OUR SCRIPTURAL subject for this week comes to us as the Gospel for the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost. As we encounter Jesus Christ, the Word of God… we are called by Saint Luke to examine our priorities.
Now as they went on their way, he (Jesus) entered a village; and a woman named Martha received him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet and listened to his teaching.
But Martha was distracted with much serving; and she went to him and said, "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me."
But the Lord answered her, "Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her." (Luke 10:38-42)
Here we read that Jesus and the disciples continued on the road toward Jerusalem, but amid doing ministry they took a sabbatical in the town of Bethany. The village was on their way. The home was a bare four miles or so from the city gates of Jerusalem. There Jesus, during this seeming sabbatical... taught and cared for this specific family. This is also shown by the discourse spelled out by John 11:1-12-3.
How close were the persons of this household to our Lord Jesus? Some interpreters of the scriptures indicate that they were likely close friends, considered as family in that these were the persons referred to by Jesus earlier in Luke. We find in an earlier scene, that his family through blood ties… stood outside waiting... but to little avail...
“Then his mother and his brothers came to him, but they could not reach him for the crowd. And he was told, "Your mother and your brothers are standing outside, desiring to see you."
But he said to them, "My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it." (Luke 8:19-21)
While this may show a selective hierarchy, amid examination we need remember several factors. First in Lukan narrative, Jesus had just pointed to the priority of loving God first, and also the neighbor as oneself. He had also subsequently told the story of the Good Samaritan even though the people of the towns of that region had rejected him.
Now while it seems that he as a rabbi was rightly elevating the position of women in his society… and that the cause was and is yet worthy... the point he makes in this text is far greater. You see, in the dialog here the demands of loving God and loving neighbor are clearly delineated. Jesus demonstrated to all present that the Word of God is primary.
We note however, that in variant readings offered by several ancient Lukan manuscripts, rather than stating that “one” thing was and is yet needful, that “a few” things are needful. However, I believe in this study that we find in the meaning from this text is that just “one” thing is needful… listening to the Word of God. If so, the alternative textual variant may indicate that listening and doing further works by “obeying” is also needful. This latter interpretation, however, places us in danger of reading a meaning into the text that which may not be there (eisogesis), rather then working to get a best reading from the text (exogesis). Thus I contend, as disciples, we dare not put our own thoughts and words into the Word of God.
Subsequently, given this account only, we find that scripture pointed Luke's late first century communities toward the knowledge that they cannot have a faithful path by just going their own way. The text taught that for them to cling to the works righteousness of synagogue and temple priests, scribes and teachers of the Law in their day… was to erroneously believe that sinful persons can make themselves acceptable before God through “works”.
You see, at the time of Jesus' going toward Jerusalem it was taught by the authorities that God accepts only those who can “get it together”. But Jesus came into this created world because he knew that as sinners, we are unable to perfectly get our lives together. All we can do is put on imitative airs. The first priority is thus to choose well, and that our path needs to be rooted first in the hearing the Word and having faith in Christ.
Choose Your Portion?
Given that we are sinful persons who are blessed by the Holy Spirit to follow Jesus, often waywardly listening and ministering according to our own preference, we are called by this text to carefully choose our own portions. We too sometimes act like blessed Martha, promoting to everyone that Jesus is in “our” house. We try to demonstrate to all who are watching that we are working to be the “perfect” host or hostess. We claim that we attend the “right” church and do righteous things. We even accomplish and point to the “social” ministry that we do before Jesus, his church, his people, the poor, and the many persecuted. We are trying indeed to be so gracious!
It is to us then that Jesus speaks. Through his acceptance of Mary in the listening circle, Jesus shows that there is a greater portion. Rather than working toward providing a grand self-justifying feed, we like Martha stand gently rebuked by Jesus. We have worship backwards. Our Lord first prefers an audience for the Word proclaimed!
The Word spoken, or written, and the Word coming to us in the Holy Eucharist comes to us as a first priority, or the efficacy of the works we do are lost. If we do not have these correctly placed, we may be properly accused of simply trying to work our way to righteousness by what we do, rather than responding in thankfulness to what God has done for us through Jesus Christ.
Works of feeding and caring should stand secondarily as our answer to justification that is first given to us through Christ and his sacrifice. The finality of this lesson, therefore, should come as the Word into our own homes.
In our day-to-day lives lived out as his church, we find sometimes that great Sunday morning pancakes made by either father, mother, sister, or any other household god… occasionally take undue precedence over our going to church to our hear the Word proclaimed.
Consequently, this lesson teaches us that Jesus’ presence in the house of God should turn the priorities of our house around. We too often find ourselves upside down and inside out, and when the Word finally forces us to our knees in guilt, wringing our hands in our soiled aprons… we may properly ask for forgiveness, and go to church to receive the Gospel. Jesus Christ has indeed saved us… he and no other! From that restorative Word.., we may then rise and serve, and we may call others to hear. Thanks be to God!
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