God crucified for your sins & resurrected from the dead, knowing your salvation rests upon Him – you’ve still tried to prove yourself worthy of God’s love.  The Bible calls us to walk worthy of our calling; not to prove ourselves worthy.  Why?  Because it can’t be done!  No amount of work is ever enough (again, that’s the point of the gospel).  We don’t rest in our works; we rest in Jesus…thus we give Him ourselves.

42 But one thing is needed, and Mary has chosen that good part, which will not be taken away from her.”

  • All of this is contrasted with the “one thing…chosen” by Mary – the part that was “good.”  Many things could be done, but only one was most “needed,” and that’s what Mary did.  She sat at Jesus’ feet as a disciple.  She heard the word of God in the presence of the Son of God, and it was good!  As AT Robertson put it, “The best dish [was] on the table, fellowship with Jesus.”
  • Discipleship & fellowship with Jesus: that is what He wants most from us.  How much does Jesus value it?  So much so that He guards it jealously.  Mary’s part with Jesus would “not be taken away from her,” despite the complaints from her sister.  Jesus wasn’t about to command Mary to leave the His presence to go set the dinner table.  She was doing what was right, and not only should she not be reprimanded, but she didn’t need to change a thing.  The only problem that existed was the one in Martha’s mind because she allowed herself to get so stressed.  As for Mary, she could stay put.
    • A great rule of thumb for how we treat other people is this: do we lead them to Jesus, or away from Him?  Do we help people walk with Christ, or do we hinder them from it? … It’s so a great question to help you evaluate other relationships, activities, and other things in your life.  Whatever leads you away from Christ is something that requires a drastic change.
  • BTW – did you notice how Mary enjoyed that fellowship with Jesus?  She chose it.  Devotion and discipleship is a choice.  If you’re waiting for the moment that you’re going to simply slip into a deep relationship with your Savior, as if through osmosis, you’re going to be waiting a long time.  Sometimes we get the idea that although we find ourselves distracted today, that one day we’ll wake up & we’ll automatically be spiritually mature without a distraction in the world.  Not so.  Discipleship is a choice…a daily one.  We have to choose for ourselves from day to day if we’re going to put God first, or if we will allow the stresses and circumstances of our world to take charge.  If we decide to just let the day unfold, then we will be ruled by the tyranny of the urgent.  There will always be something to take us away from God…that’s just the way the world works.  And even if it didn’t, we’re still engaged in spiritual warfare, where we have an enemy that would like nothing better for our eyes to be off Jesus & onto our own stresses and problems.  Thus we have to make the daily choice for to be devoted disciples.  Remember the greatest commandment is to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength.  That doesn’t come without a choice.  “Love” is a verb, which means love must be engaged.  We have to choose to love God wholeheartedly, or it won’t happen at all.

It’s often held up as the classic comparison of the worshipper vs. the worry-wart.  Yet is it really all that simple?  Is the only conclusion here to be that Mary is to be commended, while Martha is condemned?  Not quite.  Mary certainly chose what was better, but that didn’t make Martha a bad Christian or someone in need of punishment.  No – her priorities were temporarily out of place, and Jesus’ very gentle chastisement helped correct the situation.  How do we know that things got resolved?  Because the other times we see Martha, she’s not complaining about her sister; she’s focused upon Jesus. (Esp. with the death of her brother…)

As we close, let’s look at what this is & isn’t.  This is not…

  • A condemnation of Martha.  Never in the Bible is she labeled as sinful.  She had her issues, as all of us do, but she is not set up here as an enemy of Jesus.  She welcomed Jesus, and loved Jesus – even if she had a bad day when He visited her house.
  • A discouragement of service.  Too many examples exist in the Bible extolling faithful service to God.  Works are commonly seen accompanying our faith, and rightly so.  Works go hand-in-hand with faith – never saving us, but being part of the result of our salvation.
  • An exhortation of monasticism.  We’re never told to do nothing but sit.  If all we did was sit, we’d have a different problem altogether.  After all, as much as Jesus commended Mary for the good part she chose, He also gave the Great Commission, which requires us getting up & going out into the world.

This is…

  • A gut-check for our priorities.  Is our love for God first & foremost above all things?  Do we value time with Him more than the time we spend doing other things?  There are all kinds of activities which can be good, but to which Jesus never specifically called anyone.  He did, however, call us all to be disciples.  That needs to come first.
  • A call to personal devotions.  There is no substitute for Bible reading and prayer in the life of a Christian.  Obviously we don’t need to legalistically enslave ourselves to someone else’s plan or schedule for their ‘quiet time,’ but we do need something for ourselves.  A mini-verse & dinner-table prayer is simply not enough.  If that’s all we have, we’re malnourishing ourselves.
  • An example of Jesus’ ministry to the saved, both with Mary and Martha.  This is not an evangelistic section of Scripture, for the simple reason that both Martha and Mary had faith in Christ.  But just because we have faith in Christ doesn’t mean every day is beautiful & rosy.  We all have bad days, and Jesus is just as much available to us on our crabby days as our great ones.  He loves us where we are, and when we turn to Him, He will get us through those things.

Be careful with your priorities!  Don’t allow yourself to get distracted from Jesus.  There are many things that could claim our attention, but there is one thing that truly matters: Christ Jesus.  Make the choice to devote yourself to Him.


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