Amos 8.1-12; Psalm 52; Colossians 1.15-29; Luke 10.38-42
Introduction: ‘There is need of only one thing’ (v 42a)
One of the side-effects of the disrupted politics we see in Australia, Britain, and the USA at present (just to mention the nations we are closest to in many respects) is our forced reflection on why this disruption is happening. There seems to be a loss of an agreed narrative about our national identities, and a lack of a common discourse about it in the media. Indeed the proliferation of media is a partner in the chaos, as minority groups and the immediacy of social media give credence to views that have not been subject to serious scrutiny, and our education systems are struggling to persuade students at large, and perhaps some of our newer migrants, about the nature and value of our political life. The question of our ‘needs’ is at the heart of this, but there is little agreement about the answer. Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs might be at hand, but we are at odds as to the answer to the ancient question: ‘What is the Good Life?’
- ‘On the road with Jesus’
Two weeks ago we considered the trajectory of our Lord’s ministry after Peter’s confession that Jesus was in fact the Messiah of God, the Christ. He is on the road, focussed on Jerusalem, and his disciples (ourselves included?) are with him, observing, learning, struggling. Last week we heard of the exchange with ‘a lawyer’, an expert in the religious law. He challenged Jesus with the fundamental question about the Good Life. It is in Jewish terms, but that is what it is about: ‘What must I do to inherit eternal life?’
The simple answer is ‘to do God’s will’, summarized in the two great commandments with which we are so familiar: ‘Love God with heart, mind, soul and strength; and your neighbour as yourself.’ Now as you will recall, the lawyer, seeking a meatier discussion, picks up the question of who my neighbour is, giving us the powerful parable of the Good Samaritan, and the irresistible imperative to ‘Go, and do likewise’.
It would appear then that today’s little domestic scene reflects Luke’s concern that we also dig a bit deeper into the first Great Commandment: what might challenge us about how we love the Lord our God with all we’ve got? If we are left only with the ‘Go, and do thou likewise’ according to the example of the Good Samaritan, we might become caught up purely in Christian activism. This is a sensitive issue, and we should not be too keen to find a strong distinction between the two commandments. So let us think about the incident with Mary and Martha, noting that Jesus is on the road: ‘Now, as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home…’ (v. 38)
- A Domestic ‘Scene’
A very typical Middle-eastern picture it is: hospitality shown to travellers; but the domesticity and ordinariness of the scene has interesting features. It is Martha’s home: is she a widow? She is anxious to please, perhaps going ‘over the top’ in her preparations. Martha is indeed overanxious about the meal. The Greek word translated ‘distracted’ in our text means ‘disturbed’, whatever the reasons for this might be. Some commentators suggest that the words of Jesus, though affectionate, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things’, may refer to the number of courses she has decided to serve! One would have been enough! There is more than a hint of sibling tension, with Mary, probably the younger sister, preferring to soak up everything Jesus is saying, ‘sat at Jesus’ feet’, in a stark contrast with her bustling sister. This behaviour of Mary, moreover, would have been unusual in households of the day, where women were not expected to be interested in questions of theology, or discussions about them. How familiar is this scene to you?
We see then that there is a lot going on, and Jesus would have seen the need to tread carefully. He can’t discount the generosity of Martha’s hospitality (her ‘activism’), but he similarly does not wish to imply that Mary’s teachability is out of order. Quite the contrary: Mary has pursued the greater good, ‘the better [lit. ‘good’] part, which will not be taken away from her’ (not by Jesus, anyway).
It is as well that we are not told what happened after Jesus left the home. This might be the stuff of comedy, but it is mere speculation. We must hold onto the point our Lord makes.
- Serving Jesus
The fact that this scene is one of hospitality means we can express the point in terms of service: ‘what does it mean to serve Jesus?’ The answer is that it is not in preparing a meal, nor in the contemplative life, but it is in listening to him. Listen to what he says (even women!). ‘Few things are necessary, or only one’. The ‘Good’, the better part, was Mary’s choice. This ‘better part’ is the teaching of Jesus, or the blessings of the Kingdom to which it testified. This must not be taken away from Mary: it is an inalienable right and possession, guaranteed by Jesus. So the bottom line is that Mary should not be deprived of the one good thing by helping Martha, and Martha should curtail her domestic concerns so that she too will be able to have the one thing that matters.
Coming as it does as a pair with the parable of the Good Samaritan, which may satisfy our need for action, for moral purpose, (both individually and as communities of faith,) the episode of Martha and Mary reminds us that love of neighbour cannot be detached from love of the Lord God of the Bible; and we express this love by listening to Jesus, the Son with whom he is well pleased. As the voice on the Mountain of Transfiguration declared (9.35): ‘this is my Son, my chosen; Listen to him!’. If we do so, our subsequent actions will also be more likely to please him.