Part One: Context Matters
Justo Gonzalez, in his commentary, titles Luke 10:25-42, “An Unexpected Order of Things.” It’s a clever word play. This section of Luke provides an unexpected turn in the narrative. And responses to Jesus come from unexpected people.
He notes that the Parable of the Man Who Fell Among Robbers and the story of Martha and Mary are usually treated separately. He suggests that when we preachers want more good works, we hit the Samaritan story. When we want more prayer, we emphasize Martha and Mary. “If we preach on both,” he writes, “we try to keep them as far apart as possible, so that neither the congregation nor we ourselves will see the contrast between the teaching we draw from each. Yet,” he exclaims, “in the Gospel the two appear back-to-back!” (Kindle Location 2620).
Gonzalez and many others suggest that this placement of texts is worth some consideration in our interpretation. In narrative terms alone, something odd happens here. “Wasn’t Martha being the good Samaritan?” Gonzalez asks. “If the point of the parable is that one should go and serve those in need, Martha is certainly doing that better than Mary” (Kindle Location 2675).
Mary seems to put “religious practice” ahead of practical service, Gonzalez suggests. If, in narrative terms, Martha heard the parable, she would be justified in being confused and angry at Jesus’ words to her. Therefore, Gonzalez concludes, “The juxtaposition of these two passages warns us that the first is not merely a piece of generally good advice about the importance of serving those in need, and that the second is not merely a pious reminder that the life of study and devotion is important” (Kindle Location, 2679).
The key that turns the hermeneutical lock here, Gonzalez argues, is the Lukan emphasis on radical obedience to Jesus, if one is to be a disciple. “The parable of the Good Samaritan calls for a radical obedience that breaks cultural, ethnic, and theological barriers,” Gonzalez writes, “The story of Mary and Martha is equally radical” (Kindle Location 2683). Jesus violates hospitality norms by publicly rebuking Martha, his host. Mary violates gender and family norms by sitting at Jesus’ feet and listening.
“Like so much else in the Gospel of Luke,” Gonzalez concludes, “these two passages point to the radical obedience, and to the upsetting and even reversal of roles, that the kingdom demands” (Kindle Location 2688).
John Kilgallen wonders about the placement of the Martha and Mary story at this point in the narrative – and the geography. If Martha’s home is in Bethany, this story would fit much better near the end of the Lukan travel narrative rather than near the beginning. Commentators observe that the story is noticeably vague regarding the specific village Jesus enters and the time at which this story happened. “As they were going, he entered into a certain village…” (Luke 10:38a, my translation).
It would seem that the Lukan author wishes the reader to ignore any details of time or geography for the moment. “Luke does follow correct topography when he wants to,” Kilgallen writes, “for instance, he places stories having to do with Jericho correctly just before Jesus arrives in Jerusalem” (page 554). These factors suggest, Kilgallen argues, “that Luke has intentionally displaced the story of Martha and Mary; he wants the story now in Chapter 10, and not any other place” (page 554).
Along with Kilgallen, then, we can wonder why here? He suggests that the Martha and Mary story makes a specific point in the Lukan narrative. The “better portion” is listening to the Lord. Kilgallen points to the other end of the parable context, Luke 10:23. Kings and prophets have not seen and heard what the disciples now get to see and hear. Mary is hearing the Lord and illustrates this beatitude from Luke 10:22-23. The point is emphasized by the use of the verb for hearing in 10:23 and 10:39.
This seems a bit of an interpretive stretch, but I think it’s worth pursuing. “Jesus’ clarity about the kind of person one is to love is startling,” Kilgallen writes, “is it so unique among Jesus’ revelations of the mind of his Father that it deserves to be introduced and completed by emphasis upon attentive listening to the Lord, who has no parallel in his knowledge of the Father?” (page 558).
In other words, the call to regard and treat the hated enemy as beloved neighbor is so strange and dissonant and offensive to our ears that we may miss it or (more than likely) dismiss it. This is the liability of sermons on the parable which resolve into simple moralism. We’re tempted to preach on the preceding parable with an almost total emphasis on the “Go and do likewise” with very little attention to just how weirdly nauseating that command is – if we’re really listening.
While the Lukan Travel Narrative begins, probably, at Luke 9:51, its prelude is the Transfiguration account just a few verses earlier. Remember how the Transfiguration story ends. “And there was a voice out from the clouds, saying, ‘This one is my Son, the Chosen One – listen to him!” (Luke 9:35, my translation). Yes, it’s the same verb. And this remembering reinforces Kilgallen’s case.
Let’s go back a little further in the Lukan account for further development. The Lukan Sermon on the Plain ends with the Parable of the Two Foundations in Luke 6:46-49. The purpose of that parable is to show what someone is like who hears (same verb) Jesus’ words and acts on them. That one has built on a firm foundation. The one who hears and does not act has built on a ruinous foundation. Again, in Kilgallen’s brief note, he doesn’t make this connection, but it adds to the case.
According to Kilgallen, the Lukan author uses the Martha and Mary story to re-balance the impact of the Parable of the Man Who Fell Among Robbers. The Samaritan could be responding to the emotion of compassion alone. So, he was a good guy, and that’s the end of the story. But that won’t do in the Lukan account. The author follows up with this “listening” story to emphasize that it is Jesus’ teaching, his word, “that governs moral action” (page 560). Listen and then do – not one or the other.
“Luke wants Theophilus to pay supreme attention to the unique teaching of Jesus about love of neighbor,” Kilgallen argues, “for it is nothing other than the revelation of the mind of the Father, a revelation withheld till now from ‘prophets and kings’” (page 560). The teaching in the parable is so utterly shocking that, without disciplined attention, we will not only miss it but will likely make it into something it is not – a simple morality tale that anyone with half a brain should be able to comprehend.
It’s too easy to turn Martha and Mary (and the Samaritan, for that matter) into archetypes or stereotypes. I’ve heard (and preached) some version of that sermon where Mary’s “contemplative” stance is superior to Martha’s “activist” stance. I know I’ve done just what Gonzalez describes earlier in this post. That wooden binary does not listen to the text. Nor does it serve either text or neighbor.
The question really isn’t which performative stance is “better” or “more necessary.” Instead, the question is, “Who ‘gets’ Jesus?” Apparently, it’s not the lawyer, well-schooled in text and argumentation. Nor, is it Martha, the independent woman, home-owner, and pillar of the community. It’s the Samaritan. And it’s the younger sister. Jesus does not reveal the Word to the “wise and intelligent” but rather to the “infants” (Luke 10:21). They are the ones who hear and do.
I have always felt privileged to walk with other Christians in Bible study and meditation. One of the biggest thrills I get in that walk is when someone in the class comes to a new insight – either for that one personally, or for all of us in the class. There’s nothing more exciting than watching as a careful reader of the Word “connects the dots” in some new and interesting way. I get some of my most interesting new readings and perspectives in just such conversations.
Most often these natural theologians protest that they know little or nothing about the Bible. They say over and over that they are “just there to learn.” That may be true. But it is that “beginner’s mind” which is often most open to the illuminating and transforming power of the Word. The more often I can be a broker for such encounters between the Word and sincere listeners, the more often I get to see remarkable growth in grace and the fruit of the Spirit in action.
I don’t think the Lukan author wishes to elevate listening above doing. But I do think the Lukan author worries about Christians who have gotten into the habit of doing for the sake of doing, no longer informed by a deep listening to the Word. It may well be that our text is a corrective plea for both elements of our discipled life, and in the proper order.
References and Resources
Gonzalez, Justo L. Luke (Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.
Kilgallen, John J. “Martha and Mary: Why at Luke 10,38-42?” Biblica 84, no. 4 (2003): 554–61. http://www.jstor.org/stable/42614476.