Service Versus Sitting at Jesus’ Feet: While Doing Good, Do We Miss the Best?

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by Dustin Ellington

I’d like to share the story of a conversation I once had sitting around a table in Zambia with students from numerous Southern African countries. (Before my recent appointment to the core faculty of ABTS, I was a lecturer in New Testament at Justo Mwale University in Zambia for twelve years.) We were discussing the story of Jesus visiting the home of Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42). The passage tends to provoke conversation about the kind of life Jesus calls us to: one of contemplation, sitting at Jesus’ feet like Mary; or a life of ministry and action, even as Martha served Jesus, and as other stories in the wider literary context of Luke 10 exemplify.

The students and I noticed Mary sitting at the feet of the Lord, listening to his words, and that Martha asks Jesus to correct her sister so Mary will help her serve. But Jesus surprises Martha by not following the suggestion. He explains that Mary has chosen “the good portion” (10:42).

From the beginning of our conversation, a student named Makukula was concerned about the way Jesus responds to Martha. “Martha was doing the normal, expected thing.” She only wanted her sister to do the same.

Another student, Mafunga, agreed. He thought of Jesus having been traveling and added, “In my country, Mozambique, you never know if it’s been days since a traveler has eaten. You have to feed him first. Then you let the visitor talk.”

But then South African Mathabatha said: “Martha treated the situation as though a normal guest was arriving. But I think Mary recognized that this was a different sort of visitor.”

That comment made me think. Mary realizes something: Jesus is not a regular guest. The passage identifies Jesus with the Lord (10:39, 40). And elsewhere Luke’s gospel identifies the Lord with the God of Israel (1:16, 68). While Martha is busy with service, it seems that Mary is recognizing that somehow in Jesus, the God of Israel is present there in the room. Therefore, what any woman in her society would be expected to do will have to wait. Mary is fixed on Jesus, ready to hear what he says.

As our conversation continued that day, we talked about whether or not there’s a kind of opposition between ministry and sitting at the Lord’s feet. We noticed that Luke literally says, Martha was distracted with much serving. (Luke uses a form of diakoneō, the basic verb for service and ministry in the New Testament.) Can ministering distract us?

Apparently, it’s possible that while doing what is good, we miss the best. While ministering, we can perhaps miss Jesus.

How should we think about the need for involvement in the world around us, in comparison with the need for a life of prayer and study? And with the huge demand to work for a just and peaceful world, and to proclaim the gospel, is a life of prayer (and sitting with a book of theology) truly responsible?

It’s fascinating that this passage occurs just after the parable of the Good Samaritan (10:30-37). Jesus had just lifted up the Samaritan as a model – the one who gets involved immediately on behalf of someone different from himself. That parable speaks to the necessity of not passing by the pain and hurt around us. Jesus ends it with the words, “You go, and do likewise.”

It’s also peculiar that our passage is in the same chapter where Jesus sends out the 72, saying, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few” (Luke 10:2). In the very same chapter where Jesus underlines the need as far exceeding the laborers, he says that Mary has chosen what is best – sitting at his feet, listening, enjoying his presence.

The literary context of Jesus’ interaction with Mary and Martha clarifies that Jesus cares deeply about a life of action. (And in Lk 22:26-27, Jesus uses a form of the same word as that used for Martha’s action, diakoneō, to say that the one who would lead is the one who serves, and that he is among his disciples as one who serves.)

All in the same literary context, we find Jesus prescribing a life of action and a life of putting obligations aside, simply to sit in Jesus’ presence, appreciating his words.  

Back to the discussion that day in Southern Africa… A Zambian student, named Phiri, said, “We shouldn’t run away from being occupied with many needs and lots of ministry. But we should put things in order of importance.” (See also Acts 6:2-4.)

I find it noteworthy that in the same chapter of Luke where we find Jesus saying that the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few (10:2), that Jesus next says: “Pray”. “Pray to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers to his harvest.”

Jesus knows how great the needs are, and he knows how great the need for action is. And then his mind takes the next logical step which we may not see: Huge needs demand God’s presence, God’s intervention. For the level of ministry that this world needs, we require a deep source of power, love, and direction.

So after sending out 72 workers to minister, and after saying the harvest is plentiful but the workers are few, and after telling the parable of the good Samaritan, Jesus holds up as a model of discipleship Mary who sits at Jesus’ feet and listens. And then in Luke 11 he’ll begin to teach the disciples about prayer.

The needs of our world surround us. There’s work to do. But in Luke 10 the answer is not simply, “Get busier.” The answer looks more like: Recognize the Lord’s presence. Listen to his word. So, we sit at the Lord’s feet, where we pray to the Lord of the harvest, where we receive the word, and the love and direction, to go and do.

The literary context clarifies that Jesus doesn’t put service at odds with prayer and listening.

During the Bible study with students, Mathabatha also said, “We tend to concentrate on others and on service, but we can miss the presence of God and being at Jesus’ feet, which leaves us in a position of attempting to give people something we don’t have.”

In our passage, Martha judges Mary as distracted from doing what needs to be done. Might we sometimes be guilty of the same, judging fellow believers who may not look as busy ministering as we consider ourselves to be? Do we demean those who look less bent on action, but love the presence of Jesus, and perhaps a good book of theology?

Yet Jesus sees that it is actually Martha who is distracted. Distracted by ministry. And Martha judges Mary for sitting and listening. So Jesus says her name twice, “Martha, Martha”. Enough to get her to look at him, so she can really hear the Lord addressing her. Jesus wants the same for us. Are we quiet enough to hear Jesus say our name?

We can be distracted by service and fail to recognize the best: being in the presence of the Lord, where we sit and listen. In Luke 10, and Luke’s gospel as a whole, discipleship involves a life of action. But discipleship is not really discipleship without sitting at the Lord’s feet. (See parallels in a recent blog.)

As disciples living in a world of huge need, let’s come before Jesus and ask him to make us like Mary, who chose what is best. Let’s cultivate ways to sit at the Lord’s feet. What we need for a life of action, we find at the feet of the Lord.

Dustin is a professor of New Testament who’s preparing to move with his wife to Lebanon this year to minister with ABTS – while also taking time to sit, contemplate, and pray.  

8 Comments

  1. Dawid Kuyler says:

    Thank you Dustin for a thought provoking piece. I will keep it in mind. Blessings from JMU

    • You’re welcome, Dawid. I appreciate your comment. Luke 10 is a rich passage. I like bringing the question, “What sustains a life of ministry?”, to such passages.

  2. Willingmore Mhlanga says:

    Enjoyed reading this reflection. Thank you.

  3. This article sparked a long WhatsApp discussion for myself and a friend. Thank you for writing this and challenging us!

  4. I so enjoyed this, thank you. It really did strike a chord…to sit with Jesus first, pray first and listen to how we can best serve him in HIS strength, not our own.

    • Thank you so much, Joan. I tried to describe what that set of passages in Luke present, but I wonder how looking at other passages might present something a little different, or offer other possible insights. Some people (with different personalities?) might say they find Jesus’ presence in the midst of the action/service itself. But it’s key that we tap into, as you say, serving in Jesus’ strength, not our own.

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