Good Portion: Luke 10.38-42

Two Sisters … many distractions … one good portion.

Luke’s account of Jesus’ quick dialogue with His friend and follower Martha (with Martha’s sister Mary sitting silently at His feet) is among the most-preached gospel accounts. On the surface its meaning appears simple. But after a week of study and reflection, I (speaking for one Bible reader) am still growing into its application.

Two sisters (:38-39). You know the story in Luke 10.38-42. Jesus is visiting Martha and Mary. Martha just has to be the older sister. She’s entertaining, hosting, and appears to run the house. Looking at the other two accounts that include Martha and Mary (in John 11 and 12), we see a scrappy, assertive and even forward Martha. She’s a black-and-white thinker with good theology. After all, she’s the one who points out “I know he [Lazarus] will rise again at the resurrection.”

Her sister Mary is different. In the three gospel accounts where Mary appears she comes off as retiring, contemplative, and always close to tears. When, in John 11, she, like Martha, says to Jesus,  … if you’d been here my brother wouldn’t have died, Jesus doesn’t respond with a theology lesson; He says “Where have you laid him?” Jesus responds to Mary with Himself. And, in John 12, it’s this Mary who anoints Jesus’ feet to prepare Him for burial.

While the rest of the disciples struggle with Jesus’ message of Cross first, then glory, Mary gets it.

Many distractions (:40). The crisis comes in this passage when Martha is preparing a meal for Jesus, and Mary chooses to sit at Jesus’ feet. 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?” 

Martha’s problem here isn’t her serving; it’s her heart. She clearly wants to serve Jesus in a manner appropriate to His person, but she expresses her distracted heart by lashing out at Mary for leaving her “alone”, and even at Jesus for not pointing out to Mary what she, Martha, believes to be obvious. Martha is running over people in her frantic effort to do the right thing.

The Good Portion (:41-42). Jesus says to Martha: Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. In other words, you’ve got a lot on your plate, Martha. There’s lots of good things to do, but you’re missing the one thing that will bring it all together.

And what would that be? Jesus continues: Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her. 

It’s helpful to note here that this account takes place in a kitchen. The word “portion” is often used of food. Martha is in the kitchen consumed with producing food that will be gone in a few moments. Mary has connected with something deeper.

What is it that Jesus said when tempted by the Devil in Luke 4.4? It is written, “Man shall not live by bread alone.” Left unsaid to the Devil in that earlier passage is the full citation from Deuteronomy 8: … man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD. 

Martha did the right thing, but Mary did the thing right. Mary understood that Jesus’ teaching (found for us in God’s Word) is the Good Portion that will nourish His followers always. 

Now, a shallow reading of this passage might lead us to the wrong response. We might think that the proper response to Jesus is the six-hour quiet time. “Let somebody else do the work,” we might say. “I’ll just reflect on Jesus.”

We know better, don’t we?

Martha’s problem isn’t that she’s working too hard serving; it’s that her service to Jesus has become one means among many to an end she can’t even find. In doing many things, she’s missed the one thing. She’s missed Jesus’ teaching. The “good portion”. And in missing Jesus’ instruction, she’s missed Jesus! And in being distracted she’s worn herself out.

In wrestling with what my response to this passage needs to look like—busy husband, father and pastor that I am—I’ve come up with four practical questions to ask myself. May I share them with you?

  1. Am I really desiring Jesus as the Good Portion? If I desire Jesus among other things, I’ll become distracted. Then I’ll probably blame other people for what I think they’re supposed to be doing. I might even blame Jesus for what I think He should being doing through other people. And it all started with a heart problem on my part. Nothing good happens when we fail to regard Jesus with focused devotion.
  2. Am I preoccupied with other people in my service? Where do my thoughts range? Am I consumed with Jesus’ word, and with His estimation of my life. Or am I so managing things that I can’t forget about what I think others should be doing? This question is a flash-point question. It ought to sound like buzzers and sirens in my head when I get this wrong.
  3. Am I serving so that others can enjoy the Good Portion? One sure-fire way to know we’re serving Jesus is when we don’t get any immediate benefit for ourselves. So, watching kids so that our Woodland women can sit at Jesus’ feet in study is a great way to serve, for example.
  4. And, finally, Am I content in Jesus at the end of the day so that I trust Him with what I couldn’t do? This is a hard one, a discipline even. But confessing my inner Martha has much to do with ceding control to God for my limitations, which become, if I do this properly, matters that will wait.

This is the kind of passage that we’re not done studying until we’re done living. Why don’t you meditate this week on these five short verses in Luke. Make up some practical questions of your own, why don’t you? Sit at Jesus’ feet, in your times of reflection, and in your times of joyful serve to Jesus. Don’t be distracted. Don’t be frantic. Choose the one thing. Choose the Good Portion, and be joyful in Jesus.

And have a blessed weekend, in the Lord!



Following and Failure: Luke 9.28-45

It’s summer in the Northwoods, and my boys and I are cutting against the grain, a bit. They’re playing, and I’m coaching … soccer. While baseball, the local pastime, is great, boys in my family need to run, like miles. So, here we go.

Coaching 10-11 year olds is a study in human behavior, really. Like I would expect, my Blue Bolts (Henry’s team) want to scrimmage, play games and score points. They want glory, now! And, like in last week’s game when we won 8-3, they get little glimpses of what they’re capable of. But then there’s weeks like this one. They didn’t pay attention to my drills that graduate from simple (dribbling and passing) to complex (shooting and positional play). And, because they didn’t listen in practice, they didn’t hear me shouting from the sideline in the game. And we lost a squeaker, 2-3.

In Luke 9, Jesus shows His disciples His glory, while also teaching them to listen to Him in the hard business of enduring hardship before His return.

Take a minute to read Luke 9.28-45.

Notice, there’s Glory on the Mountaintop (:28-36). Jesus is praying again. This time He’s taken Peter, James and John with Him. While they sleep, Jesus is transformed. What Peter and the others will see will be Jesus’ answer to His promise from earlier: But I tell you truly, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God (:27).

The disciples awake to find Jesus in conversation with Moses and Elijah. They are discussing Jesus’ “departure,” which will be accomplished in Jerusalem, and which we now call “the gospel”: the good news that Jesus will die, be buried, be raised, and will return to the Father, only to return for His people.

Afraid that he’s missed it all, Peter blurts out something sincere but uninformed about making shelters for Jesus and His two important guests. Apparently, Peter doesn’t yet really understand what being “the Christ” entails. Jesus is at the center of God’s plan, not Moses and Elijah. It’s at this moment that a cloud (reminiscent of the shekineh glory of God in which God met with Moses on Sinai) envelops everyone on the mountain. This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to him! God says. Jesus is central to God’s plan. The disciples will need to listen to Jesus in order to follow Jesus, carry their crosses, and know God.

Have you ever had a mountaintop experience with God? Maybe, you went to a conference and you just didn’t want to leave. You can’t live in those special moments, can you? They encourage us and remind us about Whom we serve, but you can’t live on the mountain without listening to Jesus.

Then, there’s failure in the valley (:37-45). Next, Jesus leads His disciples down the mountain where they encounter a great crowd and the rest of the disciples trying to exorcise a particularly troubling demon. The boy’s father begs Jesus to help. Jesus, in words language evoking Old Testament prophets, laments the lack of faith by all those involved and promptly heals the boy.

What’s gone on here? The disciples, now growing accustomed to healing and casting our demons in Jesus’ name, had apparently been trying to heal under their own power. (See the parallel accounts in Matthew 17 and Mark 9.)

It’s at this point that Jesus clarifies His mission, again: Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is about to be delivered into the hands of men (:44). But, the disciples didn’t understand what Jesus was talking about. The truth “was concealed” from them.

Sometimes, we get mountaintop experiences with God, but the Christian’s life isn’t lived there, is it? We need to listen to Jesus in the valley. And it’s there in the valley that Jesus teaches us the hard business of carrying our crosses while we await His return.

This is my Son, My Chosen One; listen to him!

How does this work for us? How do we listen to Jesus today? This passage reminds us of the need to pay attention to the progress of redemption. Jesus is not with us like He was there with the disciples, but He has been to Jerusalem. And He has “accomplished” the deeds described in the gospel. And He has sent His Spirit. And He has left us the written account of the New Testament. And He does sustain us by reminding us of who He is and who we are and where we’re going. And He does empower us in the valley while we carry our crosses.

Consider Romans 8.14-17: For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cary, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. 

JESUS sustains those who follow Him (even in our failure) by showing His glory and speaking to them, through His Word by His Spirit. 

Some of this is heady stuff! Here’s a couple practical pointers for how we can apply the lessons of the passage:

  1. This week why don’t you spend some extra time in Luke’s gospel? Maybe, just read forward a few chapters. And, as you do, ask yourself: Where in my reading do I see Jesus’ glory? How does this glimpse of who Jesus is encourage and sustain me? How does it remind me of where I’m going and who I am? 
  2. Then, let’s all ask ourselves: Where in the valleys of my life do I need to listen to Jesus through His Word and the Spirit? 

It’s really easy, like the disciples did, to start rearranging the circumstances of our lives around our own priorities and power.

Let’s depend on Jesus instead. Let’s carry our crosses with His power, being encouraged by glimpses on the mountaintop, and stopping to “listen to” Jesus in the valleys.

And have a great week in the Lord!