Few things are easier than taking a portion of Scripture, isolating it from its original context, and then using this now rarified, out-of-context pericope to serve as some universal statement. This brief lection from Luke 10:38-42 is a classic example. How many times hasn’t this gospel snippet been used to prove that hearing the word of God is just generally more important than doing and being busy? “The one thing needful” is a phrase lifted out of this story and often used as a symbol of the importance of listening over doing.
The story itself is quite spare. Thus, and not surprisingly, many commentators and interpreters over the years have rushed in to turn Martha and Mary into mere tropes, metaphors that stand for any number of things. Is this a story on the value of contemplation over a deeds-based ministry? Is this a story grinding an axe to address the role of women in ministry in Luke’s day? Can this story be used as a proof text for those who have traditionally been suspicious of certain kinds of social activism in the church?
In truth, it is difficult to say. There are also other difficulties. First, the Gospel of Luke generally places a premium on service, on diakonia, yet Martha’s service is apparently criticized by Jesus in verse 40. What’s more, earlier in Luke 10 Jesus gave advice to the 72 mission workers that when they were welcomed into someone’s house, they were to eat whatever was set before them (Luke 10:8). Yet here Martha’s busy preparation to get a meal set before Jesus seems to be met with some disdain. Also, Jesus has just told the Parable of the Good Samaritan which had the bottom line of “Go and do likewise.” So how can Jesus pivot from advocating an active ministry of mercy and neighborliness to looking askance at a person who is doing a lot vis-à-vis someone who is content to do nothing but sit and listen?
Verses 38-42 do not appear to fit very comfortably in this section of Luke. The incident itself seems private and obscure enough that it’s difficult to imagine its carrying very much value or meaning in the context of the wider gospel.
All of which is a roundabout way to say that preaching on this text is fraught with difficulties. The temptation to turn this into a moralistic little lesson about this or that or a mere metaphor for something larger is very real. Indeed, it would be easier to do that with this passage than find a solidly good way to preach on it given how relatively thin the story’s literal and actual content is.
Probably the only mistake we can make with this incident is to make it an either-or scenario. Given its placement in Luke, this story can at best highlight one kingdom value among others. The question, therefore, is not to ask whether this passage advises us just generally as to whether it is better to listen than to serve, to be contemplative or to be active but rather the question is: in the larger kingdom scheme of things, what do we learn from this passage? What particular aspect of life before the face of God is being addressed here?
Approached this way, perhaps those who suggest that hospitality is a theme here are on to something. How do we receive Jesus? What do we think is Jesus’ first priority when he, as it were, comes into a person’s home? Martha seems to assume that attending to the demands of Emily Post is the most important thing when a person of Jesus’ importance stops by for a visit. We’re not certain just what all Martha was up to—this story is spare in its details. We’re likewise not sure what Jesus was saying to Mary—not a syllable of Jesus’ discourse is preserved for us.
But this much is clear: service is important. Jesus deserved to be served and have a meal dished up for him—even a very nice meal was not something Jesus would have sniffed at. He had a reputation for being a glutton and drunkard precisely because he frequented a lot of nice dinner parties and was no culinary ascetic when doing so. And again, earlier in this very chapter Jesus told his followers to eat whatever was set before them, be it lavish or simple. Presumably on this evening, Jesus did this: he gratefully ate what Martha set down on the table before him.
So far so good. The problem was not in the fact that Martha served—no word of rebuke would have come her way had she not taken the initiative to ask Jesus to rebuke Mary for not lending a hand. It was only then that Martha came in for some criticism. Service is good. Service is lovely, in fact, and is in its own way a “needful thing.” Jesus says nothing here to undercut the idea that hospitality and service are noble endeavors and the right thing for also disciples to do. But if and when we elevate that form of hospitality over hearing and pondering the Word of God—if and when we think, therefore, that Jesus himself is more interested in haute cuisine than in the Bread of Heaven that alone gives life—that is when we get into trouble.
This is the “better portion” that Mary had chosen. On this point, however, it may be worth lingering for a moment. In the Greek of verse 42 what Jesus literally says is, “One thing is needed: therefore, Mary has elected the good portion and it will not be taken from her.” Most Greek scholars tell us that the adjective agathon/”good” can be used as a comparative form in that the actual comparative and superlative forms of Greek adjectives were waning by the time the New Testament was written. The context determines whether to translate agathon as “good” or “better” and most scholars agree that the context of Luke 10:42 indicate this should be not just the “good portion” that Mary chose but the “better portion.”
There is some indication that there may also be a bit of a pun being employed here in that “portion” in the Old Testament often referred to a literal food portion at a meal. If so, then Martha’s complaint about Mary’s lack of help with the meal was answered by Jesus with a pun to say that Mary had seen the true banquet that had been laid before her that evening and chose to “eat” a portion of that meal, which spiritually speaking is a lot more important than all the portions of a physical meal combined. No matter how good supper had been that evening, the better meal being served was the one falling from Jesus’ lips and being lapped up by Mary as she sat at the Master’s feet. Given the superlative value of Jesus’ spiritual banquet, even a “good portion” would be the “better” portion indeed (if not the best portion of them all!). In this sense, this brief incident could be described as “a tale of two suppers.”
Jesus may or may not be elevating contemplation over service—we need both and generally should not have to choose between one or the other. As Fred Craddock says in his “Interpretation” series commentary, if we asked Jesus which example we are to follow, the active Good Samaritan or the contemplative Mary, Jesus would probably say “Yes.”
Commentator Joel Green points out that although Luke often uses the title kurios/Lord for Jesus, he fairly peppers us with that title in these 5 short verses. Some form or another for the word “Lord” crops up no less than three times in three verses. Mary sits at the feet of the Lord; Martha addresses Jesus as “Lord;” and the narrator refers to Jesus as “the Lord” when he replies to Martha. What’s more, the very posture of Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet is yet another implicit indication that he is the Lord and Mary the underling or disciple. The Lordship of Jesus and his identity as our Lord is clearly key in this story. Both Martha and Mary recognize Jesus as Lord: Mary recognizes Jesus as Lord via her posture and Martha hails Jesus as Lord via her direct address of him as “Lord.” But only one of the sisters initially recognized what the presence of this Lord meant. Martha saw the Lord as one worthy of being served as fine a meal as she could muster. But Mary seemed to sense that the Son of Man as Lord did not come to BE served but to serve. A key way this Lord served was by dishing up the Word of Life. Mary knew this and took in that Word. Martha initially missed it.
Preacher Thomas Long tells a story about Grace Thomas. Grace was born in the early twentieth century as the second of five children. Her father was a streetcar conductor in Birmingham, Alabama, and so Grace grew up in modest circumstances. Later in life after getting married and moving to Georgia, Grace took a clerking job in the state capitol in Atlanta, where she developed a fondness for politics and the law. So, although already a full-time mother and a full-time clerk, Grace enrolled in night school to study law.
In 1954 Grace shocked her family by announcing that she wanted to run for public office. What’s more, Grace didn’t want to run for drain commissioner or for the city council: Grace ran for governor of the state of Georgia. There was a total of nine candidates that year—nine candidates, one issue. It was 1954 and the issue was Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark decision that mandated a desegregating of schools. Grace Thomas was alone among the nine candidates to say she thought this was a just decision. Her campaign slogan was “Say Grace at the Polls”! Hardly anyone did, though, and Grace ran dead last.
Her family was glad she got it out of her system, except she didn’t and so decided to run for governor again in 1962. By then the racial tensions in the South were far more taut than they had been eight years earlier. Grace’s progressive platform on race issues earned her a number of death threats. One day she held a rally in a small Georgia town and chose as her venue the old slave market in the town square. As she stood there, Grace motioned to the platform where once human beings had been bought and sold like a product and she said, “The old has passed away, the new has come. A new day has come when all Georgians, white and black, can join hands and work together.” At that point a red-faced man in the crowd interrupted Grace’s speech to blurt out, “Are you a communist!?” “Why, no,” Grace replied quietly. “Well then, where’d you get all them galdurned ideas!?” Grace pointed to the steeple of a nearby Baptist church. “I learned them over there, in Sunday school.”
Grace had spent time listening to the Word of her Lord. What she heard changed her life and launched her on a very specific mission in life. It’s always good to take time to listen to the Word of the Lord. But that Word is dangerous—it always leads to also action!
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 17, 2016
Luke 10:38-42 Commentary