As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. 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!” “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” Luke 10.38-42.
This morning’s reading comes at the end of a section of Luke’s Gospel that begins thirteen verses earlier when a lawyer asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. “What does the Torah say?” asks Jesus. The lawyer answers: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.'” (Luke 10.27). “Correct,” says Jesus. “Go and do it.” “Ah, yes,” says the lawyer, “but who is my neighbour?” Jesus answers by telling the story of the good Samaritan. But Luke follows that with the story of Jesus’ visit to the home of Mary and Martha which is clearly meant to answer the question the lawyer didn’t ask, namely, “So how do I love God?” The first story illustrates “horizontal” love; this second story illustrates “vertical love” — and each counter-balances the other. If I am drawn to the contemplative spiritual life, the good Samaritan story reminds of the need for a practical outworking of that life. If I am drawn to a practical form of Christianity, this morning’s story reminds me that it must spring from a wholehearted, focused, preoccupation with the word of God as it comes to me in and through Jesus.
At the start of the chapter, Jesus has told the disciples that a “proper” response to the good news of the kingdom is that people will welcome the messengers into their homes and give them food and drink (Luke 10.5-8), and Martha and Mary — but particularly Martha — has done just that. But she has overdone it, and the fact that she was “distracted” tells us that her reaction to the presence of Jesus was somehow quite inappropriate. The verb is perispao which literally means “pulled about”. The many dishes she was preparing had taken on a life of their own and were pulling Martha in all directions but the right one … which was to the feet of Jesus where Mary, Martha’s sister, was already seated, listening to his “word”.
“Word” … logos … is singular. Many words are coming from the mouth of Jesus, but together they comprise the “word” of God. God-become-man is sitting in Martha’s dining room, speaking, and Martha is too concerned about what’s going on in the oven to listen to him. That is the reality of the situation and Martha has failed to grasp it. Someone has said that, while Mary listens to what Jesus chooses to say, Martha instructs Jesus as to what he ought to say. “Tell her to help me!”
But he will not do it. Instead he tells Martha she is anxious about many things. To be anxious is merimnao — the same verb that is used later when Jesus tells his disciples: “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear” (Luke 12.22). Martha has allowed her service to rob of her of the peace that comes only from having a heart set on Jesus and centred on him.
“Only one thing is needed,” says Jesus. What does he mean? Just one dish? No. It is the “good portion” that Mary has chosen which is nothing at all to do with food of the eating kind. It is hearing the word of God as it comes in Jesus. “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him,” the voice from within the cloud had told the disciples as Jesus was transfigured before them (Luke 9.35). And now, this morning, he says it to me. He reminds me through the story of Martha and Mary that any service can become a distraction and an end in itself — even writing a blog! — and that the one thing needful, this day and every day, is to listen to Jesus. This is how I am to love God. “He who has ears, let him hear …”