The story of Jesus' visit to the home of Martha follows on immediately from the parable of the Good Samaritan. The lawyer had asked Jesus what he must do to gain eternal life and by means of a parable Jesus had left him with an impossible requirement, to love as the good Samaritan loved. We now witness Martha distracted with loving care toward Jesus, a special guest in her home. While she rushes around serving her guests, Mary, here sister, is sitting at the feet of Jesus hanging on his every word. Against Martha's protests, Jesus makes the point that Mary has chosen the good portion and it will not be taken from her. Eternal life is not gained in the doing, but in the receiving - in hearing and believing.
v38. In this verse, Luke describes a model response to the gospel mission of Jesus and his disciples, namely, welcoming the evangelist. Turning aside from their travels, they are invited to stay at the home of a woman named Martha. It is most probably the home of the sisters Mary and Martha who lived at Bethany, a village just outside Jerusalem. Luke doesn't give us the name of the village, because he wants us to see Jesus continuing on his journey toward Jerusalem.
v39. Luke now describes a model response to the gospel - we must hang on every word. The situation, described by Luke, is most likely a meal where Jesus is reclining on a bench with his feet away from the table. Mary would then be sitting at Jesus' feet. This was the normal posture for a Rabbi's disciple, although the unusual aspect here is that the disciple is a woman. Women would not normally be privileged to sit under the instruction of a Rabbi.
v40. Martha rightly offers hospitality toward her guests, but she is fussed by the burden and feels wronged by her sister because she is not helping in the necessary household tasks.
v41. Jesus gives Martha a gentle rebuke. This may seem unfair, as Martha is struggling to serve her Lord in her own way. Earle Ellis paraphrases the rebuke this way: "don't let ordinary dinners spoil your appetite for the real dinner." Jesus is not rebuking her for choosing a practical form of ministry, a secular ministry over a spiritual one, but rather he is rebuking her for allowing her busyness to distract her from hearing the gospel. Worse still, Martha has sought to divert Mary from the gospel as well.
v42. The original Greek manuscripts provide us with a number of different readings for the opening clause. The best attested reading is "Only few things are necessary, or rather, one alone", REBmg. The sense of this particular reading is something like, "I only need a few things for my meal so you don't need to fuss and put on a big deal, on the other hand, you need only one thing, for when it comes to a person's salvation, hearing and believing the gospel is the only necessary thing." As for Mary, she "has chosen what is better"; she has seen the priority of the Word of God and so has chosen "the best dish", Moffatt. She has made a choice that guarantees "eternal life."
During the Reformation in the sixteenth century, the Church of England ("the English received apostolic church") was reformed. The founding principle of the church's reformation was the priority of scripture. As the Articles of Religion put it, "Holy Scriptures containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite necessary to salvation."
Due to the limited education of many of the clergy, the reforming Bishops wrote a series of sermons known as the Homilies. The first of these established the basis of church life, namely, the scriptures - "A Fruitful Exhortation to the Reading and Knowledge of Holy Scripture."
By the eighteenth century, the Church of England had slipped into a state of morbidity. The "Great Awakening", led by John Wesley, renewed the church's focus on the Word of God. For the revivalists it was by faith alone in the scriptures alone, a believer and their Bible. Those who were touched by the "Great Awakening" and remained in the Anglican church, were known as Evangelicals. Like their Methodist brothers and sisters, their focus was on the promises revealed in God's Word.
When it comes to the church, it grows and is secured, not by sacramentalism, ritualism, social activism, intellectualism.... but by the faithful proclamation of the gospel and its ready hearing and acceptance by God's people.
All Christian denominations have a similar story - times of dullness followed by times of renewed enthusiasm for the Word of God. The question each of us has to ask today is, how well does our church handle the Word of God?
For many, a reliance on the Word has suffered as the hierarchy has acted to stem declining membership. Rather than seeing decline as a natural consequence of a post-Christian age, they have tended to adopt methodologies to shore up nominalism by attracting the middle-class children of baby-boomers back to church. These methodologies rely on secular marketing and management principles in much the same way as a retail business targets its consumer base and develops marketing strategies to increase product sales. The problem is that Christ builds his church through the proclamation of his Word, and this because his "kingdom is not of this world."
It is very easy for us to focus on less essential tasks, assuming that these can produce more effective results. Yet, we need to be very careful with religious busyness, organization, programs.... which distract us from the real business of hearing Christ. Through the Word, Christ renews our lives and builds his church. Let us beware of worldly concerns which divert us from the priority of the Word.
Try to list the different techniques used today to grow congregations, and consider how these divert members from the priority of the Word.