It’s easy for us to look through a 21st century lens and miss the full weight of what it means to be a disciple who makes disciples. The Greek word for ‘disciple’ means ‘learner,’ but discipleship in the 1st century went far beyond the walls of a classroom. A disciple was someone apprenticed to shadow a teacher in order to learn a certain way of thinking and living in the world. For a first century Jew, being a disciple meant rigorous training of the mind to learn certain truths from a rabbi. But it also meant learning a person— his wisdom and how he applied those truths to complex issues of life and death. It involved careful watching, listening, practising and asking questions to grasp and live out the teaching. That’s how those first disciples would have understood Jesus’ invitation to come and follow him. By binding themselves to Jesus constantly, they would learn and imitate his ways. Although the original 12 disciples were all men, many women were also devoted followers of Jesus (Luke 8:1-3), a scandal for a rabbi in middle-Eastern Jewish patriarchal culture. Sisters, Mary and Martha, were two such women. One day Jesus visited and enjoyed a meal in their home in Bethany. Luke’s short account cuts to the heart of discipleship and asks three questions of all of us who call ourselves Christ’s disciples:
Do I have a teachable heart?
Have I fallen into the trap of a performance-driven life?
Am I a devoted or distracted disciple?
“Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. 39 And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. 40 But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” 41 But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, 42 but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:38-42).
A teachable disciple
Attentiveness is a key trait of any disciple. Mary’s posture of sitting at Jesus’ feet, hungry to learn, reveals a teachable spirit. She comes to Jesus empty and expectant, waiting for him to fill her with his words of truth. This was the same Mary who had anointed the Lord Jesus with expensive ointment and wiped his feet with her hair (John 12:1-8; 11:2). She was a devoted disciple who treasured Jesus more than anything. She hung onto His every word and listened to what He had to say about his upcoming death and resurrection, while other disciples were bickering about the cost of her alabaster jar of perfume (Matt 26:8-13). Mary had no doubt that the “one thing necessary” was to be where God had chosen to reveal himself — at the feet of his Son. Resting in her relationship with Jesus, she wasn’t driven or distracted by other demands or the perfection of a transient meal.
Mary’s attentive ear reminds me of the prophet Isaiah’s invitation 700 years earlier: “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labour for that which does not satisfy? Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food (Isa 55:2).” Mary knew that the Bread of life was in her house and His nourishment was of eternal worth. That’s why she chose to sit at her Lord’s feet and listen to His teaching.
A performance-driven disciple
I’m sure you’re sympathetic with Martha, like I am! That’s probably because she reminds us a lot of ourselves. Isn’t hospitality a noble act for any follower of Christ? (Heb 13:2) Wouldn’t you also want to impress God’s Messiah with a wonderful dinner in your home? But Martha made a real meal of the task and soon got grumpy with her sister and her guest for allowing her to run herself ragged in the kitchen! Martha’s devotion to service eclipsed her devotion to Jesus himself, and soon she felt like a slave “distracted with much serving” (Luke 10:40).
Don’t we all know the frazzled and fragmented response that creeps over us when we allow our household affairs and family, our work and leisure, even our good Christian ministry, draw us away from our devotion to Jesus?
Martha made hospitality the “one thing necessary,” instead of the person of Jesus.
But Jesus saw the heart behind her service and loved his friend enough to confront her (John 11:5). Perhaps he knew Martha was driven by a quest to live up to her own standards as the perfect hostess or for approval, which soon morphed into demanding duty instead of joyful service.
“Lord, don’t your care?” is exactly the same accusation the disciples voiced in the boat when Jesus slept through the storm. It’s the same bitter tone of the older brother’s question in the parable of the prodigal son (Mark 4:38; Luke 15:29-30). Life never seems fair and contentment is elusive to the performance-driven person.
Jesus reads Martha’s distracted heart and makes a gentle but direct diagnosis—“Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but only one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her”(Luke 10:41-42). An apt warning for us too if we are distracted disciples!
Devoted to the good portion
Jesus’s observation of Mary and Martha cuts right to the heart of discipleship, even in the 21st century. What is the “good portion” to which Mary was devoted?
In the Psalms, David gives us a clue: “The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot…My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Psalm 16:5; 73:26). Old Testament believers understood that only God could save, provide, counsel and protect them. He was the source of their inheritance as the people of God—their promised blessings in this world and forever. The covenant-God was their shield and very great reward, not the blessings themselves (Gen 15:1 NIV). John Piper describes what it means for a believer to say that the Lord is my chosen portion:
“If there are a hundred portions of food and drink spread out on the table, and one of them is the Lord himself — he is my choice. Nothing satisfies — nothing nourishes and sustains — the way he does. He is my greatest good. My treasure of all treasures. My highest pleasure. My chosen portion of sirloin. My cup of finest wine… In other words, when the dice are rolled, and the straws are drawn, and the wheel is turned — whatever happens to us comes from the hand of God. God holds my lot. God decides it. God rules over it. God is my sovereign, and I am glad to have it so. I don’t just affirm it stoically; I exult in it.”
When Jesus praised Mary’s devotion, He was also making a potent statement about Himself as God’s Son: “I am the gift of God’s sovereign grace! I am your supreme, everlasting inheritance! Martha, if I am your portion, you need nothing else. My grace is sufficient if you find your rest in me, not in your works.”
If you are a disciple, Jesus’ yoke of training and service is always undergirded by rest and relationship in Him. As co-heirs with Jesus, we have God’s forgiveness, full approval and the blessings of His Kingdom. Our performance means nothing if it doesn’t spring from devotion.
Work with a posture like Mary
As Jesus’s disciples today, we need to learn a radically different way of living that only Jesus can teach us. In our digital age, endless distractions will threaten that diligent training. That’s why we have to catch ourselves when our daily quiet time, Church, Life group or family meals begin to slide off the wagon of our hectic lives. Disciples need time to learn and think and grapple with what Jesus was like—the Son of God who came to show us the Father and Creator of the universe. To listen to Him, we need to read and digest his Word, the Bible, in nourishing chunks, rather than nibbling titbits to keep us going another day. We need to carve out time to think through how to apply God’s truth to our lives and to pray deeply, alone and together. If even Jesus needed to withdraw into remote places to spend time with His Father, sometimes praying all night (Luke 5:16; 6:12; 9:18; 11:1), surely He’s our example to imitate?
Of course, the context of this story also doesn’t allow us to opt for a life of meditation and mysticism, seeking ‘spirituality’ as we spot dolphins from the beach! Our previous devotions in Luke 4 and Luke 14 show us that Jesus doesn’t call disciples to a life of comfort, nor to a cloister or pure academia, but He invites us to join Him in his work as fruitful fishers of men. In fact, when Jesus visited Mary and Martha, he had just sent 72 disciples into the towns on foot as “lambs among wolves” to heal the sick and preach the gospel (Luke 10:1-11). He’d just praised the Good Samaritan, whose love for God and his neighbour demanded costly service, not just words and good intentions (Luke 10:33-35). Mary herself lived an active life of secure and confident faith.
But in this story of the two sisters, Jesus is reminding us that disciples must first gather at His feet and listen attentively to his truth and teaching. Only then can we be sent into active service. A disciple must remain a lifelong learner, because we cannot give what we do not have.
Prayer (Psalm 73)
Yet I am always with you;
you hold me by my right hand.
You guide me with your counsel,
and afterward you will take me into glory.
Whom have I in heaven but you?
And earth has nothing I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart
and my portion forever.
In Jesus’ name, amen.