Support the Café

Search our Site

How to be in the presence of Jesus

How to be in the presence of Jesus

by Deirdre Good

Text: Luke 10: 38-42

Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 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.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

Think about the last meal with friends you really enjoyed. Was it at your house or theirs? Or maybe you were at a restaurant. In which case you were able to enjoy the company and the food without having to prepare, cook, or clear away afterwards. If the meal was at your house, then you know what was involved.

Before I arrived in Maine this summer, I was able to share a memorable meal at home with friends. It all came together at the last minute. I wanted to extend hospitality to our new President at the seminary where I live and work since he had just arrived and was temporarily without family. Fortunately, I was able to invite two other couples to join us. And thanks to Whole Foods, I was able to assemble the dinner at the last minute rather than cook it. So I was able to enjoy the company rather than worry about whether they liked the food I’d cooked. Why was it so enjoyable? Because all the couples (including us) knew and liked each other. Three of us work together, and six of us went to the same church at one time. We have the same sense of humour, values and interests. We respect each other’s viewpoints.

The meal Jesus shares with Martha and Mary presupposed in today’s gospel is quite similar in that the three of them are friends—they eat together in Bethany; they probably worship together and they love each other. How do we think about it? Does the story describe types of people, and continue by commending contemplative types over active types, as Luke’s Jesus apparently does? I know the story can be read this way but there’s a price to pay. It’s a moralistic reading, seeing figures as exemplars. It favors one character over another. Are all of the characters in Jesus’ stories intended to advise readers? Are they meant to evoke empathy and strengthen our proclivity for doing good? Or might we see the whole story in a broader context of Luke and thus as a meditation on deeper issues in the surrounding material. I want to suggest that the passage is a meditation on what it means to be blessed to see and hear what is at hand since others longed to see and hear it but did not (Then turning to the disciples, Jesus said to them privately, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see! For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.” Luke 10: 23-4)

A few words about context. Today’s gospel lies close to the start of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem (9:51) that is a journey of many functions besides travel. One of them is shaping of a community around Jesus (followers, disciples, crowds) alongside the shaping of opposition outside that community. Travel and following Jesus to Jerusalem to death and beyond is also about discerning the meaning of presence and absence and how to be in the presence and absence of Jesus.

So here’s a suggestion: If you are on a journey and Jesus joins the journey, stop whatever you are doing. Look and listen. If there’s time for a meal, order a take-out and food to go. This is a meal to remember: tastes, sights, sound. Savor the meaning of Real Presence.

Now what Martha is doing in our gospel is the important task of service (from which we get the word “deacon”) that can be applied to church leadership with connotations of administration and organization. And the verb in Luke’s description, “Martha welcomed him into her home” shows Martha as head of a household, which leads us to think more broadly about Martha in the rest of the New Testament and beyond.

In John’s Gospel, for example, the siblings Mary, Martha and Lazarus are described as loved by Jesus, a term that scholars understand to describe relationship of disciple to teacher Jesus. In the episode reporting that Lazarus has died, it is Martha who engages Jesus: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” “But,” she continues, “Even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Jesus assures her that her brother will rise again and when he declares, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-6) Martha professes: “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world” (11:27). Her confession is a high point of the Johannine communities’ profession of belief in Jesus. Martha is every bit a thinking person.

And, when we look at the rest of the New Testament, it turns out that Mary of Bethany is every bit a doer. At a meal in Bethany where she functions as host and her sister Martha serves, Mary anoints Jesus as a prefiguring of self-giving in the service of footwashing he is about to enact and his death and burial. She does what friends are taught to do by Jesus says Johannine scholar Cynthia Kittredge.

If we take all the evidence of the New Testament, we see that both Mary and Martha have been with Jesus in ways that indicate they both listen, think, and act out a deep understanding of Jesus’ ministry.

I think the lesson for us from the gospel is how to be in the presence of Jesus.

Anthony Bloom, an archbishop in the Eastern Orthodox Christian Church, recounts in his book Beginning to Pray an experience with a Russian woman whom he visited in a nursing home before she died at the age of 102. It was shortly after his ordination and she sought his advice. “All these years I have been asking people who are reputed to know about prayer, and they have never given me a sensible reply, so I thought that as you probably know nothing, you may by chance blunder out the right thing.” She explained further that for 14 years she had been praying the Jesus prayer almost continually and had never perceived God’s presence.

Bloom blurted out in response: “If you speak all the time, you don’t give God a chance to place a word in.” “What shall I do?” she said. Then he suggested:

“Go to your room after breakfast, put it right, place your armchair in a strategic position that will leave behind your back all the dark corners . . . into which things are pushed so as not to be seen. Light your little lamp before the icon . . . [Orthodox homes traditionally have an icon altar, often with an image of the face of Christ.] and sit, look around, and try to see where you live. Then take your knitting and for fifteen minutes knit before the face of God, but I forbid you to say one word of prayer. You just knit and try to enjoy the peace of your room.”

At first, Bloom writes, the woman was suspicious that this advice was superficial. But when she returned to see him some time later, she announced, “It works!” Bloom was eager to hear her elaboration, so she told him how she had followed his instructions to neaten her room and then settle herself peacefully before her icon. She continued:

I settled into my armchair and thought, “Oh how nice, I have 15 minutes during which I can do nothing without being guilty! I looked around the room and thought how nice it was. After a while I remembered that I must knit before the face of God, and so I began to knit. And I became more and more aware of the silence. The needles hit the armrest of my chair, . . . there was nothing to bother about, . . . and then I perceived that this silence was not simply an absence of noise, but that the silence had substance. It was not absence of something but presence of something. . . . the silence had a density, a richness, and it began to pervade me. The silence around began to come and meet the silence in me. . . . All of a sudden I perceived that the silence was a presence. At the heart of the silence there was the One who is all stillness, all peace, all poise.”

So if Jesus appears on our doorstep, close the laptop, turn off the ipad, and sit down at his feet. This is a time to savor. And if Jesus doesn’t appear – do what ever it is that you naturally do; and in that very action; in that deep silence, look and listen for the Divine Presence.

**Preached on Sunday July 21st 2013 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Castine, Maine.

Dr. Deirdre Good is professor of New Testament at The General Theological Seminary, specializing in the Synoptic Gospels, Christian Origins, Noncanonical writings and biblical languages. Her blog is called On Not Being a Sausage.


Café Comments?

Our comment policy requires that you use your real first and last names and provide an email address (your email will not be published). Comments that use non-PG rated language, include personal attacks, that are not provable as fact or that we deem in any way to be counter to our mission of fostering respectful dialogue will not be posted.

1 Comment
Oldest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

From my book “Stars in a Dark World”:

Saints Mary and Martha of Bethany

1st century

“In the Gospel of St. Luke we read that our Lord came to Martha’s house and while she set about at once to prepare his meal, her sister did nothing but sit at his feet. She was so intent upon listening to him that she paid no attention to what Martha was doing. Now certainly Martha’s chores were holy and important…But Mary…was totally absorbed in the highest wisdom of God concealed in the obscurity of [Jesus’] humanity.

“Mary turned to Jesus with all the love of her heart, unmoved by what she saw or heard spo-ken and done about her…Why? Because it is the best and holiest part of the contemplative life possible to mortals and she would not relinquish it for anything on earth. Even when Martha complained to Jesus about her, scolding him for not bidding her to get up and help with the work, Mary remained there quite still and untroubled, showing not the least resentment against Martha for her grumbling. But this is not surprising really, for she was utterly absorbed in another work, all un-known to Martha, and she did not have time to notice her sister or defend herself.

“My friend, do you see that this whole incident concerning Jesus and the two sisters was intended as a lesson for active and contemplative persons of the Church in every age? Mary represents the contemplative life and all contemplative persons ought to model their lives on hers. Martha represents the active life and all active persons should take her as their guide.”

So wrote the anonymous author of the 14th-century spiritual discourse The Cloud of Unknowing, representing the ancient tradition of seeing Mary and Martha as representing the Two Ways of Prayer. It is interesting that virtually every present-day scholar makes a point of disagreeing with that understanding – not perhaps surprising in a culture which highly values activity and cares little for meditative silence.

What we know about Mary and Martha of Bethany beyond the scriptural accounts is an extremely tangled and confused muddle, because until fairly recently virtually every scholar identified Mary of Bethany with Mary Magdalen. So the medieval legend has it that after the Resurrection, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus set out to evangelize Provence in southern France, with Martha’s relics supposedly being miraculously discovered in 1187 at the town of Tarascon (on the Côte d’Azur in southeastern France) where she allegedly tamed the legendary dragon “La Tarasque”.

But what do the scripture accounts themselves tell us about these two good women? According to John, they lived in the town of Bethany, less than two miles from Jerusalem on the Jericho road, and they were the sisters of Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead. But the account of Jesus’s first visit to Mary and Martha appears only in Luke. In his account of that visit we can recognize that Jesus himself is shattering at least three Jewish forbidden cultural norms of his society:

a. He is apparently alone with women who are not his relatives. (Where is Lazarus?)

b. A woman waits on him and serves him.

c. He teaches a woman in her own house.

These were all forbidden by universal Jewish custom, so this is yet another example of Jesus’s refusal to treat women as second-class, subordinate persons but, rather, equal with men.

In addition, Mary is portrayed as taking the position proper only to a male disciple, i.e., at Jesus’s feet. The Mishnah says plainly: “Let your house be a meeting-place for the Sages and sit amid the dust at their feet and drink in their words with thirst…[but] talk not much with womankind.” By sitting at Jesus’s feet, Mary is violating a clear social boundary and, according to Jewish custom, is thereby bringing shame upon her house; Jesus himself by speaking with her so deeply also breaks the rabbinical norm against converse with women.

Martha, on the other hand, is doing the proper work of a Jewish woman – preparing a meal – and she complains that Mary is not helping her. Within Jewish traditions, Martha’s protest is completely appropriate and entirely justifiable; it is not, as it may seem to us, merely an issue of peevish jealousy or control over her sister. In a sense, Martha is saying, “Mary’s behavior is shameful for a Jewish woman. She doesn’t know her place. You, Jesus, are a Rabbi; it is your responsibility to cor-rect her.” Jesus certainly would have understood that, and yet he refuses that socially appropriate demand—and goes even further: he actually gives his approval and blessing on Mary’s “shameful, improper, and unfeminine” behavior.

And when Jesus responds to Martha, he repeats her name—”Martha, Martha”—which in itself is a sign of mild criticism or at least of a lament. [Jesus uses the same technique of repetition with Peter when he predicts his betrayal: “Simon, Simon, take heed: Satan has been given leave to sift all of you like wheat” (Luke 22:31-REB)]

Jesus’ statement to Martha has several different versions in early manuscripts:

1. “Only a few things are needed” is Jesus’s response in two early scriptural manuscripts. There are some scholars who suggest that here he may have simply been talking about the meal itself, i.e., saying that Martha need not bother with a lavish feast: that “only a few dishes are necessary.”

2. In six other early manuscripts, the phrase is “There is need of one thing [only].” This seems more clearly to be addressing the matter of spiritual priorities (and is used by the translators of the NRSV, the REB and the NAB).

3. Three other early manuscripts have a slightly fuller version: “Only a few things are needed, indeed, only one.” This seems to be a conflation of two earlier traditions, and it is this version the Jerusalem Bible translators use.

Finally, in a bit of speculation, it is just conceivable that this entire story (which appears only in Luke) may have originally been as much a parable as that of the Good Samaritan (which immediately precedes it in the Gospel)—a conclusion based on four words:

1. In Luke, the story is said to take place in “a certain village” (“kómayn tiná”). However, that village could not have been Bethany (where John’s Gospel locates them) because that would be far too close to Jerusalem for the journey Jesus is on. Some scholars suggest that it was in Magdala in Galilee. Also, the adjective “certain” (“a certain village” and “a certain woman”) is used most commonly as the introduction to a parable in ten places in Luke and at least two in Matthew (e.g., “A certain man was going down to Jerusalem…”).

2. Martha means “mistress” or “lady” in Hebrew and Mary is from”Miriam” that means “rebellious”, suggesting that if this was originally a parable, these two women may have been meant simply to represent two behavioral traits, rather than actual persons.

3. When Martha is described as “burdened with much serving” the Greek word for “serving” here is “diakoneîn”—“deaconing” – which is usually used by Luke to refer to the service of Christian ministry. It might be possible to conclude, then, that Jesus is using the parable/story to place primacy on the hearing of the word rather than on a more active ministry of serving (i.e., deaconing) others.

4. There could a Greek word-play in the last two verses: Martha is described as “anxious” and the Greek is “merimnás”; and Mary’s name in Greek is “Mariám”—the two words sound very much alike. Was Jesus telling us that it as better to be “rebellious” than “anxious”?

In scripture, the only other place we meet Mary and Martha is in the Gospel of John. In this account, the sisters send a message to Jesus that their brother Lazarus is ill. Then Jesus waits for two days to make sure Lazarus is recognized as dead. When he is on the way to Bethany, Martha goes to meet him and then calls her sister, apparently telling Mary a white lie: “The Master is here and is asking for you.” when there is no textual evidence that Jesus was, in fact, asking for Mary. Mary runs to Jesus and falls weeping at his feet, and Jesus weeps with her before he orders the cover removed from the tomb and calls Lazarus out. Later, at a supper with Lazarus and his sisters, Mary silently anoints Jesus’ feet with precious ointment—a gesture of great honor and love.

Certainly, whether in parable or in history, in Jesus’s relation to Mary and Martha, we are pre-sented with a rare human dimension to his life: that of simple, good, human friendship—a dimension that can enthusiastically be celebrated on this occasion.

Support the Café
Past Posts

The Episcopal Café seeks to be an independent voice, reporting and reflecting on the Episcopal Church and the Anglican tradition.  The Café is not a platform of advocacy, but it does aim to tell the story of the church from the perspective of Progressive Christianity.  Our collective sympathy, as the Café, lies with the project of widening the circle of inclusion within the church and empowering all the baptized for the role to which they have been called as followers of Christ.

The opinions expressed at the Café are those of individual contributors, and, unless otherwise noted, should not be interpreted as official statements of a parish, diocese or other organization. The art and articles that appear here remain the property of their creators.

All Content  © 2017 Episcopal Café