In the 1991 film City Slickers, Billy Crystal plays Mitch, a middle aged, big-city advertising salesman dissatisfied with his work and unhappy at home. He is having a mid-life crisis. Mitch’s wife sees his unhappiness and sends him and two friends on a two-week trip to a working ranch in the “Old West” to find himself.
On the trip, they meet Curly, played by Jack Palance. Curly is everything Mitch is not: taciturn, a loner, rough and gruff. Curly is a real-deal leather-faced cowboy.
A great scene occurs near the middle of the film. The city slickers are taking part in a cattle drive from New Mexico to Colorado. Curly takes Mitch along with him to catch a few strays, and while on the trail the two men with nothing in common eventually have a real conversation.
Curly: You know what the secret of life is?
Mitch: No, what?
Curly: This. [Holds up his finger]
Mitch: Your finger?
Curly: One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and everything else don’t mean [expletive deleted].
Mitch: That’s great, but what’s the one thing?
Curly: That’s what you’ve got to figure out.
Is that what you’ve got to figure out? And does everyone have their own “one thing?” Is your “one thing” different than mine?
In the gospel reading for today, Jesus also says that there is only “one thing” that is needed. Perhaps Jesus has something to say to those who are looking for the “one thing” that gives life meaning and puts everything else in perspective.
Let’s look at the story of Jesus, Mary and Martha.
Two weeks ago, we looked at Jesus’ sending of seventy two disciples out on the road. As Jesus and his traveling disciples moved from village to village, they depended upon the hospitality of those who lived there to survive. Those who welcomed Jesus’ message of the kingdom provided him and his followers with lodging and food; those who rejected Jesus’ message slammed the door in their face.
In Luke 10:38-42, we read the story of one family that welcomed Jesus and accepted the message of the kingdom in just the manner Jesus described: they offered him hospitality. We read about sisters Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus quite a bit in the Gospel of John (chapters 11-12). Luke only mentions them here.
The outline of the story is quite simple. Martha works feverishly to provide an appropriate welcome for her guests; Mary sits and talks to her visitor. We see this same phenomenon at parties today. Sometimes, the host is so occupied in the kitchen or with doing things that need to be done, that they never get to mingle with their guests. That’s Martha, and she resents it.
At the most basic, this story elaborates on what kind of hospitality is most suited for God’s prophet, priest and king. This king, at least, did not require an elaborate banquet with attendants running to and fro. What kind of hospitality was needed? Nothing fancy. This guest came not to be honored, but to engage people at the most personal level. While some basic food, drink and lodging were necessary for that to happen, these were not ends in themselves. One welcomed Jesus into one’s home not just to honor him, but to spend time with him.
There is a difference between attending someone (like a servant) and being attentive to someone (like a student). It was the latter that Jesus ultimately sought.
To “sit at the feet” of another is a way of describing a teacher-student relationship in the ancient world. The Apostle Paul, for example, tells us that he was “brought up. . . at the feet of Gamaliel” (Acts 22:3).
The relationship between the teacher (or master) and the student was a serious one. To become a disciple required a long-term, personal commitment to study with the master. It required subordinating oneself to the teacher and submitting oneself to the master’s requirements. Teachers and students (rabbis and their disciples) were definitely not equals, and it was not a come-and-go as you will, do as you wish relationship.
It is all the more surprising, then, to find Mary taking the roll of a disciple and Jesus accepting her in that roll. While there is some disagreement about the place of women in the synagogues in Jesus’ era, studying under a rabbi was an activity generally reserved for men.
Have you ever seen the movie Yentl? Barbra Streisand portrays a young woman who wants to study with the rabbis, but she has to pretend to be a man to do it. It’s not a very good movie, but it does represent the truth that has existed for much of history.
Although one ancient rabbi wrote, “A man ought to give his daughter a knowledge of the law,” the writings of another ancient rabbi seem more typical of the era and of the conservative rural Judaism of Jesus day. First century Rabbi Eliazer said, “If a man gives his daughter knowledge of the law, it as though he taught her lechery,” and “Better to burn the Torah than to teach it to women” [Note 1]
Despite the contrary opinion of many of his contemporaries, Jesus clearly accepts Mary as a disciple, a student, a scholar, if you will. Mary, here, is indeed a model disciple. She represents the proper response to Jesus not just by women, but by believers of both genders.
If Mary represented disciples – both male and female – sitting at Jesus feet, Martha represented the people of God in loving service to others. The word Luke uses to describe her activity is diakonia (service). The word “deacon” is the noun form of the word.
It’s a word used to describe waiting on tables and other servile tasks. When the waiter says, “My name is George, and I’ll be your server,” he is describing the basic function of diakonia.
“Deacon” became a technical word for an office in the church quite early in the church’s history. Paul’s first letter to Timothy spells out the requirements for the office of deacon (I Timothy 3:8-13).
In the book of Acts, Luke tells us that the office of deacon began with the need to take care of the Greek-speaking widows in the congregation who were being neglected in the daily distribution of food, When the complaint came before the Apostles, Luke says,
Then the Twelve summoned the whole company of the disciples and said, “It would not be right for us to give up preaching about God to wait on tables. (3) Therefore, brothers, select from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and wisdom, whom we can appoint to this duty. Act 6:2-3 HCSB
Luke seems to be making a similar point here. Works of service are important – even essential – but they are not everything. Works of service are meant to facilitate true discipleship, not to replace it. The word of God and the person of Jesus always remain at the center of what we do and who we are as a church.
Wide Angle View
So you have Mary – the disciple of the word – and Martha – the servant of those in need. But this story is also part of a larger unit of thought in Luke’s gospel.
In the previous passage, Luke says this:
There was a scholar of the law who stood up to test him and said, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (26) Jesus said to him, “What is written in the law? How do you read it?” (27) He said in reply, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” (28) He replied to him, “You have answered correctly; do this and you will live.” (Luke 10:25-28 NAB)
The scholar’s answer came from two sources:
- Deuteronomy 6:4-5 ESV Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. (5) You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.
- Lev 19:18 ESV … you shall love your neighbor as yourself:
The scholar correctly understood that the ONE secret of eternal life had TWO parts, but he misunderstood how to use them. He thought of them as a boundary markers: stay within the lines and you’ll be OK. He needed to know where the lines were so that he wouldn’t cross them. He needed to know how to do enough to meet the requirement, to check the blocks on God’s checklist.
For Jesus, loving God and loving one’s neighbor were not just the most important rules to follow, but the purpose of every rule and every activity.
So Jesus told the scholar a story. It’s the story we call “The Good Samaritan.” You know the basic outline of the story. A man is ambushed by thieves on the road between Jericho and Jerusalem and left for dead. A priest traveling down the road stepped around him. A Levite did too. It was a despised, lawless Samaritan who helped.
Should the priest and the Levite have helped the wounded man? Of course. The Law says that if you are traveling down the road and you find even the donkey of your worst enemy fallen on the road, you must help it. (Exodus 23:5) If even a “godless” Samaritan knows how to help those in need, God’s people have no excuse.
It was my college professor C. H. Talbert in his book Reading Luke who helped me see that like the parable of the Good Samaritan, the story of Mary and Martha was also a commentary on the two-fold great commandment. Both parables touch both halves of the commandment – the love of both God and neighbor – but the story of Mary and Martha focuses on the former while the story of the Good Samaritan focuses on the latter.
In fact, if you broaden the scope in Luke just a little more, you’ll find Luke talking talking about harvesting people for the kingdom, acting compassionately toward our neighbor, listening attentively to Jesus and praying to the Father. Mission, service, study and prayer: they are all part of what it means to be a disciple. They are all part of “one thing.”
One Needful Thing
In his 1871 sermon on this text, One Needful Thing [Note 2], C. H. Spurgeon, addresses three different groups. First, he speaks to the industrious, hardworking people of his congregation. He commends them for their hard work, for taking care of their families and doing things that need to be done. But then he adds:
Is that all? Were you made only to be a machine for digging holes, laying bricks, or cutting out pieces of wood? Were you created only to stand at a counter and measure or weigh out goods? do you think your God made you for that and that only? Is this the chief end of man—to earn shillings a week, and try to make ends meet therewith? is that all immortal men were made for? As an animal like a dog, nor a machine like a steam engine, can you stand up and look at yourself, and say, “I believe I am perfectly fulfilling my destiny”?
Today, we might add, are we made only for PowerPoint slides and Excel Spreadsheets? Are we made for the reams and reams of paper that come from our printers, or the gigabytes of data we move through our computers? Are we made for only cooking and cleaning and performing all the other necessities of life? Is that all there is?
And then Spurgeon addresses the young people of his day, whom he believes are obsessed with “frivolities.”
The charms of music, the merriment of the gay assembly, the beauties of art, and the delights of banqueting—there must be something more for thee than these;
How much more today might the people say to those whose noses are buried in their work, “Life is more than this. Live a little.” But life is also more than iPods and game systems, cell phones and text messaging, FaceBook and parties and concerts.
Compared to the people of Spurgeon’s day, we have PhD’s in frivolity. Spurgeon didn’t care very much for the frivolous, but I like it. I think one of the worst things that John Wesley ever said was, “Never waste time,” but that’s another message.
But is that all there is? Does life only consist of one amusement after another? Is life a continuous diet of cotton candy? How empty would that be!
And then Spurgeon addresses the religious people of his day. We could, I imagine, endlessly discuss bad religion and misguided religion in our world. But even good religion can become an end in itself and thus become bad religion.
When I and my church youth group returned from a retreat in 1972, we decided to put on a “Jesus festival” (for lack of a better term) for the other high school students in my hometown. This was my first experience of working long hours as a volunteer within the church. I spent hours with other students mimeographing fliers, folding letters, addressing envelopes, designing and printing posters, coordinating venues and equipment and musicians, and a hundred other tasks.
I especially remember standing in the closet watching the mimeograph churn out thousands of pieces of paper. I watched the drum go around thousands of times. As necessary, I unclogged paper jams, replaced broken stencils, loaded and unloaded paper. Life, I can tell you, is not about watching a mimeograph go around and around.
What we were trying to do was to set the table so that others could know the joy of learning to sit at Jesus’ feet. That’s what all the work was about. Without that purpose, the work was absolutely meaningless.
It takes a lot of work by volunteers to make church happen. It does not happen all on its own. It’s easy to lose oneself in the details of our labors and forget their ultimate purpose. We become anxious and worried about so many things. In the end, only one thing is needful.
Curly told Mitch, “You know what the secret of life is? One thing. Just one thing.” You stick to that and everything else falls into place.
It’s not a secret, though, and I really don’t have to search the whole world over to figure it out. It’s the same for me as it is for you. Jesus came looking for both of us so that we would know what it is.
The secret of life, the purpose of life, is love in two dimensions: loving God, and loving one’s neighbor – who could be the person across the world, or across the street, or in your own home. It could even be that stranger lying in the road you’re passing down.
Likewise, the love of God is not some abstract idea or spiritual experience. The love of God is known concretely and specifically in committing oneself to Jesus Christ – to submit to him and learn from him and to let his word shape your life.
That kind of love is the one thing that matters, and everything else, ultimately, don’t mean squat.
1. Clara Beth Speel Van de Water, “Interpretations of Luke 10:38-42,” Festschrift in Honor of Charles Speel, ed. Thomas J. Sienkewicz and James E. Betts, Monmouth College, Monmouth, Illinois, 1997.
On the web at http://department.monm.edu/classics/Speel_Festschrift/vandewater.htm.
2. Charles H. Spurgeon, One Needful Thing, Sermon # 1015, October 15, 1871.
On the web at http://www.spurgeon.org/sermons/1015.php.