Living in Washington D.C., the mecca of the politics, one rarely hears words like Jesus’ to Martha in Luke 10 – “few things are needed.” The DC culture promotes juggling many activities simultaneously so you can advance as quickly as possible in your career path. Simplicity is not something DC folks do well. Broader than DC though, simplicity is not something Americans do well.
In fact, instead of commending those who live simply we often reject or ignore them and label them as “simpletons.” Dr. Bill Clarke has suggested that America significantly altered its concept of the nuclear family when it changed from an agricultural to urban society. I would further suggest that our move into the cities has all but destroyed our desire to live simply. We now live closer to one another than ever, and technology makes even the small distances between us irrelevant. Yet we see more cases of anxiety, depression, and loneliness now than in decades before; most notably, we have seen dozens of our fellow citizens killed by lone wolf shooters who struggled to connect with the world.
Living simply is not typically associated with city life, but it can be. As we look at the story of Jesus in Mary and Martha’s house, we often focus on the dichotomy between the sisters’ responses. When we look at Martha, we identify with her “distraction through service” routine; in DC merely looking up the initials “NGO” will show you this city’s dedication to service. When we look at Mary, we identify with her passion for Christ that curtails all other passions; we focus on this part of the text more than any other. In our typical analysis of this encounter though, we have missed a crucial element: Jesus’ response.
Jesus commends Mary for her passion and rebukes Martha for her distraction. It seems simple enough—choose the good portion, choose Jesus. Looking at the culture around us and many people’s reluctance (many Christians even) to pursue solely Jesus, we must look at the Gospel and our interpretation and say “what did we miss?” In this story our error is small but meaningful.
By focusing too little on the nature of the response Jesus gives to the sisters, we have missed His lesson on commendation. We as a church so often fail to “stir one another to good works” because we are distracted by our personal salvation or spreading the Gospel to unbelievers. (These are GREAT causes, by the way.) But we do not focus on the intra-church paradigm enough. Jesus knows that both Mary and Martha follow Him devoutly; why else would Martha care so much to serve and why would Mary fall at His feet?
Jesus here is pushing two of His followers to question their motives for serving him. Jesus commends Mary for her simple choice to follow Him. The church needs to commend those who choose the “good portion” as well. Too often, we focus primarily on rebuking Martha instead of commending Mary. Hating and exposing sin are great causes that Christians must act upon, but the self-improvement doctrine of Christianity has become widespread enough in our cities.
We need more churches that focus on cultivating and commending the Mary’s of this world. As any message in the Gospel, this message of commendation can be misconstrued. It is easy to enter into a prideful neglect of sin if we only focus on Mary—and that is not what I am proposing here. We have focused on Jesus’ response to Martha too much—we have pushed church-goers to hate their own sin and even hate themselves as an extension of the sin. We need to hear Jesus’ message to Mary and we need to know that redemption comes through Christ alone. It is a simple message that we are often too distracted to hear.
Will Thompson is a graduate of the 2015-2016 Capital Fellows Program.