Chaplain's Communique


July 2010 Issue No. 4/10
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An Obedient Life
by Rev Tan Soo Inn
Chaplain, CMDF Singapore


Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a certain village where a woman named Martha welcomed him as a guest. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he said. But Martha was distracted with all the preparations she had to make, so she came up to him and said, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do all the work alone? Tell her to help me." But the Lord answered her "Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things, but one thing is needed. Mary has chosen the best part; it will not be taken away from her." (Luke 10:38-42 NET)

I suspect that the passage above is a favourite of most readers of this column. We can all identify with Martha, distracted with many responsibilities, stressed out, short fused and angry at people who are perceived as not pulling their weight, and perhaps even angry that God doesn't seem to care even though we may be too polite to say it our loud. The trouble is we are so familiar with this passage that we no longer hear it. We already know that Martha is the villain and Mary is the heroine. We have heard some sermon on this passage that told us we should cut back on our work and ministry, and pray more. We nodded in agreement because we could identify with Martha and we tried to cut back on our activity a bit more and pray a bit more and it lasted for maybe a week. And then it was business as usual. Some of us didn't even try, appreciating the sermon but not seeing it is practical in the real world.

But maybe we have heard the passage wrongly. Maybe the passage is not about service versus contemplation. After all the passage before this taught us that like the Good Samaritan, we are to demonstrate that we have eternal life by loving God and showing that love for God by generously loving those in need (Luke 10: 25-37). And any first century reader of the story would have commended Martha for her piety demonstrated in how she generously showed hospitality to her guests. We assume that by sitting at Jesus' feet, Mary was in a position of contemplation. And hence we conclude that when Jesus commended her He was saying that contemplation is better than activism. Could we have misread Mary's stance?

In his commentary on the gospel of Luke, Joel B. Green suggests that Mary's stance was actually one of submission to her Lord

"Mary" is a common name; this woman is recognized simply as Martha's sister and need not be identified with any other Mary within the Lukan narrative. She is positioned "at the Lord's feet," signifying her submissiveness, particularly her status as a disciple. (The Gospel of Luke, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997, 435)

And while Martha is very busy in serving, she is the one setting the agenda as to what she should be doing. Again Green is helpful.

The nature of hospitality for which Jesus seeks is realized in attending to one's guest, yet Martha's speech is centered on "me"-talk (3times). Though she refers to Jesus as "Lord," she is concerned to engage his assistance in her plans, not to learn from his. (Green, 437)

The point of the passage then is not that we should work less and pray more. The point of the passage is that our life must be lived in submission to God. The issue is not how much or how little we do but that all that we do must be in obedience to what God desires of us. The trouble is that many of us, like Martha, are practical atheists. We truly believe that Jesus is Lord but in terms of what we do day by day, we set our own agenda. And often we end up like Martha, stressed, angry, alienated from God and neighbour.

But how do we know what God wants of us? How do we "sit at Jesus' feet" today? The short answer is that if we are serious about hearing Jesus so that we can structure our lives around His will, we need to invest time in solitude and community. God often speaks in a soft calm voice (1 Kings 19:12) and unless we carve out times when we are still and quiet, God will not be able to get a word in edgewise. But I also need to hear God's word in community because I know how easily I can deceive myself, mistaking my own desires for God's will. I need spiritual mentors and spiritual friends to help me discern what I think I am hearing.

As a Christian doctor or dentist in Singapore our lives will be busy. And indeed we want our lives to make a difference for Jesus. But how do we ensure that we do not get burnt out, or dulled by chronic fatigue? By repenting of our practical atheism. By humbly submitting our lives to our Lord. By hearing before doing. Some of us may indeed be ordered to work less and to structure in more Sabbath in our lives. Some of us may be asked to do do different things. Some of us may be be asked to work harder! But when we are doing what He wants us to do, we know we will also discover divine enabling and the true rest that comes when we are walking in His will.