The course in Sri Lanka had ended. The students had preached their messages, the final tests were graded and returned, everything was done for the week. But then we started to go back over one of the passages some of them had preached. For the next ninety minutes we delved deeper and deeper into the text and its surrounding context. I think God’s Word really challenged each of us.
We agreed that the issue with Martha was not that she was working. This was culturally and obviously the right thing to do. Furthermore, we agreed that to critique Martha for working would be inappropriate and unhelpful in our churches. The tension in the text is not her working, but her soured attitude that led her to rebuke and command Jesus, the guest of honour, in front of everybody. The resolution to that tension is found in Jesus’ calming her and pointing to Mary’s choice of sitting at his feet.
So here’s the issue – before and after this incident (as well as throughout the gospels), Jesus is affirming the priority of loving God, followed closely by loving one’s neighbour. Always in that order. The previous story makes it clear who is our neighbour – anyone who we see who is in need and we are able to help them. Then we see Martha, loving her neighbour. That is, loving the thirteen tired guests who had landed on her doorstep. But she discovers that loving neighbour is deliberately the second element in the “greatest commandment.” It has to be second.
Actually, Martha might resist such an idea. Like many of us she would probably declare forcefully that she was loving God by loving her neighbour. Isn’t that what you would say? I probably would. But that just won’t do. Mary had chosen the right thing, and in this case it is clear that to love the Lord means to sit at his feet and to listen to him. Intriguingly when we love our neighbour the flow is outward, from us to them. That will soon exhaust the biggest hearted person because the needs are simply overwhelming whichever way we turn. But to love the Lord, in this narrative, is to listen at his feet. The flow is in the opposite direction, outward from him, to us.
Isn’t it true that spouses feel loved when they are really, truly, properly listened to? Isn’t it true that children love nothing more than to have the full attention of a parent as they chatter about whatever is important to them? In human relationships we feel loved when we are listened to. What if we want the Lord to feel loved? Maybe the same applies?
To love the Lord by loving our neighbour is unsustainable and will eventually result in soured attitude, or anger, or depression, or sin. But instead we should keep the priorities straight. Allow the Lord to minister to you before you seek to minister to others. To shift into Genesis language for a moment, we are not blessed because we are a blessing, but we are blessed to be a blessing to others. The love of God flows to us, then through us to others.
How are we doing at this? I, for one, forget this all too often. So easy to get busy, but if I really want to show the Lord I love him, then I will listen to him. I think the church leaders sitting in the room last Thursday felt gently rebuked along with Martha, yet lovingly invited to the amazing and privileged position at the feet of Jesus. I know I did.