So, Which is It?

Yesterday I read the story of Jesus going to the home of Mary and Martha in Luke 10. This is a very familiar story, and that always carries with it a risk of giving in to the temptation to simply autopilot through the text.

But a couple things struck me today. One in particular is something that may seem very elementary – and it is really – but it grabbed me and wouldn’t let go.

Jesus has just finished telling the story of the “good Samaritan.” As he moved on in his journey he comes to a small village where we find the home of Mary and Martha. We know that hospitality is important to Jesus – both giving and receiving. In fact, when Jesus sent out the twelve in chapter 9, the disciples were taught how to receive hospitality and were to depend on the willingness of others to offer it. In chapter 7, when Jesus was anointed by the “sinful woman,” the pharisee’s unwillingness to offer simple courtesies of hospitality is counted against him.

We also know from the story of the Samaritan (the story IMMEDIATELY before this one), that Jesus has little patience for people who engage in religion and ignore the needs of their neighbor.

So why is it that while Martha is busy offering hospitality and Mary is ignoring those duties in order to hear some religious teaching, Jesus says it is Mary that has chosen the better thing? Doesn’t that directly contradict the point of the previous parable…and several other teachings in Luke?

Let me encourage you to slow down and allow this to roll around before immediately jumping to one of the canned answers about this passage. It was a temptation that I had to resist as well. We need to take a page from our Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters and soak in the mystery and paradox for a moment, rather than instantly clamoring for logical defenses.

Perhaps this would make a good passage – and maybe right now is a good time – to slow down and pray through these words.

God, what is there here for us? Why are these two stories next to each other in this way? Teach us, Holy Spirit.

What do you hear? How do you read it? I have 2 responses that struck me, but I’d like to see if anyone else might want to weigh in first…


Posted on January 28, 2010, in 40 days reading, hospitality, Jesus, Luke. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Actually, can I pose another question to your question? Why is it that Jesus tells us the Mary and Martha story and encourages us to sit at his feet rather than busy ourselves with other things, but in another story when he heals Peters mom in law (I think that's right, I can't find it right now) he tells us that the mom in law got up and started working to take care of them? Is there a reason for that or am I reading too much into it? Or is it nothing? Ok, lots of questions. But those were my thoughts when I read that. 🙂

  2. Good Questions! I'm struggling with it. One thing that strikes me is the contrast of the "expert" in the law who Jesus shows to be busy "studing it to death, but not living it to life." vs Martha who is busy with preparations for hospitality that perhaps were only necessary for her culturally. The traveler had an immediate life threatening need. Was their a "shallowness" to Martha's hospitality?

  3. Since I don't know what the canned answers are, I'll risk offering one. Jesus shows us what was in Martha's heart when he said "you are worried and upset about many things." Martha was busy, but she was not at peace. The service of the Good Samaritan seems to have come completly naturally to him, it flowed out of who he was.Martha was serving, but she was stressed out about it so much that she couldn't enjoy Jesus' presence. If she had taken joy in serving Jesus and the others, if she had served out of desire instead of out of obligation, I'm not sure that what Mary was doing would h ave been any better.

  4. Wendy, I think one difference there is that in the Matthew 8 passage Jesus isn't sitting and teaching. Plus one of the major concern for me is that there is direct juxtaposition of the Samaritan and Mary/Martha stories – when stories are placed together like this, one of our first questions should be, "how do these two things relate to one another?"Bob, I think the "shallowness" may be explained in Anthony's comment on "worry." It is service, but appears to be driven by anxiety. On my facebook wall, Nate made a good point about religion/worship in the first story and service in the second both serving as barriers to participating in the Other – and others.This was essentially the same as one of my responses. The other thing that stood out was that this sounds strikingly similar to some prophetic passages in the OT. Simply put, when Jesus says, "you are worried about many things…but few things are needed," perhaps it means something. In the OT God is known to tell people that their sacrifices and offerings, their sabbath days, religious observances and festivals (directly commanded by God or not) are detestable to the Lord because they've forgotten what is truly essential. Perhaps hospitality (which I'm convinced is much more important than we've given it credit) and religion period – our worship gatherings in all their forms – are receiving the same disdain from Jesus because they (in these specific contexts) show a loss of proper focus.Perhaps we can work hard to get worship right, creeds (or not creeds) right, our doctrine and orthodoxy sound, ecclesial structure and polity biblically grounded…and be worried about things that no longer matter to God because we've forgotten our first love.Thanks for the great comments everyone, please feel free to add more – I really enjoy the process of thinking together.

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