One of the passages of the Scriptures which has been used and abused to support a dualistic, world-flight spirituality is the story of Martha and Mary in Luke 10:38-42. Mary is commended for choosing the “better part” in sitting at the feet of Jesus, while Martha is rebuked for caring about her many household tasks. This has been seen as a contrast between a contemplative, listening, “spiritual” attitude on the part of Mary, and an activist, bustling, “worldly” attitude on the part of Martha.
But is that a legitimate way to understand the passage? I think not.
Here I present a study of various ways this passage has been interpreted throughout history, and draw on the various insights from these approaches to present an approach which I think is more well-rounded and focused on the message of Jesus, not on the contrast between two different sisters.
This study is accompanied by a sermon on the passage which seeks to present the fruit of this study for the church.
Christians have a tendency to repeat well-known interpretations of Scriptural passages without giving them much attention. But sometimes taking a look from a different angle can bring surprising insights.
Take the well-known story of Jesus in discussion with the woman at the well of Samaria. Jesus tells the woman that she is not currently married to the man she is with, and has had five husbands previously. Typically, the woman’s response to his statement is taken as an attempt to divert his attention from this embarrassing fact. After he has disclosed her rather compromised past, she tries to divert him by drawing him into a long-running controversy between Jews and Samaritans as to which mountain they should pray on. This, surely, will get into such tangled argument that he will forget about her past. Jesus, however, recognises this devious ploy and brings her back to his message by telling her that her question is irrelevant – we will now no longer need to go to a mountain to pray, but will be able to pray in spirit and truth. He ignores the essence of what she said and goes back to the point he was trying to emphasis.
But is that what Jesus was doing?
Is that really what the woman was doing? Let’s look at her behaviour from a different angle, assuming that what we have reported is a genuine, respectful, pastoral approach from Jesus to a person who did not need to be told of her sin – she was already all too aware of that.
We note that when Jesus reveals that he knows of her compromised past, she does not try to justify herself, or blame her husbands for casting her off, or reject him as a Jew (who normally would have no dealings with a Samaritan, and a woman at that!), or any other response – she could have simply walked off – after all, didn’t everyone know of her past? What has Jesus said that would make any difference?
We could actually take this woman as a person of insight and spiritual desire – and come to a different understanding of why she said what she said.
Try reading it this way instead:
Jesus reveals to her that he knows about her chequered past. She immediately feels the force of his comment – he has revealed her sin – sin which she desires to be rid of – which she knows she has to be rid of. But how to deal with that sin? To have her sin forgiven she needed to take a sacrifice to the priests at the temple. But which temple? How could she be sure she would have her sins forgiven if she went to Mt Gerizim, or should she go to Jerusalem as the Jews insisted? If this man really was a prophet, he would know the answer to the conundrum and then she could go to the right temple to find forgiveness from God.
So she asked, where should she go to worship? Not just for a worship service such as we have on Sunday, but where to bring the necessary sacrifice for sin and thus find peace.
Jesus said: That is all coming to an end: it is worship in the spirit and in truth which now matters. Worship in a temple will no longer matter – in fact, that is now the case.
She then said that she expected the Messiah to come to reveal all things to them. When Jesus said, I am that same Messiah, she went back to the city and told the people there that someone claiming to be the Messiah had arrived, and he had revealed her past. Many of the Samaritans believed her, asked Jesus to remain with them, and many believed because of what he said. And as a result, they acknowledged that Jesus was the saviour of the world.
But this woman, who had such a chequered past, was the first to believe and to find salvation in Christ.
Truly, He was the temple which she sought and in whom she found forgiveness for sin.
Her question truly was not a diversion from her embarrassing past, but an insight into who was before her. Jesus did not have to draw her back to the issue under discussion, but answered her question precisely – not in the way she expected, but giving the answer she needed nevertheless.
Sometimes our standard interpretation tells us less of the gospel than an approach which appears to go counter to how we typically hear that gospel explained to us.
Originally posted on http://www.reformationalscholarship.com/
Since publishing this post, a relevant article on this passage has appeared in Christianity Today. Dr Lynn Cohick writes on the question: Was the woman of Samaria an adulteress? While she takes a different approach to the passage, it is complementary to my reflections on the passage and the two articles could be read together to address a number of issues with our conventional interpretations.
In this last sermon in the series, I explore how the judgement of God will finally be unleashed on those who reject God and persist in their wickedness. The theme of spiritual warfare is never far from any passage of Scripture, and in the book of Revelation is it predominant.
Yet regardless of the strength of the powers of darkness, and the success of their malignant activity along the way, we are assured that at the end God will rule triumphant over them all. Those who are faithful will be renewed, resurrected, made immortal and called to share in God’s glory and the eternal peace of his kingdom. Though we may suffer in the meantime, our share in God’s eventual victory is certain. This is the faith to which we are called.
Sermon: The Triumph of the King 3
For Part 2 see The Triumph of the King 2
For Part 1 see The Triumph of the King 1
Many Christians today are faced with brutality and terror, severe persecution and death at the hands of enemies of the gospel such as ISIS. How are Christians to respond? What gives Christians the strength to respond? Central to our hope in God and our hope for the future is our belief in the resurrection of Christ and the future resurrection of believers to share in Christ’s eternal life.
But many deny the resurrection of Christ, thereby stripping the gospel of its true meaning and hope. How are we to respond, particularly in the light of persecution by groups such as ISIS – would those who deny the resurrection of Christ be so courageous in the face of death as many of those who have already died cruel deaths?
Sermon: The Triumph of the King 2
For Part 1 see The Triumph of the King (1)
For Part 3 see The Triumph of the King 3
Rev. Dr Craig Bartholomew gave two lectures at the synod of the Anglican Network in Canada which are well worth listening to. He expounds a way of approaching and hearing Scripture which is broadly similar to the approach I use in the resources on this site. The lectures are available on Youtube.
We often struggle to deal with the tragedies and pain we experience in this world, seemingly so full of misery and suffering.
Many people ask Where is God in all this? Why does he allow this suffering to continue?
Some seek to explain suffering by some hidden purpose which God has for us, to somehow improve us through learning patience, or fortitude, or some other character improvement. I do not believe that this is what the Bible teaches. Instead, we read there that God is fully engaged with his world, with the people who inhabit it, and has provided a means whereby evil can be overcome. However, we often fail to recognise or acknowledge the solution God has provided – redemption through Christ.
In this sermon I seek to explain how the Scriptures address the persistence of human suffering, and how Christ is God’s answer to our most painful questions. This sermon is the first of a series of three, with the other sermons to be posted shortly.
Sermon: The Triumph of the King 1.
For Part 2 see: The Triumph of the King (2)
For Part 3 see: The Triumph of the King 3
Whenever we consider what it means for Christ to be King, we immediately confront the fact that his claim to be King is an unavoidably political claim. A king is a political ruler, with authority over his realm, and subjects who are expected to do his bidding.
For Christ to claim to be king, and for God’s people to proclaim him as king, needs to take into account that in our world there are other kings, other rulers, politicians, who claim our allegiance.
As Christians we need to understand how present-day political systems are to be viewed in the light of Christ’s heavenly rule over all things.
Sermon: What do we owe to Caesar?
This sermon explores the theme of God as King in the Old Testament, as the background to the teaching of Jesus to the disciples on the road to Emmaus.
Many of the Psalms celebrate God as King, and express the longing for the King to come to redeem his people and the earth.
These themes are continued in the New Testament with Christ being revealed as the King who is to come, and who presently reigns from heaven until such time as he returns to take his throne in the eternal kingdom on the renewed earth.
Sermon: The Coming of the Kingdom
Audio of sermon (MP3 format): The Coming of the Kingdom (audio)
This site is dedicated to one purpose – helping God’s people to hear what God is saying to us through the Scriptures, and to encourage them to live it out in action wherever they are.
The site will have a combination of sermons and shorter blog pieces reflecting on the Scriptures and how we could respond to them obediently and faith-fully.
The approach taken to the Scriptures is accepting them as God’s Word to us, given to us to receive in the form they come to us, and breathed by God through his Spirit through the human authors, using and reflecting their personality. The Scriptures are given to direct us in the whole of all, all that we do, so that we will thereby live out our trust in God for the present and our hope for the future.
The approach taken to understanding the Scriptures is commonly called “Redemptive-Historical,” that is, that the overall approach of the Scriptures is to spell out how God has been at work since the beginning within human history to bring about the redemption of all things. We must pay attention to the context of the passages we are reading, as that will indicate how we are to respond to what we read. At its simplest level, we read the Old Testament as the account of God’s actions with the people of Israel, preparing them to receive the promised Redeemer. The New Testament speaks of the coming of the Redeemer and the accomplishment of redemption through his life, death and resurrection. It points to the growth of the kingdom of God under the reign of the King ascended to his heavenly throne, and the future yet to come.