It is so hard to believe that Jesus is the one thing needful
38 Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. 39 And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. 40 But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” 41 But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, 42 but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38-42 ESV)
Last week, I mentioned that the term ‘good Samaritan’ had almost global recognition. This week the names ‘Mary and Martha’ may not be in the global sphere but certainly they are in the Christian sphere – and the Church is global! 😉 It is the name ‘Martha’ in particular that often gets the recognition of the two along the lines of ‘don’t do what she did’ – and yet of the two many people would prefer to have Martha around because she is a ‘do-er’, pragmatic, serving – and the world can often say that there is too much talk around and too much listening often when what we need is action to get things done.
Mary’s ‘good portion’ the ‘one thing [that] is necessary’ is always associated with Jesus and his Word – she was sitting at his feet – maybe literally but maybe metaphorically (since rabbis sat and students gathered around and yes some might sit and others maybe at the back might stand or lean against a wall) because the teaching position of a rabbi is sitting. I’ve read that the equivalent of a rabbi sitting to speak is that of the pastor going into the pulpit – it is sign to pay attention and listen. So Mary’s ‘good portion’ is about receiving the Word of God – through the Word made flesh and that won’t be taken away from her.
What does this mean for us today? Well, maybe a starting point is when God speaks, listen. If you take anything into the coming week perhaps that’s a good starting point. And, of course, when God speaks what is the first message he will say through Jesus? [I love you.] And that is a good basis on which to keep listening – even if the words challenge us to our core!
We know little of the context in this situation. Is a meal being prepared for just 3 (Jesus, Martha, and Mary – assuming brother Lazarus is out) or is it catering for at least 15 because where Jesus goes so do the Twelve? (This happened at the wedding at Cana.) Does that make a difference to how we view Martha and Mary?
With what is Martha distracted? She has welcomed Jesus into her home after all – so we can expect her to be supportive of Jesus. Is she distracted because Jesus is acting as host by teaching when he could have waited until afterwards and be the after-dinner speaker? Do we have a domestic situation similar to the synagogue rulers’ upset with Jesus’ healing on the Sabbath? (There are six days for healing but on the Sabbath concentrate on God’s Word was their issue.)
Is Martha distracted because Mary is more with the men and their rabbi and not fulfilling the expected roles women should do? I have mentioned numerous times that when thinking about Jesus and his disciples we need to try and keep in mind more than the Twelve – yes, the Twelve have importance, they have specific roles – but Jesus and the Twelve exist and travel in a larger group which may come and go – and we know that Jesus once sent out 72 ahead of him and that there were 120 in the group waiting in Jerusalem for the Holy Spirit to descend at Pentecost – and the thing to note is that there were women in the group. In fact Luke records that women provided for Jesus and the Twelve ‘out of their means’ (Luke 8:3) which everyone accepts is financially. Jesus’ parables imply that he was conscious of women in the crowds – the lost coin (Luke 15:8-10), the persistent widow (Luke 18:1-8), the mending of a garment (Luke 5:36) – and even in his first sermon in Nazareth (Luke 4:21-28) when he gets them angry by mentioning Gentiles he mentions a Gentile man (Namaan the Syrian) and a Gentile woman (the widow at Zarephath). So is Martha concerned for her sister that she may in fact get too close to Jesus – even go off with Jesus?
I can ask the questions and we can ponder the answers but let’s remember that Jesus, just before he died, raised Lazarus after staying away when Martha and Mary had called for him four days earlier and their relationship was such that Martha particularly could question why the delay – almost tell him off in my view – while still having faith in him – and so we have with these two sisters a deep relationship with Jesus – even as they grow in faith and wonder – as everyone did when Lazarus walked out of his grave! But back then, earlier, as Luke records, yes, we are unclear as to the context and how to interpret it and so we consider our Gospel today from a number of vantage points.
Martha’s service in itself is not the issue. The Greek word is ‘diakonia’ which is the word associated with Christian service and all Christians are called to serve because the Son of Man came to serve us and not to be served (Mark 10:45). The issue arises in the ‘real world’ is when the clashes come about – my serving (even religious serving) in relation to God’s serving? Which has priority? The Old Testament portrays the world as full of life 7 days a week and yet one day the things of this world pause – the Sabbath rest. In the daily routines the temple rituals of morning and evening attention to the candles and sacrifices – the morning and evening prayer – remind people that each day can have its pause – just as we pause from work for meals (or should do so) – our lives can be consumed by us and our agendas and our practicalities which need to be done but these can consume us and blind us to think that this world and our things are all that there is! God’s coming to us to serve us forces us to pause – to sit at Jesus’ feet attentively to listen – that is an active thing – to take in the teaching, the message, the words which will strike something in us and our behaviour. Will we follow where those words lead? For followers of Jesus – disciples – that should be a no brainer – of course we will but that’s when the real world comes crashing in and we have to work out how to follow Jesus. Thus God’s service to us has importance – worship, daily devotions (eg. Portals of Prayer), daily prayer (eg. The Lord’s Prayer), and if the Twelve were with Jesus that includes Christian fellowship – all of which speaks into our pandemic 24-7 world and if nothing else calls today’s Church to more regular services throughout the week so people can sit at Jesus’ feet.
Jesus’ didn’t comply with Martha’s request – Mary had chosen the good portion in that situation – but Jesus didn’t scold Martha either but rather called out to her about what was at that moment at her centre – anxiety and what can come from that. Being anxious can consume your moments and much longer and narrow your vision, your view of things to a single something – a worry, a fear, a guilt, a shame. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus talked about people being anxious about food and drink, clothes, about their life situation, about tomorrow and said into all the practicalities and problems of our lives ‘Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and these things will be added to you’ (Matthew 6:33) which is call to stop, pause, sit, listen, receive from God the righteousness he wants to give. This isn’t a call to constant idleness, constant listening but against the anxiety of not toiling hard enough or toiling alone or being a Martha 24/7, it is a call to rest – get a bigger picture for a moment – that the God of the universe cares for you through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit will not leave you desolate and afraid – and he will strengthen you to resume your life, your service to those around you. I am too busy to stop doesn’t cut it with God and is delusional and self destructive.
So what do we do? Recognise that we make time for who and what is important to us. Orient our days and calendars to reflect this importance and spend time with Jesus – read and reflect and pray – go to where Word and Sacraments are happening and in so doing build up / grow in the relationship with Jesus as you get to know him more and more and you see yourself and your life and the world from his perspective. And yes, this will shape your life as all long term relationships shape us because Jesus will come to you through the week as you sit at his feet and in the Divine Service as you sit at his feet and table. God’s Word – Jesus – provides the good portion by which we can live with our anxieties and troubles, not as magic but because, in time, we learn the truth that Jesus himself is the one thing needful to help us live.
Martha, it seems, knew this truth at the grave of her brother and I hope kept growing in it – as, I hope, do we.
- Luke 10:38 - 42