Priority One

William C. Brownson Uncategorized

READ : Luke 10:41-42

But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her.”

Luke 10:41,42 RSV

Jesus made it plain that God has given two great commands. On these two, He says, all the law and the prophets depend. They sum up our chief responsibilities in this world. You know what they are: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment and the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Those are briefly put and readily memorable, but what do they mean? How do they look when translated into everyday life? In the Gospel according to Luke, we have two unforgettable pictures that rivet on our memories love in action. Do you want to know what it is to love your neighbor as yourself? Read Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan. We were thinking about that last time. He’s the man who shows compassion by the roadsides of life, who cares with courage, with self spending and persistence. Loving your neighbor as yourself can never be an abstraction for us with that vivid scene before us.

Luke follows that with a vignette from life that shows what it means to love God. Listen: I’m reading from Luke 10:38, “Now as they went on their way, he entered a village; and a woman named Martha received him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching, But Martha was distracted with much serving; and she went to him and said, `Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.’ But the Lord answered her, `Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her.’”


Here was Martha. She wanted to do something for Jesus. That’s love for Him, isn’t it? It was Martha who took the initiative in inviting Jesus to come to the home she shared with Mary. She busied herself with a number of responsibilities so as to have the finest possible meal for the Lord to eat. That’s devotion, isn’t it? She was warmly hospitable, attentive to His needs, wanting to prepare for Him the very best.

As she hurried about the kitchen, she suddenly realized that she was alone. She was doing everything by herself. Where was Mary? Martha went into the next room to check. Mary was sitting there at the feet of Jesus, listening to His teaching. Martha felt irritation rising within her. She was angry, angry at Mary for not helping, and even annoyed at Jesus for not being sensitive to her need. The feelings came tumbling out as she spoke. “Lord, do you not care. . . .” Listen to the pained reproach in that. “Do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone?” Not a word to Mary here but an indirect rebuke. “Tell her then to help me.” Martha is ordering Jesus to order Mary to help. She’s feeling neglected, abandoned, uncared about. There’s a petulant “poor me” in her complaint.

Martha is a woman who wants to love God with all her being. No questioning her sincerity. And she’s trying to make it practical, to translate devotion into active service. So far, so good. But apparently she’s going about it in the wrong way. She’s getting distracted by all she’s trying to do. She’s feeling judgmental about her sister, critical of the Lord, sorry for herself. As Jesus puts it, she’s “anxious and troubled about many things.” Somehow she’s failed to concentrate on loving God with all her heart and soul and strength and mind.


Then there’s Mary, her sister. She hasn’t been the one to invite Jesus to the home, but when He arrives, she’s completely taken up with Him. She had probably done her share of preparation earlier, but now that He has come, she sits at His feet like a pupil before a rabbi, listening intently to His word. That’s what she did. That’s all she did, as far as we know. And when her behavior was challenged by an indignant sister, Jesus came to Mary’s defense. He said that she had chosen the good portion, the better part, and that it would not be taken away from her. In Jesus’ eyes, Mary had done the one thing needful. She had pursued priority one.

Maybe a number of women would agree with Martha that Mary had been shirking her responsibility. She should have been out in the kitchen. Aren’t these domestic responsibilities, these hospitality functions, the most important of all for a woman to observe?

The men of her time might have criticized Mary from another standpoint. In the Israel of those days, women were not permitted to listen to the reading and teaching of the Torah. That was a privilege reserved for men only. But here was Mary acting like an eager student at the feet of the rabbi from Nazareth. And Jesus not only allowed her to do it – He even praised her for having chosen the one thing needful.


How could it be expressed more powerfully than it is here that love for God begins with listening to Him? In my study of the Bible recently, I seem to find this emphasis everywhere. God speaks through the psalmist, for example, “Hear, O my people, while I admonish you. O Israel, if you would but listen to me!” Do you hear that divine longing? He calls through His prophet, “Earth, earth, earth, hear the word of the Lord!” His chief complaint against His people is this: “My people did not listen to my voice. Israel would have none of me.” He remonstrates with them, “When I spoke, you did not listen. When I called, you did not answer.” The worst of evils for Israel is for them to harden their hearts, to stop their ears to the hearing of God’s Word. But He honors, on the other hand, all who listen, “This is the man to whom I will look,” God says, “he that is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word.” He holds before Israel the exalted figure of the Servant, the One who will perfectly fulfill God’s purpose. This is that Servant’s song: “Morning by morning, he wakens, he wakens my ear to hear as those who are taught [to hear like a disciple]. The Lord God has opened my ear and I was not rebellious.”

You know how much it means to have someone listen to you. We’ve all had enough of people who only appear to give us their attention. They stand politely enough before us, but their thoughts are elsewhere, and we sense it. They’re looking beyond us to someone else they plan to see next, or they’re preoccupied with their own concerns. We could say to people like that in somber tones, “I just killed my grandmother,” and they would murmur, “Oh, isn’t that nice” and move on.

Listeners, on the other hand, show active love. They’re interested in what we have to say. They’re open to what we want to share. In hanging on our words, they are taking us to their hearts. How good it feels when someone gives us a thoughtful, sympathetic hearing! Isn’t it true that those who love us most are those who give us most their time and attention, who welcome and value what we have to say?

God is supremely the One who speaks. He breaks the silence. He draws back the veil. He lets Himself be known. To those who could not possibly know Him without His self-revealing, He opens His heart. And love for Him begins with giving our wholehearted attention to what He says.


And notice, in Luke’s gospel and in the whole of the New Testament, listening to God is identified with listening to Jesus. Remember when Jesus appeared on the mountain with the Old Testament figures of Moses and Elijah? Moses stood for the Law of God and Elijah for the prophets. Together, they represented the heart of the Old Testament revelation. But as the disciples kept looking on in amazement, the figures of these Old Testament worthies faded from view and they saw Jesus only. Then they heard a voice from heaven saying, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” Listen to Him, that is, above all.

Jesus is the word of God, His last, best word. He is the radiance of the Father’s glory, the perfect stamp of His likeness. He comes bringing God’s message to the world. Indeed, He is that message, as the Word made flesh. Whoever listens to Him, to Jesus, is receiving a message from the living God.

Was Martha wrong then to want to make a nice meal for Jesus? Of course not! To minister to His needs, to show concern for His welfare, is a beautiful thing. But before we do something for Him, we need to let Him do something for us. Before we speak in His name we need to hear Him speaking to us. God is always beforehand with us. He always is there first. The best in our lives is always response to His approach of grace. Here’s a hymn I love:

I sought the Lord and afterward I knew,

He moved my soul to seek Him, seeking me.

It was not I who found, O Savior true.

No, I was found of Thee.

I find, I walk, I love, but oh,

the whole of love is but my answer, Lord, to Thee.

For Thou wast long beforehand with my soul.

Always Thou lovedst me.

A few weeks ago I worshiped with a vital group of Christians in the city of Kathmandu, Nepal. A group of us from the U.S. were sitting toward the back of the church as guests. I noticed one young deacon named Mahesh sitting in front of me who seemed especially fervent in the time of worship. He led the congregation in prayer at one point, with deep feeling. And during a time of spontaneous praise, Mahesh seemed full of wonder and joy. It was moving to watch him.

Then I learned his secret. During the Nepali language sermon, I was wanting to know the drift of the message so that I could pass it along to our group. I saw a large English Bible at Mahesh’s side, and asked if he would show me just which passages the preacher was expounding. Mahesh was happy to oblige, and as he would point out a passage to me, I would whisper something about it to the others in our group. As I thumbed through his Bible, I was impressed to find notes and underlining on almost every page. This was a well-worn, much-used Bible! Mahesh had been doing a great deal of thoughtful reading in the Scriptures. He had been hiding the Word of God in his heart. Now I understood the source of this young man’s remarkable devotion. Love for the Lord begins with listening to His Word. It’s the story of Mary all over again.

I hope there burns in your life today a desire to love God with all your heart and soul, all your strength and mind. And I hope you will realize that all true love for Him arises when we become aware in Jesus Christ of His great love for us. Which is another way of saying that love for God begins with listening to His Word. So if you want to respond to this great call of God, to love Him with all our heart, soul, strength and mind, here is where to begin. Let Him speak to you. Don’t let a day go by without your opening the Word of God and asking Him to speak to you through it. That, friend, is priority one!

Prayer: Father, thank You for Your graciousness in being willing to speak to us, to break the silence and let Yourself be known. Give us grace, we pray, to listen. Teach us like Mary to sit at the feet of the Lord and welcome the Word that you give. May we so know what it is to love You with our whole hearts. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.