Luke 10:38–42 comment (0)
October 10, 2013
By James Riley Strange
Bible Studies for Life
Associate Professor of Religion, Samford University
Even Christians Collide
In this brief passage we learn about two sisters who had a conflict over what to do when Jesus came to visit. We learn much simply by putting the passage in its context.
The passage occurs near the beginning of Luke’s “travel narrative,” which narrates Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. All three “Synoptic” Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) have a travel narrative, but Luke’s is especially long (almost one-third of the Gospels) and occupies a central place in the story (9:51–19:27). Consequently at every point along the way, whether Jesus is teaching the lawyer about the Good Samaritan (just before our passage: 10:25–37) or is instructing the disciples in how to pray (just after it: 11:1–4), we are to keep in mind the words, “When the days drew near for Him to be taken up, He set his face to go to Jerusalem” (9:51). Jesus is on His way to His death.
Consequently the phrases “on their way” and “along the road” imply “to Jerusalem.” Luke, therefore, is probably using the “way to Jerusalem” as a symbol for discipleship (remember that in Acts, Luke’s second volume, Jesus’ followers called themselves “the Way”: Acts 9:2; 18:25; 19:9, 23; 22:4; 24:14, 22). That is certainly the case with today’s passage.
Luke calls the place where Mary and Martha live “a certain village.” John identifies it as Bethany, a town near the Mount of Olives, the hill immediately east of Jerusalem (John 11:1, 18). John suggests that the sisters live together (John 11:20) and mentions a house of the women’s brother Lazarus (12:1). Luke suggests that the house in his story is Martha’s and makes no mention of Lazarus, although some suggest that he is the Lazarus of Jesus’ parable in Luke 16:19–31.
John also portrays Martha as one who serves. Luke’s “much serving” sounds awkward today, but we will see that it helps us, because later in Luke 22:24–27 Jesus will define discipleship as serving.
In John’s story, Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with perfume (John 12:1–3; Luke does not identify the woman who anoints Jesus, and places the story at the house of Simon the Pharisee: 7:36–50).
Luke presents us the striking picture of Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet; we normally expect male students to take this posture, whether literally or figuratively. Remember it is Luke who mentions that Jesus has female followers (Luke 8:1–3; 23:55–56; 24:22–24; compare Acts 9:36–39; 16:14–15; 18:2–3; 18), and here he shows us a tableau of a woman disciple learning at the feet of her teacher (compare Luke 8:35; Acts 22:3).
Jesus’ enigmatic statement, “Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her,” invites us to ask what we see in this passage. In the context of Luke’s Gospel and Acts, both Martha’s service and Mary’s learning show us different and laudable paths to discipleship. But in the immediate context of the story, Jesus praises Mary’s way over Martha’s. Why? The background mentioned earlier suggests an answer: because Jesus is on His way to His death, opportunities to learn at His feet are few and fleeting. On the other hand, opportunities to serve will abound after Jesus has gone. See especially Acts 6:1–7, where the Jerusalem believers choose seven men to serve widows. The word translated “serve” (“serve/wait tables” and “serve the Word”) in verses 2 and 4 is the basis of our English word “deacon.”
Luke’s story, therefore, invites us to look at ourselves when we come into conflict with a fellow Christian. We should ask, “Despite our disagreement, and despite our differences, how is my brother or sister in Christ being a faithful disciple of our Lord?”