In this meditation, I take the part of ‘Gideon’, who was a small boy at the time of Jesus’ visit to Bethany. I am aware of the discussions about the authorship of Colossians; for what it’s worth, I am content that it comes from Paul through the pen of Timothy, which accounts for differences in wording and emphasis.
I’m also well aware the vast majority scholars believe John’s Gospel wasn’t written until around the end of the first century. What can I say? I plead poetic license.
“Hello, shalom, peace be with you. My name is Gideon. I was only a young boy when it happened, when I overheard the conversation Jesus had with Mary and Martha back in Bethany, my hometown.
I used to hide near Martha’s kitchen, just in the courtyard. Was she a great cook! Her scraps and offcuts were better than anything we got at home, so I’d just…you know…help her to get rid of them. Many’s the time I came home with a full belly, and so it didn’t matter that there was no food on our table.
Years later, Martha told me that she knew I went there, and she used to throw extra out for me. She was a really generous lady.
Anyway, one day I’m in my spot and there’s a huge commotion inside. I heard Martha clattering around and saying something about Jesus, the teacher and healer from Galilee everyone was talking about. I heard enough to realise he was coming to see Martha and Mary, her sister. I settled into my place. Martha will feed him well, I thought, there’ll be some dee-licious scraps tonight!
I must have dozed, because the next thing I hear, Jesus is already in the house. Martha’s in a flap because she’s still getting ready. I can’t hear Mary at all. I soon realised why I couldn’t hear Mary. Jesus was teaching the men there, and Mary was sitting with them. She always was the cheeky one, but she was really eager to learn too!
So there I am, listening in on Jesus. His teaching was wonderful, so wise. The rabbi in Bethany synagogue had told us about Lady Wisdom, who was with God at the foundation of the world. I remember one Sabbath, Rabbi read Proverbs 8 to us. In that chapter, Lady Wisdom is speaking:
The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago.
Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth…
When he established the heavens, I was there…when he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master worker; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race.
Sorry, I’m telling you a story, not preaching! I just got carried away. The thing is, Jesus was just like Wisdom herself, right there with us.
The next thing I hear is Martha’s voice:
Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to prepare the table all by myself? Tell her to help me.
Martha was a pretty formidable woman. I’ve seen grown men shake when she had her temper up. I wondered how Jesus would handle this. I was sneaking a look by this time. He turned toward Martha and gave her a gentle smile. He said,
Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things. One thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the better part. It won’t be taken away from her.
Funny thing, it seemed to calm Martha down. She went back to preparing the food, but I could tell she was keeping her ears open now, listening to what Jesus was saying.
And after the meal, Mary got up and helped Martha without being asked.
That was all years ago now, and I can’t fit into my cubbyhole at Martha and Mary’s any more. But I have listened to Jesus from then on. I left Bethany before the Romans demolished Jerusalem, as Jesus warned us. In all my travels, I have always determined to do the “one thing necessary”. Did you get what the “one thing necessary” is? It’s to listen to Jesus, it’s to keep Jesus in the centre of life. Not just in the centre of our individual, everyday lives, but in the centre of our life as a congregation too.
I’m an old man now, and I’ve found that it’s possible for a congregation to be “worried and distracted by many things”. We value people who get things done, we believe we’re effective if ‘things are happening’. But we can have too many things happening. We can have so many activities that we are pulled in too many directions, worried and distracted by everything that’s going on.
Here in Colossae—that’s where I ended up—we’ve found there is only one thing necessary for our congregation. That is to listen to Jesus, to keep Jesus Christ at the centre. That is to be people of grace. That is to remember what comes just before the story of Martha and Mary in the Gospel our brother Luke wrote—there, we hear that the way to eternal life is this:
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; and your neighbour as yourself.
Keeping Jesus at the centre means being a disciple. A disciple is a learner. We are lifelong learners of the way of Jesus Christ. We never stop growing and learning.
That’s the one thing necessary for a congregation. Mary chose it, sitting at Jesus’ feet and listening to him. Did Martha fail? That’s what some people seem to instinctively think as they read this passage. But I witnessed a gentle, smiling kind of rebuke. Martha’s great gift of hospitality could be centred in Jesus Christ. She could give her gift it to him, and not worry about whether it was better than anyone else’s. She could realise that Jesus is happy with the heart’s gift. He doesn’t need us to fuss and fret and do more and more. Martha learnt how to give hospitality without being worried and distracted.
As a Christian community, we are centred in Jesus Christ. That’s clear when it comes to our worship services and study groups. But it goes for the ‘nonreligious’ bits too—providing morning tea, cleaning the church and the loos, working on the grounds. If our hearts are set on Christ while we do these few things, we are choosing the one thing necessary.
So give your heart to Jesus.
Paul wrote us Colossians a letter a while ago. It amazes me that the Jesus I first knew as a homespun teacher of wisdom sitting in a house in Bethany is “the image of the invisible God”?
I said that Jesus sounded “just like Wisdom herself, right there with us”. I mentioned this mysterious Old Testament figure, because Wisdom is one of the things at the very heart of the letter Paul sent us. Paul is quoting a hymn, one which we sing often. It starts like this:
He is the image of the invisible God,
the firstborn of all creation;
for in him all things in heaven
and on earth were created—
all things have been created through him
and for him.
He himself is before all things,
and in him all things hold together.
Perhaps you can see that this is the kind of language that describes Wisdom in the Old Testament.
That hymn we sing here at Colossae, the one that Paul is quoting, says that Jesus is God’s Wisdom-made-flesh. Sounds like the first verses of John’s Gospel, doesn’t it?
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people…And the Word became flesh and lived among us…
“Wisdom” and “Word” are personifications of God. They are ancient ways of speaking about God in a more subtle manner.
How did we get there? How did we identify the Wisdom of God in person with Jesus, country preacher and healer?
The answer is the Resurrection. That changed everything. As we believers realised that God had raised Jesus from the grave, and that the Holy Spirit made God and Jesus present to us, then our whole way of thinking about God had to change. So Jesus, who sat with Martha and Mary, is the Wisdom and Word of God. He is what it’s all about.
He is the one thing necessary. Our hearts should be set on him.
So—give your heart to Jesus. Amen.