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21 July 2019
Luke 10:38 Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39 She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 40 But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” 41 But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42 there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
As is well known, this delightful scene is found only in Luke’s Gospel. It is impossible not to link with John 11-12, where a family trio (Mary, Martha and Lazarus) appear again. However, Luke knows nothing of a brother, even though a Lazarus is mentioned. He is, however, a fictional character in a parable:
And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. (Luke 16:20, 23–25)
Otherwise, Mary and Martha are unknown in Luke’s Gospel or even elsewhere in the NT. Apart from these historical details, the story touches on the balance of work and prayer.
Kind of writing
This is a very clear example of a common literary genre in the NT, the chreia, that is a brief anecdote which illustrates the teaching of the “hero” in a dramatic way, often expanded by gesture and by word (as here).
Old Testament background
There are many stories of hospitality in the OT. Our first reading, Abraham at the oak of Mamre is often remembered:
And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.” Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate. (Genesis 18:6–8)
My child, if you accept my words and treasure up my commandments within you, making your ear attentive to wisdom and inclining your heart to understanding; if you indeed cry out for insight, and raise your voice for understanding; if you seek it like silver, and search for it as for hidden treasures— then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God. For the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding; he stores up sound wisdom for the upright; he is a shield to those who walk blamelessly, guarding the paths of justice and preserving the way of his faithful ones. Then you will understand righteousness and justice and equity, every good path; for wisdom will come into your heart, and knowledge will be pleasant to your soul; prudence will watch over you; and understanding will guard you. (Proverbs 2:1–11)
New Testament foreground
There are three dimensions of Luke’s presentation of Jesus which are relevant here.
(i) Food and Hospitality: with more than one hundred references in Luke-Acts food and hospitality are important themes. Jesus and food: Jesus spent time eating with friends, even at the risk of accusation (7:34); Our daily bread: prayed for in the Lord’s Prayer (11:2-4); Mission: they are to eat whatever is set before them—a radical break with tradition (10:8); God visits: Lk 1:68; 7:16; 19:44; Acts 15:14; Meals are places of encounter: 10:38-41 and 24:13-35); Food stories in Luke: 7:36-50 (Simon the Pharisee); 9:10-17 (feeding of the five thousand); prayer and hospitality (11:1-13); humility and hospitality (14:7-14); Zacchaeus (19:1-10); the Lord’s Supper (22:7-13).
(ii) Pairs: Luke likes stories in which there are two contrasting characters, as here. Elizabeth and Mary (1-2), two debtors (7), two men at the transfiguration (9), two sons (15), Pharisee and the tax collector (18), two thieves (23), two on the road to Emmaus (24).
(iii) Women: as named characters (Mary and Elizabeth, Mary and Martha, Anna) and in traditional roles (wife, daughter, mother, parent, widow, mother-in-law) and in innovative roles (supporters), women have a specially high profile in Luke (Luke 1:5, 13, 17–18, 24, 27, 30, 34, 38–39, 42–43, 46, 56, 60; 2:5, 16, 19, 27, 33–34, 36–37, 41, 43, 48, 51; 3:19; 4:25–26, 38; 7:12, 15, 28, 37, 39, 44, 50; 8:2–3, 19–21, 42–43, 47–49, 51, 56; 10:38–42; 11:27, 31; 12:45, 53; 13:11–12, 16, 21; 14:26; 15:8; 16:18; 17:32, 35; 18:3, 5, 20, 29; 20:28, 32–33, 47; 21:2–3, 16; 22:57; 23:27, 49, 55; 24:5, 10, 22, 24). Luke is explicit that some women funded the ministry:
Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources. (Luke 8:1–3)
(iv) The issue of service and discipleship arises again in the Acts:
Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. And the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables. Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.”
What they said pleased the whole community, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, together with Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. They had these men stand before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them. (Acts 6:1–6)
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. (Romans 12:9–13)
Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured. (Hebrews 13:1–3)
Verse 38 Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem and en route accepts hospitality from two sisters, illustrating his own teaching about eating what is set before you.
Verse 39 An image of rapt attention. Sitting at the Lord’s feet is the gesture of a disciple and would have been unusual for women. Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. (Luke 8:35 NRSV)
Verse 40 The complaint seems to be threefold: (i) there is lots to do; (ii) the sister is not helping; (iii) the Lord has not noticed. Using a third party, a guest, to attack a family member shows a certain lack of courtesy.
Verse 41 It is acknowledged that there is a practical side to hospitality—but in a way implying that the problem is Martha’s attitude (of fuss?).
Verse 42 The goal of hospitality in general is to achieve a real meeting or encounter between hosts and guests. In this case, the guest is the Lord. The word for necessary in Greek is chreia. This word is used in modern study to refer to this kind of anecdote which conveys the needful, some essential aspect of teaching. The word part comes up again in a not unrelated context in Acts: You have no part or share in this, for your heart is not right before God. (Acts 8:21)
Pointers for prayer
1. The two sisters symbolise the contemplative and active dimensions of life, at times difficult to balance. What wisdom have you learned through life experiences on how to strike a balance between prayer and action?
2. Many people misunderstand hospitality. They worry and fret about decorating the house and preparing abundant food. Yet sometimes it is something else that is needed to make people feel at home, namely, to sit with guests and to listen to them speaking. What has been your experience of being a cherished guest and when have you been able to make others feel welcome and at home?
3. We can make the same mistake in relation to people who are important to us in life: children, friends, parents, or others. We can worry and fret about doing things for them when perhaps the important thing is to give them time and to listen to them. What does your experience tell you?
4. When it comes to welcoming God into our lives, one appropriate response is to give time listening to God’s word. When have you found time devoted to the word of God enriching for you?
Eternal God you draw near to us in Christ and make yourself our guest. Amid the cares of our daily lives, make us attentive to your voice and alert to your presence, that we may treasure your word above all else.
We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen.
Thought for the day
Being busy is a sort of cultural value among us—and rightly. “If you want something done, ask a busy person.” But, of course, the question of balance arises. There are indeed other needs and other hungers. These include simple human things like time for friends. Even hospitality—which is always work—can get in the way of really meeting. Something similar can be said of time for reflection, meditation and prayer. Time is not really the issue—after all, we manage to find time to waste on TV, tablets etc. It is more a question of insight, choice and decision, lest we overlook and even lose “the better part.”
Help us, Lord, to listen to the stirrings of our hearts. When we meet friends, help us to really meet. When we meet you, help us too to be present to you.