By Paul Koch –
The more that I consider Luke 10:38-42, the more I think that this is a perfect text for the understanding of the Christian life. We may be familiar with the story of Mary and Martha and the tension that plays out in their hospitality to our Lord, but this text has never really been all that well known to us. In fact, it is often misquoted or misapplied to our lives precisely because we don’t spend much time really receiving the incredible Word we are given here. What we find in this text is our Lord arriving and being welcomed into the home of a woman named Martha. In her home Jesus is being cared for as he begins to teach those who are gathered there. One of those who come to sit at his feet is Mary, the sister of Martha.
Now Martha, of course, would love to join her sister and sit at the feet of Jesus but there is a lot of work to do. There is a meal to prepare and people to serve. And watching Mary just sit there is beginning to drive her nuts. The tension built into this scene comes to a climax when Martha can’t stand it any longer and finally says to Jesus, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” She’s frustrated, and rightly so. But then Jesus answers her is a surprising way, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.”
So we see in the text that Mary is clearly correct. She is not doing something wrong by sitting at the feet of Jesus and leaving her sister to toil away without her. She had chosen the one thing necessary and Jesus was not going to take it away from her. But the tension that comes with this text is that Martha wasn’t exactly wrong either. Perhaps she was wrong in asking Jesus to shoo her sister and away and get to work. But she is not wrong in preparing the meal and serving those who gathered in her home. In other words, while Jesus doesn’t send Mary away he doesn’t command Martha to sit down at his feet either. The tension presented to us is that they are both showing good and faithful hospitality to our Lord. And this tension is played out in our lives as well.
The Christian life is one filled with activity. There is a lot of doing that comes with one who has been given faith and called from death to life. As James says, “faith without works is dead.” Faith produces works, service rendered to our neighbor. And so in your lives you will live out acts of righteousness for your neighbor. Now note, your works are not for yourself but for your neighbor. Whatever your calling is, whatever your vocation, you, because of your calling as a child of God, are doing active works of righteousness. So if you are a doctor, you become the hands through which God’s gift of healing are handed on to others. If you are an electrician, you graciously and righteously save guys like me from burning down my home. If you are a mother, you do God’s work as you get up in the middle of the night to check temperatures and get drinks of water. Your vocation in this life puts you in service to someone else, where you provide what they need and this is good and godly work. It is the work of Martha masterfully running her home so that others can sit at the feet of our Lord and receive his gifts.
The Christian life, though, doesn’t begin with our activity. Oh, that’s the way many would have us believe it starts. We hear things like all you need to do is pray this prayer or accept this word or do this or do that. Most people want some activity. It doesn’t have to be great; it can be super small, almost unobservable, but still we desire to have some activity at the beginning of our faith. And yet our Lord says that though we can easily busy ourselves with many things, there is one thing that is necessary. One thing that does not depend on our activity, but rather we are completely passive. Our righteousness begins not by doing but by receiving.
Mary’s actions then stand as a thorn in the side of every desire to work toward our own righteousness. Every temptation to say that we need to check this and that box to make sure that we will inherit eternal life is obliterated by the absolute passivity of Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus. The one thing necessary is not to do, but to receive.
These two sisters are a picture of the Christian life. Notice then that we are not one or the other, but rather we are both. We are the ones who received the righteousness of the Lord by sitting at his feet, by hearing his word, by receiving his free gifts. And yet we are also those who live lives of active righteousness where we serve our neighbor in the freedom of our salvation. In this, then, we see the strength of the assertion that our Lord makes about the tension in our lives of faith. Though we may find confidence and strength in the great passivity of our faith and though we may love the powerful activity of our faith – these two things are not equal and one certainly comes before the other.
As we have clearly seen, the one necessary thing is to receive the teaching of our Lord, to receive his blessings. To gather here, to hear his word, to be baptized into his name, to die and rise with him, this is the one necessary thing. This is every ounce of our assurance and his children. This is how we know that we are saved, because it doesn’t depend upon us; upon our works or upon our effort. In fact, our Lord himself will stand in opposition to any attempt to pull us away from such a place of assurance and hope.
Rather, having first joined Mary at the feet of our Lord we then are able, we are free, we are willing to join Martha in works of service. First Mary then Martha, the One thing necessary, then a life of service. You have been given the gifts that Mary received. You have been brought to the waters of Holy Baptism. You have received the living Word of God for your life. Without any work or merit on your part, our Lord Jesus Christ has declared that you are forgiven. Forgiven by his blood, forgiven by his sacrifice, forgiven by his suffering, death and resurrection. This gift will not be taken away from you. This is your hope and your assurance. Each day as you rise and you splash refreshing water on your face you are reminded of something that happened to you, something you received. Life may be full of ups and down, in fact I promise you it will be. But through it all you remain his child. You remain part of the household of faith, for Christ has set you free.
In that assurance, in that free gift, you can now live for your neighbor. You don’t need your works for you are already redeemed by Christ and God doesn’t need your works either. For he is the almighty creator of all things. Rather it is your neighbor who needs them. Luther famously said that a bootmaker who makes a good pair of boots and sells them at a fair price is doing the work of the Lord. And he’s right. You are free to do God’s work by serving others. You can set out to tackle your vocation, be it mother or student or teacher or homemaker or CEO or carpenter in the joyful freedom that your work is a lived out righteousness in the lives of all those you serve.
We are all Mary and Martha. And as we struggle to live out that righteousness in our lives, as we stumble and fail, as we surely will remember the one thing that is necessary. The one thing that will not be taken away. Remember the Lord who called you by name, washed you in forgiveness, clothed you in his righteousness and declared you to be his sisters and brothers, heirs of eternal life.