Imagine sitting at the feet of Jesus and wanting to take in every precious word

Mary Copping, 21 July 2019

Luke 10: 38–42; Colossians 1: 15–28

Here in our gospel reading we have the familiar story of Jesus visiting the house of Martha and Mary, and he commends Mary for doing the right thing in sitting by his feet and listening to him. Perhaps some or many of us quietly in our hearts feel a bit sorry for Martha as she rushes round trying to get things ready for their guests while her sister just sits and listens to Jesus. Is this a parable to show us that we shouldn’t welcome guests but just sit and listen? Of course not.

Jesus often visited the house of Martha, Mary and Lazarus. They were his friends and he would have found great support and solace from being there away from the crowds. We can forget that he often depended on friends for food and lodging – bringing echoes of the many refugees who have no home and initially rely on others to help them.

We can sometimes be cushioned from people with these needs in such a town as Winchester, until we see pictures of starving children on the television and also see the homeless begging on our own streets. Jesus, God’s son, was reliant on others for food and shelter. It would have been expensive to feed and entertain Christ, because it meant feeding his disciples as well, but Martha had no thought for this and was happy to feed them all. This has echoes of people visiting poor villages in the third world, and finding those who have little to eat being so generous with the little they do have and insulted if visitors don’t eat all that is put before them.

A further aspect of this story is that it was becoming dangerous to entertain Jesus, especially as they were so near to Jerusalem. Yet Martha had not thought other than to welcome and feed their precious friend and his disciples. What a wonderful comfort for Jesus to know this loving welcome by his friends.

As Martha rushed around ‘distracted by her many tasks’, Mary was fascinated by every word that Jesus spoke and sat enthralled at his feet. She didn’t want to miss a word that Jesus said. This has echoes of when Jesus was 12 and his parents left Jerusalem after the Passover festival and couldn’t find him. Eventually they went back to Jerusalem and found him sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. This is how Jewish children learned about their faith, and still do, and this is how Mary learned about Jesus and about his kingdom – by sitting at his feet.

From our reading from the letter to those in Colossae we have what is called a Christ-hymn. The first part of the hymn presents Christ as in the image of God, manifesting the presence of God in creation. The second moves to Christ’s role of salvation of the world. And in the final part, Christ is described as the one through whom God brought reconciliation with him through the cross. Imagine sitting at the feet of such a being and wanting to take in every precious word. In special moments of quiet and prayer we can perhaps glimpse something of this.

The parable of Martha and Mary can have many meanings. It gives us a wonderful picture of Jesus and his followers, itinerant, being welcomed into someone’s house, and being loved, fed and taken care of by those who were his friends. For us, who are the people around us who are unloved? Maybe they need a quiet word, need us to listen to them, be patient with them, and care for them in love – perhaps friends, acquaintances, those on the streets. Those who may be rejected and hated by others.

… a wonderful picture of Jesus and his followers, itinerant, being welcomed into someone’s house, and being loved, fed and taken care of …

Secondly, is this also something about focusing on Jesus first? Some do make time to pray in the morning, to rest in God’s peace before going into the clamour of the world, or before doing the daily tasks at home – as in this quote from the sixteenth-century German theologian Martin Luther, ‘I have so much to do that I shall spend the first three hours in prayer’.

I think we all know that if we sit in prayer quietly, first, then the day seems to go so much better than if we rush into it. In peace in the morning we can be in tune with Jesus and be more aware of what he wants us to do during the day. So, perhaps Martha’s failing was that she didn’t acknowledge Jesus, her guest, first, didn’t spend a few minutes giving him attention, focusing on him, resting in his presence. Mary had chosen the better part – she had chosen to sit first with Jesus – and I am sure that she would have helped her sister eventually. We’re told that Martha was distracted, obviously not happy with her sister sitting down, her attitude one perhaps of resentment. Her need was to sit and listen to Jesus, and then go out to do all that was needed in a calmer and more peaceful frame of mind – and perhaps have a clearer picture of the tasks ahead. For us, as we sit quietly with God, we can then go out less distracted by the world and all that is in it, and perhaps ‘be peace’ and be loving to others, as the water rippling out from a stone that is dropped into a pond.

As some of you may know, I am part of a parliamentary prayer group that meets once a month at Westminster to pray for parliament. This is a special time, when we can sit in the quietness of a committee room, knowing that all around us is the hustle and bustle of MPs going about their stressful work. What a privilege to be there praying for them! And this is our privilege, to spend that time in prayer, at Jesus’ feet, to pray for others, pray for our world, pray for our country and government, pray for all those around us – pray for those who don’t have time to pray or don’t have the faith to pray.

Then as we go out, we may be asked to be kind to that assistant who is taking hours to serve someone, or write a letter to our councillor, or make a stand at work against something that is not right, or speak out against evil. Whatever it is, first spend that time in quietness and peace, whether for just a minute or for longer. We can then go out to do all we can to make a better world.