by Linda McMillan
To do something or Not to do something… That is the question
How do we welcome Jesus? Do we become distracted by trying to do it just right, or can we learn that it is enough simply to be in God’s presence?
There was tension in the air.
“Linda,” she said to me earnestly, “What do you think Jesus would say?” It was rhetorical, I knew. And she continued without giving me a chance to answer, “You know if Jesus were here he’d be a Baptist.” And, for once in my life, I kept my mouth shut. There was just nothing I could say.
The conversation was serious. We were not talking about the fact that I was beginning, in my mid-twenties, to lean liberal, or that I’d quit a good job with the GOP to become a Democrat. LBJ was a Democrat, after all. What I had done was even worse. I’d become an Episcopalian.
What would Jesus say?
As it turns out, Jesus was okay with it. My aunt and uncle never were. What has endured for me about our conversation that night is how my aunt tried to get Jesus on her side. “You know what Jesus would say…”
There is a danger, though, in exalting Mary’s passive, listening posture against Martha’s active serving. If passivity and listening were the one thing which Jesus claims Martha needs, then the Samaritan man certainly missed the boat last week when he was busily bandaging up the man who had been left for dead.
To make sense of the Samaritan’s activity, and Mary’s inactivity we have to read the stories together. And, as sometimes happens in the Bible, we need to go back a little bit to set the stage: In Luke 25:10 a lawyer came to visit Jesus. The Bible says that he came to test Jesus. At the end of the test, they agreed that the most important commandment has two parts: One part is about loving God and one part is about loving others.
“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbor as thyself.”
Then the lawyer did a little slight of hand with the commandments. Instead of asking Jesus something about the first part of the commandment — loving God — he moved right into the second part of the commandment asking, “Who is my neighbor?” He is really asking Jesus, “How do you interpret Vayikra 19:18… Is everyone my neighbor, or is it only Israelites?”
Jesus tried to answer his question with the story of the man beaten and left for dead, sometimes called the story of the good Samaritan. It introduced us to a Samaritan man who saw the man who had been left for dead, naked. And he cared for him and ensured that others would care for him too. It is an illustration of how we love our neighbors.
But there is still the matter of the first part of the commandment — loving God. That is why the writer followed-up with a story that illustrates how we love God. Like Mary, we are receptive, open, not demanding. We sit at the feet of our teacher just like Paul sitting at the feet of Gamaliel, or the former demoniac who found sanity, just like all disciples.
Martha claimed to have God on her side — and she tried to get Jesus to agree — because she was doing all the work. The inability to choose single-minded devotion — whether being active or passive — was the one thing that Martha lacked. Her distraction, not her work, was the one thing for her.
You may remember another man, a rich young ruler, who approached Jesus with the same question as the lawyer in Luke 10:25. The rich young ruler claimed to have gotten God on his side by keeping all the commandments. And, Jesus didn’t argue with him. Jesus simply said that his inquisitor still lacked one thing, and told him to go and sell all that he had and give it to the poor. See, for him, the one thing was his wealth.
I suspect that the situation for Martha is best summed up by John R. Donahue when, speaking of the Samaritan, he said:
“Perhaps one of the reasons that generations of Christians have found the Parable of the Good Samaritan so consoling to narrate, and so impossible to imitate, is that they are too busy being Samaritans to listen to the Word with silent attentiveness. Nor do they experience that freedom possessed by the outsider who has so little to lose that only eternal life can be found.”
It takes both the silent attentiveness of Mary and the activity of the Samaritan. Silence feeds activity.
Neither of these stories is here to show us how bad one party is and how good the other is. The temptation to say who is good and who is bad says more about us than it does about the story. There are no bad actors here, only negligent and distracted people much like you and me. Rather, each of these stories shows us one part of how we might fulfill the whole commandment to love God and our neighbor.
Today we are thinking about loving God. Mary and Martha welcomed Jesus into their home in different ways. How do we welcome Jesus? Do we become distracted by trying to do it just right, or can we learn that it is enough simply to be in God’s presence?
You may remember that Elijah experienced God’s presence. The Bible says that there was a great wind, and an earthquake, and after that, there was a wildfire! But, God was not in any of that. After all else is said and done, there is a thin, ineffable silence.
Many of us will love God and our neighbor by taking an active part in a beautiful worship service this morning, that fulfills the commandment; and many will love God and their neighbor by sitting quietly in silence loving God and listening, that fulfills the commandment too. Both are necessary. Whether you fulfill the commandment actively or passively today, try to include a bit of the other in your week. For, at the end of the day, we hope that the Samaritan did pray and sit quietly with God, just as we hope that Mary helped her sister with the dishes.
Oh, and you don’t have to be a clever lawyer, or first-century head of household to get God on your side. That’s already taken care of.
Linda McMillan lives in Shanghai, China. She is a native of Texas.
Some Notes of Possible Interest
On the greatest commandment: Jesus declared, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commandments.” – Matthew 22:37-40, Christian Bible
On Martha being edgy: When they wrote that story in Greek they used the word perispato in Greek. It has the sense of being “dragged along” by the things.
On neighbors… Neighbor is just another way of saying, “fellow Israelite.” Leviticus 19:18 says, “You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.” (Vayikra is the Hebrew way to say Leviticus.) Verse 33 is what complicates it for the questioner. He may want “neighbor” to only refer to fellow Israelites, but Vayikra 19: 33 says, “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.”
“Perhaps one of the reasons that generations….” is from Parable: Metaphor, Narrative, and Theology in the Synoptic Gospels, by John R. Donahue, Page 138. You can get it on Amazon. It’s available for Kindle too!
On Elijah’s experience of God’s presence see I Kings 19.