Please read Luke 10: 38-42 and then after sitting quietly for a few minutes pray; Lord, as I sit at your feet, speak to me. I am listening, and I want you to be glorified in my life. Amen.
There was something very special about Jesus’s relationship and friendship with Martha, Mary, and their dear brother Lazarus. Martha’s home, (v 38) which she shared with her younger sister and brother was a favourite stopping off point for Jesus – tucked away as it was in the small village of Bethany just a few miles from the capital Jerusalem. This was a home where Jesus was warmly welcomed and deeply loved. Here he was acknowledged as “Lord.”
I love the way Bishop J.C. Ryle introduces this story in his commentary. Bishop Ryle writes;
This little history which these verses contain is only recorded in the Gospel of St. Luke. So long as the world stands the story of Mary and Martha will furnish the Church with lessons of wisdom which ought never to be forgotten. Taken together with the eleventh chapter of St. John’s Gospel, it throws a most instructive light on the inner life of the family which Jesus loved.
We must ask a very important question. Why is this story included in Luke’s gospel? What is it meant to teach us? What are we supposed to learn from this story and how should we be challenged by it? I agree with those who say that the main reason Luke included this story in his gospel is to teach readers a fundamental lesson about discipleship. Discipleship is one of Luke’s main concerns and interests, and discipleship concerns the subject of what is involved in following Jesus. What does it mean and what does it involve to follow this great and awesome person – Jesus Christ – Son of God – God incarnate?
Whenever we think about discipleship, it is important to remember two concepts or ideas. These are learning and obeying. Discipleship is therefore about living your life with Jesus as Teacher (learning) and Lord (obeying/following). See also John 13: 13-17
Luke has included this little, seemingly incidental story about a domestic scene, to educate us about discipleship – and a particularly important and eternally relevant aspect of what discipleship must involve. Just before I take you to the main insight this story presents, I want to mention one other noteworthy point that comes out this story which is plain for all to see, and which is related to discipleship. This story clearly reveals (as others also do) that Jesus called and blessed female disciples. This was something exceptional, controversial, and radical. Jesus set women free to follow him! Women learned from the Master just as men did. No difference. This is something that Luke in particular loves to emphasise and highlight in his gospel and in Acts. This was a new and bold move on the part of Jesus. Is it any wonder that so many women flocked to him for healing and followed him? (Luke 8: 2-3) Here in this incident, Mary is enjoying a one to one teaching session with Jesus.
Martha and Mary were among Jesus’s female disciples and friends although they did not move around with him but kept their own home. Even though Martha is gently rebuked in this episode by Jesus, she was still a strong disciple as her confession of faith in John 11 reveals. I believe you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world. (John 11:27)
This story therefore reveals Jesus’s desire to call and include women amongst his followers, but the story is primarily included to reveal something fundamental about what is involved for women and men in following Jesus as Lord.
What is the most important thing Jesus says/does in this story? As you read (and reread) this story slowly and carefully – there is one phrase from the lips of the Teacher and Lord that jumps out. It is the phrase, but only one thing is needed. Is this not a powerful word coming from the lips of Jesus?
Jesus says that there is one thing that is particularly needed when it comes to following him. Now when we hear that Jesus wants to highlight “one thing” – surely our ears have to prick up – and we have to ask with eagerness – “what is that one thing?” Jesus says that Mary has chosen “what is better” – but what was the better choice she made? (v 42) Do you want to know “what is better”? Do you want to understand what Jesus believes is the “one thing that is needed” above all others in this life of faith? This is the reason why this story is included – to reveal to us “one thing” that disciples, both women and men, must prioritise above all other things.
So, what is the “one thing?” What did Mary do that Jesus felt he had to strongly defend?
The answer lies in the action that Mary chose to take which is described by Luke earlier as “sitting at the Lord’s feet and listening to what he said/taught.”
She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet, listening to his words… (v 39)
This is a very important lesson in what it means to follow Jesus – to be his true disciple. Disciples must learn to take time, to prioritise time, in order to sit at the feet of Jesus and to listen to his words and learn from him. Listening and learning from Jesus is vital – in fact, this is the only base and foundation from which a life of following Jesus can be properly built. If we fail here, we are likely to lead much less effective, peaceful, and joyful Christian lives. We must learn to pause, sit, listen, and learn.
In Jesus’s world this is how discipleship was always understood. It is instructive and interesting to note that in Acts 22: 3 that Paul, while sharing his personal testimony, speaks about that fact that he sat at the feet and under the teaching of the great and well-known Pharisee Gamaliel. That was his training as a Pharisee. He sat at the feet and under the tutelage of the very best teacher of his day – Gamaliel. This was part of Pharisaic discipleship, part of following, growing, developing, and maturing. Paul had once sat at the feet of Gamaliel, now he sat at the feet of Jesus who was his new Lord and Master.
This what we too must be prepared to do. This is “the choice” we must be prepared to make. You and I must be prepared and willing to regularly sit at the feet of Jesus and be ready and open to both listen and learn, and then to rise-up and obey! Just as Jesus spent time each day quietly listening to his Father, so we must deliberately choose to spend time listening to Jesus. In this way, we learn to understand what is Jesus’s word and will and way for us. I will come on to how we do this practically in a moment, but first let me explain a little more about this important idea of “sitting at the feet of Jesus.”
I want to do this because “sitting at the feet” does not primarily refer to physical posture but to rather to spiritual approach and attitude. It is probably true that Mary may have sat on the floor before Jesus, while he sat on a seat to teach her. She may well have been nearer to Jesus’s feet than his head, but this phrase “sitting at the feet” is more about her attitude than her positioning before Jesus – and about the way she approached Jesus from whom she wanted to learn. I believe there are at least 5 descriptive words that describe Mary’s attitude, and which all disciples, including you I, must seek to emulate. Here they are. We must approach Jesus –
- Humbly – for He is Lord and King
- Submissively – for he is Lord and Master.
- Reverently – with deep respect and a sense of Jesus’s greatness and glory.
- Openly – willingly to be taught and eager to learn and drink in all He has for us.
- Dependently – looking only to Him and relying of Him alone. He is the vine; we are the branches.
The disciple, the follower of Jesus is to come before the Lord Jesus with a humble spirit and a submissive will. The disciple of the Jesus must come before his Lord with a worshipful heart and an open and teachable mind. There must be an awareness of their total dependence on Jesus for life. Jesus alone has the words of eternal life (John 6: 68-69) and we are called to be still, to listen, to learn and then to live out his Word.
What Jesus is commending and defending here in Mary, and what he wants to see in all his followers, is the spirit and attitude that is spoken of by the Psalmist in Psalm 131.
My heart is not proud, O Lord, my eyes are not haughty; I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me. But I have stilled and quietened my soul; like a weaned child with its mother, like a weaned child is my soul within me. (Psalm 131: 1-2)
According to Jesus, we must realise that we do not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. This is our primary food and drink – and it is spiritual, and it is vital for faithful Christian living and serving. (Deuteronomy 8:3, Luke 4:4, Colossians 3:16). We must choose to invite the word of Christ to dwell in us richly. This will empower us with rich resources of inner strength, and produce an abundance of fruit and love. This will equip us to truly love God and neighbour.
How do we do this practically? How do we make “sitting at Jesus’s feet and listening to Him” a priority for us? I think one helpful way to approach this is to use the acronym that Pete Greig presents in his great book entitled “How to hear God.” Pete Grieg uses the acronym P R A Y.
P = Pause – be still, quieten down your soul (see Psalm 131 above). Sit quietly at Jesus’s feet.
R = Read and Reflect – slowly drink in the words of Holy Scripture. Ponder over them. Allow them time to penetrate you heart.
A = Ask – ask God to highlight what he wants to say to you. Seek for the Holy Spirit’s guidance.
Y = Yield – humbly offer your life to God and then go on your way to obey his word.
We must start in the context of our own home. Mary and Martha were in their home. In our homes, we should take time and make space each day to find a quiet spot, a favourite spot, to sit down and intentionally set aside time to meet with our risen Lord. We quieten ourselves down. We turn off the TV, the phone and the radio and we cease from domestic chores. “Sorry Martha, that will have to wait, I’m listening to Jesus.” Suzanna Wesley, mother to 19 children including John and Charles Wesley, would throw her apron over her head for peace, quiet and an undistracted time with the Lord. Once the apron was covering her head – woe betide the children if they disturbed her – except for an absolute emergency!
Then, we open our bibles (his word) and we read from Holy Scripture asking for God’s help as we read carefully. We see if God highlights something from the text, and we ponder and pray over it. (Bible reading notes can really help). We then offer to God what we have felt drawn to by his Spirit, and ask for grace to respond to it, offering our lives to him. We yield! We can do this in our homes on a regularly basis, and in time we become adept at hearing from the Lord. It is a learning process – but we are learners, we are disciples learning to follow Jesus.
But we can do this in many other contexts. We can do this as we sit quietly on a park bench. We can do this as we walk at the top of Painswick hill or in the Forest of Dean. When we come to a bible study or a house group – what are we doing? – what is the main reason we go to such a meeting? We go to such groups to be with others who also want to “sit at the feet of Jesus and learn from him.” When we come to Church on Sunday to worship – are we not coming to sit with others at the feet of Jesus? Is this not what we doing right now as I bring you God’s word? Is this not what we will be doing tonight as some of us eagerly begin “The Bible Course?” Intentionally, humbly, sitting at the feet of our Lord?
As we embrace this daily practice of “sitting at the feet of Jesus” with the correct attitude and spiritual demeanour and hunger, we will soon discover that our days are better and brighter – that our strength is renewed like the eagles (Isaiah 40:31), our hope is stirred, our faith is built up, and we are far less anxious and flustered. We are walking in step with the Lord and it makes all the difference. We are walking and working in his strength and not our own. We know a deeper sense of peace and therefore joy rises within us, because the two are so intimately connected.
Jesus did have to very gently rebuke Martha who he loved deeply. It was not that all her catering efforts and concerns were condemned – they certainly were not. She may have been guilty of trying to do too much, going over the top for Jesus and his disciples, but Jesus appreciated her kindness and the hospitality of her warm and welcoming home. However, Jesus would not do what she wanted him to do at that moment – which was to tell Mary off for not helping. Jesus defended Mary, because by sitting at his feet with her humble and open spirit – she was doing something, “the one thing needed above all others – which all disciples would need to do in the future. She was drinking in deeply every word that came out of the mouth of the Lord.
To be balanced it is important to note and to remember that Christian homes are to be places of spirituality and hospitality. They are to be places where we sit at Jesus’s feet in special, quiet moments. They are also to be places where we kneel at the feet of others and wash their feet as we serve and welcome them with generosity. They are to be places where, like Martha, we kindly offer food and cups of tea and glasses of orange juice and pieces of cake and a warm bed for the night. Hospitality is a ministry and a gift that is warmly commended throughout the bible as we have seen in our OT reading (Genesis 15: 1-15) today. Hospitality is at the forefront of our LYCIG vision – but so is promoting and maintaining personal spiritual growth and fervour. (Romans 12: 11-13)
In the light of today’s reading from Luke 10 – How will you take personal responsibility for your own spiritual growth and walk of discipleship? How will you develop the good habit of regularly sitting at the feet of the Lord and listening to him, and learning what he wants you to do?
We do not know what happened next do we? Almost certainly they had a good meal and a happy time and perhaps Jesus himself did the washing up? We do know that Jesus remained close friends with Martha and Mary. We know that these two brave women were great and valued disciples of our Lord. We know that Jesus loved both equally and unconditionally. He wept for them and with them before their brother’s grave. (John 11:33-35) We know that Jesus raised their brother Lazarus from the dead and Mary was to be found at his “feet” once more, preparing Jesus for death and burial, through anointing him with a very costly oil/nard. (John 12:3)
But the lesson of “sitting at his feet” remains for all disciples, in all ages, times, and places – and one day we shall all be gathered around Him in heaven, worshipping Him before His throne. In the meantime, the one other thing we can do, and we will do this in a few moments, is to approach his table where there is bread and wine; we will gather at his feet. This time it will be at the foot of a rugged and blood-stained cross, but as He proclaimed to Martha, so he declares to us; “I am the resurrection and the life.” (John 11:25).
Thanks, and praise be to Jesus – our Lord and Teacher, our King, and our Friend.
And to our great God, Father, Son, and Spirit – we ascribe all glory. Amen!
Revd Peter J Clarkson (17th July 2022)