If Luke 10 had ended with the parable of the good Samaritan, we might be justified in thinking that the proper end of the Christian life is generous services to others, exceeding in its abundance what the law alone might be thought to require. This brief pericope, however, balances our perspective in a crucial way.
This is one case where the sometimes artificial thirteenth-century chapter divisions of Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton have it just right: the true disciple of Jesus must surely love and serve his neighbors—even those not normally thought of as neighbors—but the Lord must be loved first and always. Communing with him, being in his presence and taking in his instruction, is accordingly fundamental nourishment for the balanced Christian life.
This episode is recorded only by Luke, and it may be yet another indication that the women who followed Jesus were among his most important informants. If Lightfoot is right in connecting this event to the days immediately preceding in this chapter, then the time of this visit to the house of Mary and Martha is during the celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles, and Martha is doubtless preparing a festive meal.
Much work in the kitchen would be involved, and we should not be entirely surprised that Martha was miffed that her sister, so far from helping with preparation of the meal to come, was sitting at the feet of Jesus, listening to him.
The reflexive parakathestheisa (“she sat herself beside”) indicates that Mary’s gesture—and choice—was deliberate. It was also most unusual: women were not in Judaism permitted to sit at the feet of a rabbi, since discipleship in their context was reserved for men alone. Martha’s accusation, that Mary “has left” her to do all the work by herself, well enough suggests that she hopes that Jesus will send Mary back to the kitchen (10:40).
But Jesus, in a loving double enunciation of Martha’s name, commends and corrects her for being “trouble about many things” (10:41); what Martha is doing by way of service to the Lord is good, but what Mary is doing is actually better: “One thing is needful,” Jesus says, “and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her” (10:42 KJV).
The “good part” (tēn agathēn merida), the fathers suggest, is a figurative reference to a better meal, as Augustine puts it, the Bread of Life (Sermon 179.5). The point, Augustine says elsewhere (Sermon 108), is not that we should imagine a stern disapprobation of the service of Martha, for that would undercut all that has previously been taught, but rather that Jesus here distinguishes between two kinds of duties incumbent upon the faithful disciple. . . .
. . . Here, as an epilogue to the main narrative thrust of this and the previous chapter, it seems that Luke intends us to perceive a complementarity: while active service of the Lord coupled with love of one’s neighbor is a hallmark of the disciple’s life, none can long practice it rightly without sitting at the feet of the Lord. Another way of putting this would be to say that the commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves is subsequent to and dependent upon our loving the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind.
In the spirit of Ps. 119:57-64, drawing near to God and attending, undistracted, to his word is certainly essential to developing that kind of self-effacement: in the apt comment of twelfth-century Cistercian William of St. Thierry, amor ipse intellectus est (“love itself is understanding”).