Note: I am typically a "manuscript preacher," that is I usually write out my sermons when preparing to preach. Yesterday morning, I forgot my manuscript on the kitchen table at home and had to preach on Luke 10:38-42 ex tempore. To get some gain from writing the manuscript, I thought I'd post my notes here:
One thing is needful
CRBC July 7, 2013
We are continuing today our exposition of the Gospel of Luke. We are in that part of Luke where Jesus is slowly traveling toward Jerusalem, toward the cross (9:51).
Today we come to a scene where Jesus is welcomed into the home of two sisters, receiving their hospitality. One commentator calls this scene, “a precious jewel which only Luke has preserved for us” (Geldenhuys, p. 315).
Luke, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, has recorded this account just after Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan, where Jesus has illustrated the Great Commandment, love of God and love of neighbor. It ended with Jesus commanding, “Go, and do thou likewise” (v. 37).
This is a call to a life of active service to one’s neighbor. Indeed, the Christian life is to be one of active service to neighbor. As believers we are not to be content with sitting on the bench, but we should desire to get in the game.
The passage that follows, however, takes things a step further and addresses the spirit and the attitude that we are to have in serving Christ and loving our neighbor.
We begin in v. 38: “Now it came to pass, as they went, that he entered a certain village….” Luke writes in a Biblical style [Now it came to pass] as though he has an awareness that he is writing sacred Scripture on par with that of the OT narratives. The “they” here refers to Jesus and his entourage of disciples [the twelve and others—including the 70 that had been sent out by him to prepare his way].
Luke does not mention the identity of the village which Jesus entered. The best assumption is that this was the village of Bethany, which we know from John’s Gospel was the hometown of Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus. Compare:
John 11:1 Now a certain man was sick, named Lazarus, of Bethany, the town of Mary and her sister Martha.
This raises a point where some modern scholars have wanted to challenge the historicity [historical reliability] of Luke. Why? Because Bethany was just outside Jerusalem, and, according to Luke, Jesus is meant to be traveling toward Jerusalem, and he does not arrive there until Luke 19 (in fact, in Luke 19:29 it specifically refers to Jesus coming nigh “to Bethphage and Bethany”). At least one orthodox commentator tried to defend Luke by suggesting that Mary and Martha had first lived somewhere between Galilee and Jerusalem before moving to Bethany [Hengstenberg, as cited by Godet, p. 309]. But there is really no need for such an explanation. More reasonable is to understand that Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem was a gradual, intentional, and symbolic journey. And to say that he was making this journey, which would ultimately end with his crucifixion, does not exclude the fact that during this time he made intervening visits to Jerusalem, particularly for the three annual feasts that all Jewish males were required to attend or for other festivals (e.g., John 10:22 says that he went to Jerusalem for feast of dedication [Hannukah] in the winter”). Again, we must remember that there is no supposed Scriptural difficulty that cannot be resolved given enough reasonable thought and information.
The second half of v. 38 continues: “and a certain woman named Martha received him into her house.” Martha was apparently a well known early disciple of our Lord. Luke, in particular, has described the women disciples who accompanied Jesus (cf. 8:2-3). One commentator pointed out that the name Martha is from the feminine Aramaic noun Mar, which means “mistress” (Geldenhuys, p. 317, n. 2). The implication here is that Martha was the elder sister and the mistress of the household. The fact that she received Jesus “into her house” is a mark of hospitality. The verb hupodechomai refers to the extending of hospitality. The traditional text adds the explicit phrase “into her house [oikos]” (again, emphasizing the fact that she is the head of the household).
This is striking given the instructions Jesus gave to the 70 about hospitality (cf. 10:5, 7, 10).
Hospitality was certainly a key mark of the early Christians. 1 Peter 4:9 in the NKJV says, “Be hospitable to one another without grumbling.” Martha is a godly woman who is willing to open her door wide to receive Jesus and his disciples into her home. She is like Lydia who at Philippi in Acts 16 would open her household to Paul and Silas. Compare:
Acts 16:15 And when she was baptized, and her household, she besought us, saying, If ye have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come into my house, and abide there. And she constrained us.
In v. 39 we meet Martha’s sister: “And she had a sister called Mary which also sat at Jesus’ feet, and heard his word.”
If Martha was the elder sister and mistress of the household, Mary was apparently the younger. The name Mary is from the Hebrew Miriam, the sister of Moses in the OT. It was a popular name for Jewish girls and there are several women named “Mary” in the NT including, of course, the mother of our Lord.
The description of Mary’s response to the arrival of Jesus into their home is striking on several levels. Most notably, Luke says that she “also sat at Jesus’ feet.” The cultural setting here implies a meal where Jesus would have been reclining on the low couch (Latin: triclinium) to eat and share fellowship with his followers, and, as he does so, he continues to teach them informally through conversation. It is striking first that a woman is present at this meal and second that she is among the learners, among the disciples. She was, Luke says, hearing “his word.”
Christianity, from the beginning, from the earthly ministry of our Lord himself, acknowledged the appropriateness of women as disciples or students of Jesus, learning alongside the male disciples. In this, Christianity distinguishes itself from the Greco-Roman religions which saw women as little more than half-baked men, and later religious traditions like Orthodox Judaism and Islam which segregate and separate men from women. Consider Paul’s letters (like Ephesians and Colossians) where instructions are given for wives and husbands or (like Titus 2) where instructions are given for old and young. The assumption is that all are together in worship hearing the same words in the same context together.
Women and girls, don’t believe the world’s lie that Biblical Christianity is against women. It has brought more dignity and respect for women than any movement that has ever appeared on the earth.
I mentioned last week the book by sociologist Rodney Stark titled The Rise of Christianity in which he studies the growth of early Christianity from a sociological perspective. In one chapter he describes how “Christianity was unusually appealing because within the Christian subculture women enjoyed far higher status than did women in the Greco-Roman world at large” (p. 95).
In one section he describes the status of women in ancient Athens. He begins by noting that there were fewer women than men, because infanticide was rampant and most wanted boys rather than girls. He continues:
“The status of Athenian women was very low. Girls received little or no education. Typically Athenian females were married at puberty and often before. Under Athenian law a woman was classified as a child, regardless of age, and therefore was the legal property of some man at all stages of her life. Males could divorce simply by ordering a wife out of the household. Moreover, if a woman was seduced or raped, her husband was legally compelled to divorce her….” She could own property but the title was always vested in the male to whom she “belonged” (p. 102).
Can you imagine how strange it must have been for a pagan living in Athens to read Luke 10 and hear that Jesus welcomed a woman to sit at his feet and listen to his word?
The objection to Mary as a learner at the feet of Jesus is not going to come from a male chauvinist pagan but from her own sister, whom she, no doubt, looked up to and admired.
So, v. 40 begins, “But Martha was cumbered [perispaomai, to be distracted or worried] about much serving [diakonian, serving or ministering]….” Martha’s problem is not going to be with her sister’s learning but with the fact that she is feeling slighted or neglected. Here she is serving and her sister is given what she perceives to be the leisure of simply sitting at Jesus’ feet and listening to him.
She goes straight to the top and reports this to Jesus even demanding that he take action: “and came to him, and said, Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone? Bid her therefore that she help me” (v. 40). No doubt she was cumbered with much service. Can you imagine how hard it was to prepare a meal and serve as hostess in the first century where water has to be carried into the home, where cooking has to be done over a fire, and where for clean-up there is no such thing as yet as soap!?
Though perhaps understandable there are several things that are deeply troubling about Martha’s spirit in this verse:
1. She accuses our Lord of indifference to what she perceives to be her plight (“dost thou not care”).
2. She engages in degrading self-pity. Note the word “alone” (the Greek adjective monos). Her attitude reminds me of the prophet Elijah in 1 Kings 19 when he laments to the Lord that the children of Israel have “forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thy altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life to take it away” (vv. 10, 14). God responds by telling Elijah, “Yet I have left me seven thousand in Israel, all the knees which have not bowed unto Baal, and every mouth which have not kissed him” (v. 18). As one wag put it, the graveyards are filled with indispensible men.
3. She has the audacity to give orders to the Lord. The “bid her” is an imperative command.
The brief passage closes in vv. 41-42 with Jesus offering to Martha a gentle but firm rebuke. Notice how Jesus models for us how to exhort with gentleness and kindness but firmness. Notice in v. 41 that he calls her name twice. When he bids her brother Lazarus rise from the dead (John 11:43), he only calls his name once! He first diagnosis her frenzied state: “thou art careful (Greek verb is merimnao, to be anxious or worried; not “careful” in the sense of meticulous or safe) and troubled about many things” (v. 41).
And then he offers a corrective by commending the disposition of Mary (v. 42). He begins, “But one thing is needful.” There is a possible play on words here as the language can be used to refer to the courses of a meal so that it might be interpreted only one course is needed for this meal. By this Jesus is not talking about a dish but a disposition of spirit, an outlook. He then commends Mary: “and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.”
There are many applications we might draw from this passage, some of which we have already touched upon. We might address our Lord’s affirmation of the status of women as disciples. But we need also to note that Mary is not put forward as a public teacher or minister of the word.
The “classic interpretation” of the passage is that it comes something as a corrective to a potential imbalance after the Good Samaritan teaching.
It reminds us that the Christian life is not merely a matter of doing, but it is also a matter of being. It is not a matter of giving but of receiving. It is not a matter of ministering but of being ministered to. It is not a matter of action but of contemplation.
One of the repeated themes in the teaching of our Lord as recorded in Luke is that of the importance of hearing, the discipline of right hearing:
Luke 8:18: “Take heed how ye hear.”
Luke 9:44: “Let these sayings sink down into your ears.”
This is balanced also by our Lord’s teaching about right doing:
Luke 6:27: “But I say unto you which hear, Love your enemies, do good to them which hate you,”
Luke 6:31: “And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise.”
And even in Luke 10:37 where the lawyer says the true neighbor was the Samarian who “shewed [poieo, to do] mercy on him.”
We know that even among the first believers there was tension between these twin duties or disciplines: proper hearing and proper doing. In the epistle of James, we see a correction against much hearing and little doing, as James taught: “Be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves” (James 1:22). Our passage today seems to warn against the opposite imbalance, as it appears to teach, “Be ye hearers of the word and not doers only.”
Certainly, we all know the trap of thinking that a deeper or higher spiritual life is associated with ever more frenzied spiritual activity on both a personal and corporate level (e.g., I’m a good Christian if I am “busy” with Christian activities seven nights a week).
But, on further reflection, I think the “classic” application can also somewhat miss the mark.
Geldenhuys notes that Jesus did not disapprove of Martha’s service to him “for they were the outcome of love for Him and were meant to serve Him. It is her wrong attitude as revealed in her condemnation of Mary and her dissatisfaction with himself that had to be set right and rebuked” (p. 316). He adds: “What we do learn here is that in our life’s active service we must not be anxious and agitated, sulky and dissatisfied with our fellow Christians or with our Master, and that we should not busy ourselves to such an extent with outward things that we neglect the quiet worship of the Lord” (p. 316).
Do you ever find yourself being anxious, agitated, sulky, and dissatisfied with your fellow Christians or with Christ himself?
If so, this is not a sign of your maturity but your immaturity. It is sin rooted in the 10th commandment—a lack of satisfaction in Christ.
The Martha spirit is not over-activity in service, but it is having a sour disposition in service toward others and Christ.
Do a review of your heart and see if you find any of the Martha spirit:
1. Have you accused the Lord or indifference?
2. Have you engaged in degrading self-pity?
3. Have you had the audacity to offer commands to our Lord?
The better part chosen by Mary is not merely the disposition of sitting at Christ’s feet and sharing in communion with him. It is also the disposition of being satisfied in Him.
Meditate on the promise made to Mary in v. 42: “which shall not be taken away from her.” The vital things we learn while sitting at the feet of Christ as his disciples can never be taken away from us. His love for his sheep, his willingness to lay down his life for them, the abundant life he brings, the peace that comes through the cross. If you learn from Christ, these things will never be taken away from you. They can take your family, your freedom, your possessions, but they cannot take Christ from you. They can take your health and your life, but they cannot take Christ from you.
This is why Jesus can teach that loving God and loving neighbor, knowing Christ and serving Christ, and doing that with the right spirit and attitude, as instructed by Christ, is the one thing needful in a person’s life.
Thank you so much! This is exactly what I need to read. (we were studying about this chapter with a group of women)
Can you explain me in simple English (I am Dutch) what the meaning is of the words of John Gill when he wrote about this story?
This is the citat:
"... nor does Christ say there is but one thing needful, but that there is one thing needful".
What is the difference between them? When I translate it into Dutch I am thinking he is saying the same things but when I read it in English I see a difference. Can you help me with it?
Thanks for the comment, Ariella. Glad you found these notes useful. As for the Gill quote, I think this is what he might be saying:
The first clause: "...nor does Christ say there is but one thing needful..." Meaning: Christ is NOT saying that Martha is only lacking one thing (i.e., the completion of one more duty or action or act of service or act of piety), and if she would only do this one more thing then all would be right in her life.
The second clause: "...but that there is one thing needful." Meaning: She does not need to do one more thing (the first clause) but she needs to do the one thing that is most important and essential: to sit at the feet of Jesus and learn from him.
So, to sum up: She does not need to do one more thing, but she needs to do the only thing that really matters: learn from Jesus.
Does this make sense? I hope so.
Thanks for the wonderful word you have given
Thanks for the wonderful word, because is just what we learned today.
Such an awesome article
This is awesome!
Thanks for helping to dig deep into this passage on Martha and her sister Mary.
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