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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary
Luke 10

 

 

Other Authors
Verses 25-37

Chapter 22

THE ETHICS OF THE GOSPEL.

WHATEVER of truth there may be in the charge of "other-worldliness," as brought against the modern exponents of Christianity, such a charge could not even be whispered against its Divine Founder. It is just possible that the Church had been gazing too steadfastly up into heaven, and that she had not been studying the science of the "Humanities" as zealously as she ought, and as she has done since; but Jesus did not allow even heavenly things to obliterate or to blur the lines of earthly duty. We might have supposed that coming down from heaven, and familiar with its secrets, He would have much to say about the New World, its position in space, its society and manner of life. But no; Jesus says little about the life which is to come; it is the life which now is that engrosses His attention, and almost monopolizes His speech. Life with Him was not in the future tense; it was one living present, real, earnest, but fugitive. Indeed, that future was but the present projected over into eternity. And so Jesus, founding the kingdom of God on earth, and summoning all men into it, if he did not bring commandments written and lithographed, like Moses, yet He did lay down principles and rules of conduct, marking out, in all departments of human life, the straight and white lines of duty, the eternal "ought." It is true that Jesus Himself did not originate much in this department of Christian ethics, and probably for most of His sayings we can find a synonym struck from the pages of earlier, and perhaps heathen moralists; but in the wide realm of Right there can be no new law. Principles may be evolved, interpreted; they cannot be created. Right, like Truth, holds the "eternal years"; and through the millenniums before Christ, as through the millenniums after, Conscience, that "ethical intellect" which speaks to all men if they will but draw near to her Sinai and listen, spoke to some in clear, authoritative tones. But if Jesus did no more, He gathered up the "broken lights" of earth, the intermittent flashes which had played on the horizon before, into one steady electric beam, which lights up our human life outward to its farthest reach, and onward to its farthest goal.

In the mind of Jesus conduct was the outward and visible expression of some inner invisible force. As our earth moves round its elliptic in obedience to the subtle attractions of other outlying worlds, so the orbits of human lives, whether symmetrical or eccentric, are determined mainly by the two forces, Character and Circumstance. Conduct is character in motion; for men do what they themselves are, i.e. as far as circumstances will allow. And it is just at this point the ethical teaching of Jesus begins. He recognizes the imperium in imperio, that hidden world of thought, feeling, sentiment, and desire which, itself invisible, is the mould in which things visible are cast. And so Jesus, in His influence upon men, worked outward from within. He sought, not reform, but regeneration, molding the life by changing the character, for, to use His own figure, how could the thorn produce grapes, or the thistle figs?

And so when Jesus was asked, "What shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?" He gave an answer which at first sight seemed to ignore the question entirely. He said no word about "doing," but threw the questioner back upon "being," asking what was written in the law: "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbor as thyself". [Luke 10:27] And as Jesus here makes Love the condition of eternal life, its sine qua non, so He makes it the one all-embracing duty, the fulfilling of the law. If a man love God supremely, and his neighbor as himself, he cannot do more; for all other commandments are included in these, the subsections of the greater law. Jesus thus sought to create a new force, hiding it within the heart, as the mainspring of duty, providing for that duty both aim and inspiration. We call it a "new" force, and such it was practically; for though it was, in a way, embedded in their law, it was mainly as a dead letter, so much so that when Jesus bade His disciples to "love one another" He called it a "new commandment." Here, then, we find what is at once the rule of conduct and its motive. In the new system of ethics, as taught and enforced by Jesus, and illustrated by His life, the Law of Love was to be supreme. It was to be to the moral world what gravitation is to the natural, a silent but mighty and all-pervasive force, throwing its spell upon the isolated actions of the common day, giving impulse and direction to the whole current of life, ruling alike the little eddies of thought and the wider sweeps of benevolent activities. To Jesus "the soul of improvement was the improvement of the soul." He laid His hand upon the heart’s innermost shrine, building up that unseen temple four-square, like the city of the Apocalypse, and lighting up all its windows with the warm, iridescent light of love.

With this, then, as the foundation-tone, running through all the spaces and along all the lines of life, the thoughts, desires, words, and acts must all harmonize with love; and if they do not, if they strike a note that is foreign to its key-note, it breaks the harmony at once, throwing jars and discords into the tousle. Such a breach of the harmonic law would be called a mistake, but when it is a breach of Christ’s moral law it is more than a mistake, it is a wrong.

Before passing to the outer life Jesus pauses, in this Gospel, to correct certain dissonances of mind and soul, of thought and feeling, which put us in a wrong attitude towards our fellows. First of all, He forbids us to sit in judgment upon others. He says, "Judge not, and ye shall not be judged: and condemn not, and ye shall not be condemned". [Luke 6:37] This does not mean that we close our eyes with a voluntary blindness, working our way through life like moles; nor does it mean that we keep our opinions in a state of flux, not allowing them to crystallize into thought, or to harden into the leaden alphabets of human speech. There is within us all a moral sense, a miniature Sinai, and we can no more suppress its thunders or sheath its lightnings than we can hush the breakers of the shore into silence, or suppress the play of the Northern Lights. But in that unconscious judgment we pass upon the actions of others, with our condemnation of the wrong, we pass our sentence upon the wrong-doer, mentally ejecting him from the courtesies and sympathies of life, and if we allow him to live at all, compelling him to live apart, as a moral incurable. And so, with our hatred of the sin, we learn to hate the sinner, and calling from him both our charities and our hopes, we hurl him down into some little Gehenna of our own. But it is exactly this feeling, this kind of judgment, the Law of Love condemns. We may "hate the sin, and yet the sinner love," keeping him still within the circle of our sympathies and our hopes. It is not meet that we should be merciless who have ourselves experienced so much mercy; nor is it for us to hale others off to prison, or ruthlessly to exact the uttermost farthing, when we ourselves at the very best are erring and unfaithful servants, standing so much and so often in need of forgiveness.

But there is another "judging" that the command of Christ condemns, and that is the hasty and the false judgments we pass on the motives and lives of others. How apt we are to depreciate the worth of others who do not happen to belong to our circle! We look so intently for their faults and foibles that we become blind to their excellences. We forget that there is some good in every person, some that we can see if we only look, and we may be always sure that there is some we cannot see. We should not prejudge. We should not form our opinion upon an ex parte statement. We should not leave the heart too open to the flying germs of rumor, and we should discount heavily any damaging, disparaging statement. We should not allow ourselves to draw too many inferences, for he who is given to drawing inferences draws largely on his imagination. We should think slowly in our judgment of others, for he who leaps to conclusions generally takes his leap in the dark. We should learn to wait for the second thoughts, for they are often truer than the first. Nor is it wise to use too much "the spur of the moment"; it is a sharp weapon, and is apt to cut both ways. We should not interpret others’ motives by our own feelings, nor should we "suppose" too much. Above all, we should be charitable, judging of others as we judge ourselves. Perhaps the beam that is in a brother’s eye is but the magnified mote that is in our own. It is better to learn the art of appreciating than that of depreciating; for though the one is easy, and the other difficult, yet he who looks for the good, and exalts the good, will make the very wilderness to blossom and be glad; while he who depreciates everything outside his own little self impoverishes life, and makes the very garden of the Lord one arid, barren desert.

Again, Jesus condemns pride, as being a direct contravention of His Law of Love. Love rejoices in the possessions and gifts of others, nor would she care to add to her own if it must be at the cost of theirs. Love is an equalizer, leveling up the inequalities the accidents of life have made, and preferring to stand on some lower level with her fellows than to sit solitary on some lofty and cold Olympus. Pride, on the other hand, is a repelling, separating force. Scorning those who occupy the lower places, she is contented only on her Olympian summit, where she keeps herself warm with the fires of her self-adulation. The proud heart is the loveless heart, one huge inflation; if she carries others at all, it is only as a steadying ballast; she will not hesitate to throw them over and throw them down, as mere dust or sand, if their fall will help her to rise. Pride like the eagle, builds her nest on high, bringing forth whole broods of loveless, preying passions, hatreds, jealousies, and hypocrisies. Pride sees no brotherhood in man; humanity to her means no more than so many serfs to wait upon her pleasure, or so many victims for her sacrifice! And how Jesus loved to prick these bubbles of airy nothings, showing up these vanities as the very essence of selfishness! He did not spare His words, even though they stung, when "He marked how they chose out the chief seats" at the friendly supper; [Luke 14:7] and one of His bitter "woes" He hurled at the Pharisees just because "they loved the chief seats in the synagogues," worshipping Self, when they pretended to worship God, so: making the house of God itself an arena for the sport and play of their proud ambitions. "He that is least among you all," He said, when rebuking the disciples’ lust for preeminence, "the same is great." And such is Heaven’s law: humility is the cardinal virtue, the "strait" and low gate which opens into the very heart of the kingdom. Humility is the one and the only way of heavenly preferments and eternal promotions; for in the life to come there will be strange contrasts and inversions, as he that exalted himself is now humbled, and he that humbled himself is now exalted. [Luke 14:11]

Tracing now the lines of duty as they run across the outer life, we find them following the same directions. As the golden-milestone of the Forum marked the center of the empire, towards which its roads converged, and from which all distances were measured, so in the Christian commonwealth Jesus makes Love the capital, the central, controlling power; while at the focal point of all the duties He sets up His Golden Rule, which gives direction to all the paths of human conduct: "And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise". [Luke 6:30] In this general law we have what we might call the ethical compass, for it embraces within its circle the "whole duty of man" towards his fellow; and it only needs an adjusted conscience, like the delicately poised needle, and the line of the "ought" can be read off at once, even in those uncertain latitudes where no specific law is found. Are we in doubt as to what course of conduct to pursue, as to the kind of treatment we should accord to our fellow? We can always find the via recta by a short mental transposition. We have only to put ourselves in his place, and to imagine our relative positions reversed, and from the "would" of our supposed desires and hopes we read the "ought" of present duty. The Golden Rule is thus a practical exposition of the Second Commandment, investing our neighbor with the same luminous Atmosphere we throw about ourselves, the atmosphere of a benevolent, beneficent love.

But beyond this general law Jesus gives us a prescript as to the treatment of enemies. He says, "Love your enemies, do good to them that hate you, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you. To him that smiteth thee on the one cheek offer also the other: and from him that taketh away thy cloak withhold not thy coat also". [Luke 6:27-29] In considering these injunctions we must bear in mind that the word "enemy" in its New Testament meaning had not the wide and general signification it has today. It then stood in antithesis to the word "neighbor" as in Matthew 5:43; and as the word "neighbor" to the Jew included those, and those only, who were of the Hebrew race and faith, the word "enemy" referred to those outside, who were aliens from the commonwealth of Israel. To the Hebrew mind it stood as a synonym for "Gentile." In these words, then, we find, not a general and universal law, but the special instructions as to their course of conduct in dealing with the Gentiles, to whom they would shortly be sent. No matter what their treatment, they must bear it with an uncomplaining patience. Stripped, beaten, they must not resist, much less retaliate; they must not allow any vindictive feelings to possess them, nor must they take in their own hot hand the sword of a "sweet revenge." Nay, they must even bear a good-will towards their enemies, repaying their hate with love, their spite and enmity with prayers, and their curses with sincerest benedictions.

It will be observed that no mention is made of repentance or of restitution: without waiting for these, or even expecting them, they must be prepared to forgive and prepared to love their enemies, even while they are shamefully treating them. And what else, under the circumstances, could they have done? If they appealed to the secular power it would simply have been an appeal to a heathen court, from enemies to enemies. And as to waiting for repentance, their "enemies" are only treating them as enemies, aliens and foreigners, wronging them, it is true, but ignorantly, and not through any personal malice. They must forgive just for the same reason that Jesus forgave His Roman murderers, "for they know not what they do."

We cannot, therefore, take these injunctions, which evidently had a special and temporary application, as the literal rule of conduct towards those who are unfriendly or hostile to us. This, however, is plain, that even our enemies, whose enmity is directly personal rather than sectional or racial, are not to be excluded from the Law of Love. We must bear them neither hatred nor resentment; we must guard our hearts sacredly from all malevolent, vindictive feelings. We must not be our own avenger, taking vengeance upon our adversaries, as we let loose the barking Cerberus to track and run them down. All such feelings are contrary to the Law of Love, and so are contraband, entirely foreign to the heart that calls itself Christian. But with all this we are not to meet all sorts of injuries and wrongs without protest or resistance. We cannot condone a wrong without being accomplices in the wrong. To defend our property and life is just as much our duty as it was the wisdom and the duty of those to whom Jesus spoke to offer an uncomplaining cheek to the Gentile smiter. Not to do this is to encourage crime, and to put a premium upon evil. Nor is it inconsistent with a true love to seek to punish, by lawful means, the wrong-doer. Justice here is the highest type of mercy, and pains and penalties have a remedial virtue, taming the passions which had grown too wild, or straightening the conscience that had become warped.

And so Jesus, speaking of the "offences," the occasions of stumbling that would come, said, "If thy brother sin, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive." [Luke 17:3] It is not the patient, silent acquiescence now. No, we must rebuke the brother who has sinned against us and wronged us. And if this is vain, we must tell it to the Church, as St. Matthew completes the injunction; [Matthew 18:17] and if the offender will not hear the Church, he must be cast out, ejected from their fellowship, and becoming to their thought as a heathen or a publican. The wrong, though it is a brother who does it, must not be glossed over with the enamel of an euphemism; nor must it be hushed up, veiled by a guilty silence. It must be brought to the light of day, it must be rebuked and punished; nor must it be forgiven until it is repented of. Let there be, however, a genuine repentance, and there must be on our part the prompt and complete forgiveness of the wrong. We must set it back out of our sight, amongst the forgotten things. And if the wrong be repeated, if the repentance be repeated, the forgiveness must be repeated too, not only for seven times seven offenses, but for seventy times seven. Nor is it left to our option whether we forgive or no; it is a duty, absolute and imperative; we must forgive, as we ourselves hope to be forgiven.

Again, Jesus treats of the true use of wealth. He Himself assumed a voluntary poverty. Silver and gold had He none; indeed, the only coin that we read He handled was the borrowed Roman penny, with Caesar’s inscription upon it. But while Jesus Himself preferred poverty, choosing to live on the outflowing charities of those who felt it both a privilege and an honor to minister to Him of their substance, yet He did not condemn wealth. It was not a wrong per se. In the Old Testament it had been regarded as a sign of Heaven’s special favor, and amongst the rich Jesus Himself found some of His warmest, truest friends-friends who came nobly to the front when some who had made louder professions had ignominiously fled. Nor did Jesus require the renunciation of wealth as the condition of discipleship. He did not advocate that fictitious egalite of the Commune. He sought rather to level up than to level down. It is true He did say to the ruler, "Sell all that thou hast, and distribute unto the poor"; but this was an exceptional case, and probably it was put before him as a test command, like the command to Abraham that he should sacrifice his son-which was not intended to he carried out literally, but only as far as the intention, the will. There was no such demand made from Nicodemus, and when Zacchaeus testified that it had been his practice (the present tense would indicate a retrospective rather than a prospective rule) to give one-half of his income to the poor, Jesus does not find fault with his division, and demand the other half; He commends him, and passes him up, right over the excommunication of the rabbis, among the true sons of Abraham. Jesus did not pose as an assessor; He left men to divide their own inheritance. It was enough for Him if He could put within the soul this new force, the "moral dynamic" of love to God and man; then the outward relations would shape themselves, regulated as by some automatic action.

But with all this, Jesus recognized the peculiar temptations and dangers of wealth. He saw how riches tend to engross and monopolize the thought, diverting it from higher things, and so He classed riches with cares, pleasures, which choke the Word of life, and make it unfruitful. He saw how wealth tended to selfishness; that it acted as an astringent, closing up the valves of the heart, and thus shutting down the outflow of its sympathies. And so Jesus, whenever He spoke of wealth, spoke in words of warning: "How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God!" He said, when He saw how the rich ruler set wealth before faith and hope. And singularly enough, the only times Jesus, in His parables, lifts up the curtain of doom it is to tell of "certain rich" men-the one, whose soul swung selfishly between his banquets and his barns, and who, alas! had laid up no treasures in heaven; and the other, who exchanged his purple and fine linen for the folds of enveloping flames, and the sumptuous fare of earth for eternal want, the eternal hunger and thirst of the after-retribution!

What, then, is the true use of wealth? And how may we so hold it that it shall prove a blessing, and not a bane? In the first place, we must hold it in our hand, and not lay it up in the heart. We must possess it; it must not possess us. We may give our thought, moderately, to it, but our affections must not be allowed to center upon it. We read that the Pharisees "were lovers of money," [Luke 16:14] and that argentic passion was the root of all their evils. The love of money, like an opiate, little by little, steals over the whole frame, deadening the sensibility, perverting the judgment, and weakening the will, producing a kind of intoxication, in which the better reason is lost, and the confused speech can only articulate, with Shylock, "My ducats, my ducats!" the true way of holding wealth is to hold it in trust, recognizing God’s ownership and our stewardship. Bank it up, give it no outlet, and your wealth becomes a stagnant pool, breeding malaria and burning fevers; but open the channel, give it an outlet, and it will bring life and music to a thousand lower vales, increasing the happiness of others, and increasing your own the more. And so Jesus strikes in with His frequent imperative, "Give"-"Give, and it shall be given unto you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, shall they give into your bosom". [Luke 6:38] And this is the true use of wealth, its consecration to the needs of humanity. And may we not say that here is its truest pleasure? He who has learned the art of generous giving, who makes his life one large-hearted benevolence, living for others and not for himself, has acquired an art that is beautiful and Divine, an art that turns the deserts into gardens of the Lord and that peoples the sky overhead with unseen singing Ariels. Giving and living are heavenly synonyms, and tie who giveth most liveth best.

But not from the words of Jesus alone do we read off the lines of our duty. He is in His own Person a Polar Star, to whom all the meridians of our round life turn, and from whom they emanate. His life is thus our law, His example our pattern. Do we wish to learn what are the duties of children to their parents? The thirty silent years of Nazareth speak in answer. They show us how the Boy Jesus is in subjection to His parents, giving to them a perfect obedience, a perfect trust, and a perfect love. They show us the Divine Youth, still shut in within that narrow circle, ministering to that circle, by hard-manual toil becoming the stay of that fatherless home. Do we wish to learn our duties to the State? See how Jesus walked in a land across which the Roman eagle had cast its shadow! He did not preach a crusade against the barbarian invaders, tie recognized in their presence and power the ordination of God-that they had been sent to chastise a lapsed Israel. And so Jesus spoke no word of denunciation, no fiery word, which might have proved the spark of a revolution. He took Himself away from the multitudes when they would by force make Him King. He spoke in respectful terms of the powers that were; He even justified the payment of tribute to Caesar, acknowledging his lordship, while at the same time He spoke of the higher tribute to the great Over-Lord, even God. When upon His trial for life or death, before a Roman tribunal, He even stayed to apologize for Pilate’s weakness, casting the heavier sin back on the hierarchy that had bought Him and delivered Him up; while upon the cross, amid its untold agonies, though His lips were glued by a fearful thirst, He opened them to breathe a last prayer for His Roman executioners: "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do."

But was Jesus, then, an alien from His kinsmen according to the flesh? Was patriotism to Him an unknown force? Did He know nothing of love of country, that inspiration which has turned common men into heroes and martyrs, that love which oceans cannot quench, nor distance weaken, which throws an auroral brightness around the most sterile shores, and which makes the emigrant sick with a strange "Heimweh?" Did the Son of man, the ideal Man, know nothing at all of this? He did know it, and know it well. He identified Himself thoroughly with His people; He placed Himself under the law, observing its rites and ceremonies. After the Childhood exile in Egypt, He scarcely passed out of the sacred bounds; no storms of rough persecution could dislodge the heavenly Dove, or send Him wheeling off from His native hills. And if He did not preach rebellion, He did preach that righteousness which gives to a nation its truest wealth and widest liberty. He did denounce the Pharisaic shams, the hollow hypocrisies, which had eaten away the nation’s heart and strength. And how He loved Jerusalem, forgetting His own triumph in the vision of her humiliation, and weeping for the desolations which were coming sure and fast! This, the Holy City, was the center to which He ever returned, and to which He gave His last bequest-His cross and His grave. Nay, when the cross is taken down, and the grave is vacant, He lingers to give His Apostles their commission; and when He bids them, "Go ye out into all the world," He adds, "beginning at Jerusalem." The Son of man is the Son of David still, and within His deep love for humanity at large was a peculiar love for His "own," as the ark itself was enshrined within the Holy of Holies.

And so we might traverse the whole ethical domain, and we should find no duty which is not enforced or suggested by the words or the life of the great Teacher. As Dr. Dorner says, "There is only one morality; the original of it is in God; the copy of it is in the Man of God." Happy is he who see this Polar Star, whose light shines clear and calm above the rush of human years and the ebbs and flows of human life! Happier still is he who shapes his course by it, who reads off all his bearings from its light! He who builds his life after the Divine model, reading the Christ-life into his own, will build up another city of God on earth, foursquare and compact together, a city of peace, because a city of righteousness and a city of love.


Verses 38-42

Chapter 20

THE TWO SISTERS.

Luke 10:38-42

AT first sight it appears as if our Evangelist had departed from the orderly arrangement of which he speaks in his prelude, in thus linking this domestic scene of Judaea with his northern Galilean journey, and to the casual glance this home-flower does certainly seem an exotic in this garden of the Lord. The strangeness, the out-of-placeness, however, vanishes entirely upon a nearer, closer view. If, as is probable, the parable of the Good Samaritan was spoken during that northward journey, its scene lies away in Judaea, in the dangerous road that sweeps down from Jerusalem to Jericho. Now, this road to Jericho lay through the village of Bethany, and in the Evangelist’s mind the two places are intimately connected, as we; {see Luke 19:1; Luke 19:29} so that the idyll of Bethany would follow the parable of the Good Samaritan with a certain naturalness, the one recalling the other by the simple association of ideas. Then, too, it harmonizes so thoroughly with its context, as it comes between a parable on works and a chapter on prayer. In the one, man is the doer, heart and hand going out in the beautiful ministries of love; in the other, man is the receiver, waiting upon God, opening hand and heart for the inflow of Divine grace. In one it is Love in action that we see; in the other it is Love at rest, at rest from activities of her own, in quest of further good. This is exactly the picture our Evangelist draws of the two sisters, and which might have served as a parable had it not been so plainly taken from real life. Perhaps, too, another consideration influenced the Evangelist, and one that is suggested by the studied vagueness of the narrative. He gives no clue as to where the little incident occurred, for the "certain village" might be equally appropriate in Samaria or Judaea; while the two names, Martha and Mary, apart from the corroboration of St. John’s Gospel, would not enable us to localize the scene. It is evident that St. Luke wished to throw around them a sort of incognito, probably because they were still living when he wrote, and too great publicity might subject them to inconvenience, or even to something more. And so St. Luke considerately masks the picture, shutting off the background of locality, while St. John, who writes at a later date, when Jerusalem has fallen, and who is under no such obligation of reserve, fixes the scene precisely; for there can be no doubt that the Mary and-Martha of his Gospel, of Bethany, are the Martha and Mary of St. Luke; their very characters, as well as names, are identical.

It was in one of His journeys to the south, though we have no means of telling which, that He came to Behany, a small village on the eastern slope of Olivet, and about three-quarters of an hour from Jerusalem. There are several indications in the Gospels that this was a favorite resort of Jesus during His Judaean ministry; [Matthew 21:1, John 8:1] and it is somewhat singular that the only nights that we read He spent in Jerusalem were the night in the garden and the two nights He slept in His grave. He preferred the quiet haven of Bethany; and though we cannot with absolute certainty recognize the village home where Jesus had such frequent welcome, yet throwing the side-light of John 11:5 upon the haze, it seems in part to lift; for the deep affection Jesus had for the three implies a close and ripened intimacy.

St. John, in his allusions to the family, makes Mary prominent, giving precedence to her name, as he calls Bethany "the village of Mary and her sister Martha". [John 11:1] St. Luke, however, makes Martha the central figure of his picture, while Mary is set back in the shade, or rather in the sunshine of that Presence which was and is the Light of the world. It was, "Martha received Him into her house." She was the recognized head of the family, "the lady" in fact, as well as by the implication of her name, which was the native equivalent of "lady." It was she who gave the invitation to the Master, and on her devolved all the care of the entertainment, the preparation of the feast, and the reception of the guests; for though the change of pronoun in ver. 38 (Luke 10:38) from "they" to "Him" would lead us to suppose that the disciples had gone another way, and were not with Him now, still the "much serving" would show that it was a special occasion, and that others had been invited to meet Jesus.

It is a significant coincidence that St. John, speaking [John 12:2] of another supper at Bethany, in the house of Simon, states that Martha "served," using the same word that Jesus addressed to her in the narrative of St. Luke. Evidently Martha was a "server." This was her forte, so much so that her services were in requisition outside her own house. Hers was a culinary skill, and she delighted with her sleight of hand to effect all sorts of transformations, as, conjuring with her fire, she called forth the pleasures and harmonies of taste. In this case, however, she overdid it; she went beyond her strength. Perhaps her guests outnumbered her invitations, or something unforeseen had upset her plans, so that some of the viands were belated. At any rate, she was cumbered, distracted, "put about" as our modern colloquialism would have it. Perhaps we might say she was "put out" as well, for we can certainly detect a trace of irritability both in her manner and in her speech. She breaks in suddenly among the guests (the aorist participle gives the rustle of a quick movement), and in the hearing of them all she says to Jesus, "Lord, dost Thou not care that my sister did leave me to serve alone? Bid her therefore that she help me." Her tone is sharp, querulous, and her words send a deep chill across the table, as when a sea-fret drifts coldly inland. If Mary was in the wrong thus to sit at the feet of Jesus, Martha certainly was not in the right. There was no occasion to give this public reprimand, this round-hand rebuke. She might have come and secretly called her, as she did afterwards, on the day of their sorrow, and probably Mary would have risen as quickly now as then. But Martha is overweighted, ruffled; her feelings get the better of her judgment, and she speaks, out of the impatience of her heart, words she never would have spoken had she but known that Inspiration would keep their echoes reverberating down all the years of time. And besides, her words were somewhat lacking in respect to the Master. True, she addresses as "Lord"; but having done this, she goes off into an interrogative with an implied censure in it, and closes with an imperative, which, to say the least, was not becoming, while all through an undue emphasis is laid upon the first personal pronoun, the "me" of her aggrieved self.

Turning to the other sister, we find a striking contrast, for Mary, as our Evangelist puts it, "also sat at the Lord’s feet, and heard His word." This does not imply any forwardness on her part, or any desire to make herself conspicuous; the whole drift of her nature was in the opposite direction. Sitting "at His feet" now that they were reclining at the table, meant sitting behind Him, alone amid the company, and screened from their too curious gaze by Him who drew all eyes to Himself. Nor does she break through her womanly reserve to take part in the conversation; she simply "heard His word"; or "she kept listening," as the imperfect tense denotes. She put herself in the listening attitude, content to be in the shadow, outside the charmed circle, if she only might hear Him speak, whose words fell like a rain of music upon her soul. Her sister chided her for this, and the large family of modern Marthas-for feminine instinct is almost entirely on Martha’s side-blame her severely, for what they call the selfishness of her conduct, seeking her own enjoyment, even though others must pay the price of it. But was Mary so utterly selfish? And did she sacrifice duty to gratify her inclination? Not at all, and certainly not to the extent our Marthas would have us believe. Mary had assisted in the preparations and the reception, as the "also" of ver. 39 (Luke 10:39) shows; while Martha’s own words, "My sister did leave me to serve alone," themselves imply that Mary had shared the labors of the entertainment before taking her place at the feet of Jesus. The probability is that she had completed her task, and now that He who spake as never man spake before was conversing with the guests, she could not forego the privilege of listening to the voice she might not hear again.

It is to Jesus, however, that we must go with our rivalry of claims. He is our Court of Equity. His estimate of character was never at fault.

He looked at the essences of things, the soul of things, and not to the outward wrappings of circumstance, and He read that palimpsest of motive, the underlying thought, more easily than others could read the outward act. And certainly Jesus had no apology for selfishness; His whole life was one war against it, and against sin, which is but selfishness ripened. But how does Jesus adjust this sisterly difference? Does He dismiss the listener, and send her back to an unfinished task? Does He pass on to her Martha’s warm reproof? Not at all; but He gently reproves the elder sister. "Martha, Martha," He said, as if her mind had wandered, and the iteration was necessary to call her to herself, "thou art anxious and troubled about many things: but one thing is needful: for Mary hath chosen the good part, which shall not be taken away from her."

It is easy to see from this where Jesus thought the blame should rest. It was Martha who had taken too much upon herself. Her generous heart had gone beyond her strength, and far beyond the need. Wishing to do honor to her Guest, studying to please Him, she had been over-lavish in her entertainment, until she had become worried-anxious, troubled, as Jesus said, the former word referring to the inner disquiet, the unrest of the soul, and the latter to the outward perturbation, the tremor of the nerves, and the cloudiness that looked from her eyes. The fact was that Martha had misread the tastes of her Guest. She thought to please Him by the abundance of her provision, the largeness of her hospitality; but for these lower pleasures of sense and of taste Jesus cared little. He had meat to eat that others knew not of, and to do the will of Him that sent Him was to Jesus more than any ambrosia or nectar of the gods. The more simple the repast, the more it pleased Him, whose thoughts were high in the heavenly places, even while His feet and the mortal body He wore touched lightly the earth. And so, while Martha’s motive was pure, her judgment was mistaken, and her eager heart tempted her to works of supererogation, to an excess of care which was anxiety, the fret and fever of the soul. Had she been content with a modest service, such as would have pleased her Guest, she too might have found time to sit at His feet, and to have found there an Elim of rest and a Mount of Beatitudes.

But while Jesus has a kind rebuke for Martha, He has only words of commendation for, her sister, whom she has been so openly and sharply upbraiding. "Mary," He said, speaking the name Martha had not uttered, "hath chosen the good part, which shall not be taken away from her." He answers Martha in her own language, her native tongue; for in speaking of Mary’s choice as the "good part," it is a culinary phrase, the parlance of the kitchen or the table, meaning the choice bit. The phrase is in apposition with the one thing which is needful, which itself is the antithesis to the "many things" of Martha’s care. What the "one thing," is of which Jesus speaks we cannot say with certainty, and almost numberless have been the interpretations given to it. But without going into them, can we not find the truest interpretation in the Lord’s own words? We think we may, for in the Sermon on the Mount we have an exact parallel to the narrative. He finds people burdened, anxious about the things of this life, wearying themselves with the interminable questions, "What shall we eat? or What shall we drink?" as if life had no quest higher and vaster than these. And Jesus rebukes this spirit of anxiety, exorcising it by an appeal to the lilies and the grass of the field; and summing up His condemnation of anxiety, He adds the injunction, "Seek ye His kingdom, and these things shall be added unto you". [Luke 12:31] Here, again, we have the "many things" of human care and strife contrasted with the "one thing" which is of supremest moment. First, the kingdom; this in the mind of Jesus was the summum bonum, the highest good of man, compared with which the "many things" for which men strive and toil are but the dust of the balances. And this was the choice of Mary. She sought the kingdom of God, sitting at the feet of Him who proclaimed it, and who was, though she knew it not as yet, Himself the King. Martha too sought the kingdom, but her distracted mind showed that that was not her only, perhaps not her chief quest. Earthly things weighed too heavily upon her mind and heart, and through their dust the heavenly things became somewhat obscured. Mary’s heart was set heavenward. She was the listener, eager to know the will of God, that she might do it. Martha was so busied with her own activities that she could not give her thoughts to Christ; Mary ceased from her works, that so she might enter into His rest, setting the world behind her, that her undivided gaze might be upon Him who was truly her Lord. And so Jesus loved Martha, yet pitied and chided her, while He loved and commended Mary.

Nor was the "good part" ever taken from her, for again and again we find her returning to the feet of Jesus. In the day of their great sorrow, as soon as she heard that the Master had come and called her, she arose quickly, and coming to Jesus, though it was the bare, dusty ground, she fell at His feet, seeking strength and help where she before had sought light and truth. And once more: when the shadow of the cross came vividly near, when Simon gave the feast which Martha served, Mary sought those feet again, to pour upon them the precious and fragrant nard, the sweet odors of which filled all the house, as they have since filled all the world. Yes, Mary did not sit at the feet of Jesus in vain. She had learned to know Christ as few of the disciples did; for when Jesus said, "She has done it for My burying," He intends us to infer that Mary feels, stealing over her retiring but loving soul, the cold and awful shadow of the cross. Her broken alabaster and its poured-out spikenard are her unspoken ode to the Redeemer, her pre-dated homage to the Crucified.

And so we find in Mary the truest type of service. Hers was not always the passive attitude, receiving and never giving, absorbing and not diffusing. There was the service before the session; her hands had prepared and wrought for Christ before she placed herself at His feet, and the sacrifice followed, as she brought her costly gift, to the astonishment of all the rest, her sweet and healing balm for the wounds which were soon to follow.

The life that is all receptive, that has no active ministries of love, no waiting upon Christ in the person of His followers, is an unnatural, an unhealthy life, a piece of morbid selfishness which neither pleases God nor blesses man.

On the other hand, the life that is always busy, that is in a constant swirl of outward duties, flying here and there like a stormy petrel over the unresting waves, will soon weary or wear itself out, or it will grow into an automaton, a mechanism without a soul. Receiving, giving, praying, working-these are the alternate chords on which the music of our lives should be struck. Heavenward, earthward, should be the alternate looks-heavenward in our waiting upon God, and earthward in our service for man. That life shines the most and is seen the farthest which reflects most of the heavenly light; and he serves Christ the best who now sits humbly and prayerfully at His feet, and then goes forth to be a "living echo of His voice," breaking for Him the alabaster of a self-sacrificing love. As one has beautifully expressed it, "The effective life and the receptive life are one."

"No sweep of arm that does some work for God but harvests also some more of the truth of God and sweeps it into the treasury of the life."

But if Mary gives us a type of the truest and best service, Martha shows us a kind of service which is only too common, She gave to Jesus a right loving welcome, and was delighted with the privilege of ministering to His wants; but the coming of Jesus brought her, not peace, but distraction-not rest, but worry. Her very service ruffled and irritated her, until mind and heart were like the tempestuous lake ere the spell of the Divine "Peace" fell upon it. And all the time the Christ was near, who could bear each burden, and still all the disquiet of the soul! But Martha was all absorbed in the thought of what she could do for Him, and she forgot how much more He could do for her, giving to her chafed spirit quietness and rest, even amid her toil. The Divine Peace was near her, within her home, but the hurryings of her restless will and her manifold activities effectually excluded that peace from her heart.

And how many who call themselves Christians are true Marthas, serving Christ, but feeling the yoke to chafe, and the burden to weight them! perhaps preaching to others the Gospel of rest and peace, and themselves knowing little of its experience and blessedness-like the camels of the desert, which carry their treasures of corn and sweet spices to others, and themselves feed on the bitter and prickly herbs. Ah, you are too much upon your feet! Cease for awhile from your own works, and let God work in you. Wait in His presence. Let His words take hold of you, and His love enthuse you: so will you find rest amid your toil, calmness amid the strife, and you will prove that the fret and the fever of life will all disappear at the touch of the living Christ.

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Luke 10:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/luke-10.html.

Lectionary Calendar
Wednesday, October 16th, 2019
the Week of Proper 23 / Ordinary 28
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