There is need of only one thing
Sunday 21 July 2019
In today’s gospel narrative, we find Jesus continuing on his fateful journey to Jerusalem where he must confront the leaders of the Jewish religion. He enters a village where a woman named Martha welcomes him into her home.
This aspect of cultural hospitality from Jesus’ days is very puzzling for us today. We do have a mention of Martha and Mary in John’s gospel where we are told that they and their brother Lazarus are friends of Jesus. But in this account of Luke, we are not given any clues as to whether that friendship has already started or whether this is their first encounter.
In any case, it is not surprising that Jesus would be welcomed into such a house, even if he was previously personally unknown to Martha. Hospitality of this sort was the normal practice of the time and place – though there would be some special aspect to the fact that it is a woman who is offering the hospitality. There would not be anything sinister in it in terms of propriety as Jesus is being accompanied we know by many disciples. So this is not an invitation to Jesus alone. But it would still be notable that Martha appears to be the head of the household – an unusual circumstance for a woman in those days.
The narrative paints an interesting picture of the domestic setting. Martha is obviously busy preparing the food that hospitality demanded – perhaps more than she really needs to. Mary on the other hand chooses to sit at Jesus’ feet and to listen to what he has to say.
There is a level at which we can read the account which leads us to have sympathy for Martha.
Here she is working furiously to prepare food for who knows how many people. Her layabout sister is of no help as she lolls about in idleness. But there is a little more at play here than just sibling tension over fairly sharing the workload.
The clue to another level of understanding is found in the way that Mary’s action is expressed. The text says: “Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying.” Whenever we see reference to someone sitting at Jesus’ feet, it is code for adopting the position of a disciple.
That is what disciples did in those days. They literally sat at the feet of the teacher and listened to his teaching. What Luke is describing here is Mary taking up the role of being a disciple of Jesus.
Some of you may remember a few weeks ago that we read Luke 9.51 where it says: “When the days drew near for him (Jesus) to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” This marked the beginning of a whole section of Luke’s gospel which consists of material that he had not picked up from the gospel of Mark and most of the material is of a teaching nature. The teaching is directed to three groups of people – firstly the disciples, secondly the crowd and thirdly the Pharisees and lawyers.
Well so far, the teaching has all been directed towards the disciples, including the teaching in this text today. The reference to Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet and listening clearly means that we are talking about how to be a disciple.
In the gospel immediately before this event, we had a lawyer wanting to know how to be a disciple. And when Jesus reminded him of the injunction to love God and love neighbour, the lawyer wanted to know who his neighbour was. So, Jesus told him the parable of the good Samaritan and concluded by saying: “Go and do likewise.”
Immediately after this event, we find today’s text which is giving us a balancing instruction to that which comes from the parable of the good Samaritan.
That parable encourages the true disciple to be a person of action – showing care and concern to the neighbour. Today’s incident balances that by saying that there is also a time to sit and listen, to be still, if we want to be true disciples.
Today’s text has often been used throughout Christian history in discussions of the relative merits of Christian activity and contemplation. It has often been argued that Jesus is here giving contemplation the ascendancy over Christian action in the world.
There is though another way to interpret what Jesus might be getting at with these two sisters. We read that Jesus says: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.” Now we could read that as saying that the one thing is contemplation – sitting at the feet of Jesus and listening.
However, it is equally legitimate to read here that Jesus is saying to Martha that she is busy preparing many dishes, when in fact, the rules of hospitality of the day required only that one dish be prepared. “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.” Perhaps Jesus is saying to Martha that she has gone overboard and made a rod for her own back. Perhaps what he is praising in Mary is that she realises that Martha is going to extremes and so she is not willing to participate in her excess and she would rather spend time “sitting at the Lord’s feet” than ignoring Jesus and preparing even more food – even when the more food is not necessary.
I am suggesting that Jesus is not saying either/or in relation to Christian action and Christian contemplation but, both/and, in balance. After all, he would hardly have told the parable of the good Samaritan and encouraged disciples to go and likewise, if he really wanted them to spend all of their time in contemplation not action.
I wonder whether we consciously consider these two arms of Christian discipleship in our evaluation of our own attempts to lead the Christian life. Do we consciously acknowledge that our call to be disciples of Jesus requires us to spend time in both prayer and reflection upon Jesus’ teaching in the Bible, and to make Jesus’ love for all real in the world around us by acts of mercy and kindness to our “neighbours”? (And remember from the parable of the good Samaritan, our neighbours may well be the persons we like the least in our world).
I suspect that before we reflect upon whether we have achieved this balance in our Christian lives, most of us will find that we have a tendency to favour one over the other. It may be that I am very happy being out there working almost slavishly in acts of kindness and compassion, but I find it really difficult to sit still and spend time with Jesus in prayer or in Bible reading. Or I might enjoy the quietness of the quasi-contemplative life, but never actually do anything about showing genuine love of neighbour. As I said, we might find that we have a natural preference for one or the other – action or contemplation.
I think that this account of Jesus’ encounter with these two sisters who yearn to be his true disciples gives us cause to consider whether we in fact have some balance in our lives between being people of prayer and reflection and being people of action. It is to such a balance that Jesus seems to be calling us throughout his teaching here in chapter 10 of Luke’s gospel. I leave it for your ongoing consideration and reflection in the coming week.
Fr Allan Paulsen