Pastoral Perspectives

The Good Portion

Most of us are familiar with the story of Martha and Mary in the gospel of St Luke. It’s a short account—just five verses long—centering on a short exchange between Martha and our Lord. Despite its terseness, it’s richly evocative. In this story, our Lord affectionately extends pastoral care to a stressed-out Martha, yet I perceive he’s also speaking to us today, reminding us of a potentially dangerous oversight in our Christian living.

According to St Luke, Jesus was going about with his ministry, and he had entered a village to proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom of God. St Luke’s account doesn’t inform us which village Jesus and his disciples were at, but we know from the gospel of St John that Martha and Mary (along with their brother Lazarus) reside in Bethany, a village near Jerusalem. This may be a record of the first time Jesus met Martha and Mary (and perhaps Lazarus).

As an itinerant teacher, he was largely dependent on the hospitality of those who resided in the places he visited. It’s written that Martha was the one in the village who received Jesus and his disciples. This simple statement belies the fact that Martha wasn’t merely receiving Jesus as a guest in her village bed-and-breakfast; she had also received his message about the Kingdom of God. She welcomed Jesus into her home because she heard the Good News from him and believed it. [1] We may conclude that Martha was a faithful Jewish woman and her faith was expressed in her act of hospitality to God’s messenger, Jesus. Like Martha, we who have heard the Good News and responded in faith also receive Jesus into our hearts.

Martha invited our Lord and his disciples to her home, but that wasn’t the end of the matter. Unlike us, Martha didn’t live in a city but a small village. Everyone in Bethany would’ve heard of Jesus’ visitation and come by her place to hear from him. So, Martha would’ve ended up with a crowd at her place. As the mistress of the house, she would’ve had to show some hospitality to them as well, so it must’ve been a busy day for Martha! Then, she realized her sister Mary wasn’t assisting her but was sitting at Jesus’ feet listening to him teach. She then complained to Jesus in hope that he would dismiss Mary from his gospel seminar. Her complaint wasn’t wrong since it was only right for Mary to be helping her. After all, it was their residence, and they should be involved in serving their guests.

As we read of Jesus’ reply to Martha, we mustn’t imagine he was rebuking her. In fact, he would’ve been appreciative of her faith and hospitality. Rather, Jesus was taking the role of a pastor and making a diagnosis of her spiritual ailment. Certainly, her heart was in the right place, but he noticed she was anxious and troubled, and overly fixated on the pressing concerns of the moment. Not that the immediate concerns of life are unimportant, but her fixation on these things had crowded out an instinct which her sister still preserved: the need to be still and draw near to God. Mary knew that Jesus had brought a much-needed message from God, so she wanted to hear from him; Martha was anxious and troubled about many things and didn’t even think to listen to him—an irony considering she was the one who welcomed this itinerant preacher into her home in the first place.

At first, Martha heard Jesus’ message and responded in faith, but she soon became too preoccupied with the work around her house to continue hearing from him. The anxiety of getting things done have overwhelmed her.  This reads like a parable for us today for a couple of reasons.

As Singaporeans living fast-paced lives, we tend to be “Marthas” who’re full of anxieties and troubles. We’ve many tasks to get done and matters to be concerned with that we crowd God out from our lives. The thought of being still before God and hearing from him scarcely crosses our minds as we rush from one assignment to another and flutter from one social group to another. Even when we do think about that, the whole affair seems like a royal waste of time as compared to checking off boxes on our to-do lists. Perhaps the high degree of poor mental health among younger persons in Singapore should alert us to the fact that we’ve normalized a pathological lifestyle characterized by hurrying and worrying. We need to slow down to the pace our souls were made for.

Unfortunately, this isn’t helped by the “style” of Christianity which we’re used to. We’ve been largely influenced by a western-style evangelicalism that focuses more on what to believe (a system of belief) rather than how to live (a way of life), and more on activity rather than spirituality. We tend to be overly concerned with advocating orthodoxy of belief—a largely intellectual endeavour—to the neglect of normalizing good spiritual rhythms and disciplines. The latter, in the words of author Brian McLaren, is a tending to one’s soul what exercises does for one’s body or study for one’s mind. They are “ways of becoming awake and staying awake to God.” This involves us taking time out to pray and meditate on Scripture throughout the week, while keeping Sabbath rest. This is the Christian way of life, and it isn’t anything novel. The careful tending of our unseen interiority through a disciplined rhythm has been present for thousands of years in Christianity, but largely set aside today. Yet, without a vital connection with God through a healthy spiritual life, then we become “Marthas” in our Christian service. Our churchly activities get tiresome, becoming just more items on our already long to-do lists.

If we devote ourselves only to the hustle and bustle, then we will end up physically, mentally, and spiritually depleted. How then can we become the persons Jesus wants us to be? The pastor and author Rich Villodas writes, “Deeply formed mission is first about who we are becoming before what we are doing.” What we are doing in our ministries will only be as deep as our being. If we haven’t spent any time sitting at Jesus’ feet, connecting ourselves to the source of all life and love, and being filled and transformed by it, then it’s hard to bring that same life and love to our ministries (or to others beyond the church). We need to have a spiritual life that can sustain and nourish us and our service.

The truth is, God is gracious. He loves us and is always ready to speak to us. I remember the Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson describing God as “talkative” —he always wants to commune and converse with us. If only we would pause and open our hearts to him! Just as Jesus invites Martha to stop her work and sit with him to hear God’s Word, he also invites us to do the same. It’s when we pray and meditate on Scripture that certain things begin to happen. As we pay attention to God’s Word, the anxieties and troubles of the moment slowly lose their hold on us. The more we take time to listen to God speaking to us, the more we can discern his work in us and around us. Then we learn to allow ourselves to be deeply formed by him.

This, according to Jesus, is the one thing which is needful. While it may seem unprofitable because we don’t seem to be getting anything done, Jesus assures us that this is the “good portion, which shall not be taken away from [us].” Why? I suppose that’s because we’ll all find ourselves in God’s presence forever in the age to come. We’re just learning to sample in the present what we’ll relish in the future. While all of us here tend to be “Marthas,” let us also learn to be “Marys” who are willing to put aside the distractions of life and be with God in prayer and meditation. May we learn to choose “the good portion, which shall not be taken away.” In so doing, we will truly be the people God has called us to be.

[1] See the link between reception of the messenger and the reception of the message in Luke 10.1-16.

Preacher Png Eng Keat

November 13, 2022