Short Sayings of Jesus

Listening to Jesus' Word

Luke 10:38-42

Teaching t12290


We are in the middle of a series entitled “Short Sayings of Jesus.”  Jesus was a master teacher, and He employed many teaching forms (e.g., lecture, Socratic discussion, parables, etc.).  He also uttered short sayings that are easy to memorize and have wide application.  He used two types of short sayings:

Aphorisms, which are short, pithy sayings that express a general truth – either directional (“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”) or observational (“The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree”).  Many of the Old Testament Proverbs are aphorisms (e.g., Prov. 10:17).

Mini-teachings, which briefly develop an important truth.  Jesus frequently utters these in response to a situation/person, as is the case with this passage (read Lk. 10:41,42).  Before we can benefit from this mini-teaching, we have to answer certain preliminary questions . . .

Preliminary questions

Who are Martha and Mary?  They are sisters who both believe in Jesus as the Messiah.  Jesus raised their brother Lazarus from the dead some time after this event (Jn. 11).  Mary later washed Jesus’ feet with her inheritance perfume (Jn. 12).

What is the setting?  Read 10:38,39.  Martha welcomes Jesus into their home, and as hostess begins to prepare a meal for her guest.  Meanwhile, Jesus begins to teach/discuss (presumably about God’s kingdom, and presumably to other guests) – and Mary gets absorbed in this.

Read 10:40.  Martha complains to Jesus that her sister has left her to do all the work, and asks Him to tell her to help.  But instead Jesus gently reproves her and commends Mary (re-read 10:41,42).  So “the good part” that Mary has chosen is to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen to His word.  Now we’re ready to distill the meaning of Jesus’ mini-teaching . . .

What Jesus doesn’t mean

Jesus doesn’t mean that hospitality is unimportant or unspiritual.  Many other biblical passages emphasize that hospitality is an important expression of Christian love (read 1 Pet. 4:9; Rom. 12:13; Heb. 13:2; 1 Tim. 3:2).

Jesus doesn’t mean that passive contemplation is superior to active service in expressing love for God.  This passage directly follows Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk. 10:25-37), which emphasizes that loving God and loving our neighbor go hand in hand.

What Jesus does mean

I see one central lesson, and two other related lessons . . .

The central lesson is that listening to Jesus’ word is supremely important.  Jesus emphasizes this in three ways in 10:42.

Many things may have their proper importance (10:41b), but listening to Jesus’ word is the one necessary thing (10:42a).  We are not merely animals; we are spiritual beings.  Therefore, we “do not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Deut. 8:3).  Jesus’ words are “spirit (Spirit-inspired) and (spiritual) life” (Jn. 6:63).  Without regular intake of Jesus’ word, our souls are seriously malnourished.  This kind of anorexia is spiritually life-threatening.

To listen to Jesus’ word is to choose “the good part” (10:42b).  Agathos is probably used here in a superlative sense – the best part.[1]  No meal, no matter how delicious, is more delightful than communing with Jesus by listening to His word (read Ps. 19:7-10; 84:10).  To learn about His great love for us, to receive insight into who we are, to learn about the purpose of human history is the supreme privilege and delight of our lives. 

Listening to Jesus’ word has a uniquely lasting impact (10:42c).  Even the most substantial meal will soon be eliminated.  In the same way, everything else we receive in this life (e.g., food; physical health; human relationships; possessions; etc.) will be taken away from us, either during our lifetimes or certainly at our deaths.  But God’s Word lasts forever (read 1 Pet. 1:23-25).  Therefore, receiving Jesus’ word ignites an eternal ripple-effect in our lives – showing us the way into God’s eternal kingdom, and shaping our souls into eternal Christlikeness.

It is easy to get distracted from listening to Jesus’ word by other legitimate tasks.  “But Martha was distracted . . .” is a deliberate contrast to Mary’s choice to sit at Jesus’ feet.  Martha believed in Jesus, she valued His teaching – but she got distracted by meal-preparation from taking advantage of this opportunity.  The meal could have been simpler, the meal preparation could have been later – but it exerted an urgent pull on Martha to which she succumbed.

How common this is!  How easy it is for me to neglect spending time with the Lord in this way “because I have so much to do today” (e.g., clean the house for home church; do the yard work; fix the car; etc.).  And even when I decide to sit at His feet, I find my mind distracted from listening by these responsibilities that press upon me for the day.  Though they may all be valid, there is a sinister force (my fallen nature and Satan) that presses them upon me to rationalize my allergy to God’s presence.

10:40a could be translated: “But Martha was distracted by much ministry . . .”  Luke usually uses this word (diakonia) to refer to Christian ministry (see Acts 1:17,25; 6:4; 12:25; 20:24; 21:19).  How ironic it is that even ministry responsibilities (EXAMPLES), as important as they are, can pull us away from spending time alone with Jesus to be nourished and instructed by His word!  This is the central key to ministry fruitfulness (read Ps. 1:2,3; Isa. 50:4).

Anger, self-pity, anxiety and frustration at people and God are often results of omission to listen to Jesus’ words.  Martha was worried and bothered (10:41) and upset with Mary and Jesus (10:40) – not because Mary hadn’t helped her, but because she let herself get distracted from listening to Jesus’ word.  Our time with Jesus is the great stabilizer, when He puts things into perspective, when we receive His love afresh, when we see our sin and get cleansed from it by Him.  It is our time with Him that makes us sane, and our neglect of time with Him that makes us insane.

How often this is a picture of me!  I become distracted from waiting on God through my service/ministry.  Then, because I have not prioritized being with Him and being instructed by Him, I become worried, bothered, self-pitying, comparing myself to others, angry toward them for not doing enough, frustrated that the Lord doesn’t seem to care, etc.  I think the remedy is others doing more to help me, etc.  But these negative feelings are a sign that I need to spend more time with the Lord.  (See Fernando’s story of what his wife said to his kids when he was this way: “Let us pray that father will get alone and read his Bible!”).

Here’s the bottom line: If you don’t learn to sit like Mary, you will serve like Martha (or eventually quit serving).  But if you learn to sit like Mary, you will be able to serve Jesus effectively.  This same Mary later used her inheritance perfume to wash Jesus’ feet (Jn. 12:1-8), a unique service to Him, and an example of service to millions since then.

How to listen to Jesus’ word

GOSPEL: If this sounds like nonsense to you, it may be because you are unregenerate (1 Cor. 2:14; EXAMPLE) – like unable to benefit from radio waves because you have no radio receiver.  When you receive Christ, His Word becomes a love-letter to you – and His Spirit enables you to feed from it (1 Pet. 2:2).

Practice this with other brothers and sisters in a variety of contexts (Col. 3:16) – different Bible studies, one-on-one times, etc.  How often we seem to be unable to listen to Jesus alone – yet by getting into His Word with the help others, we are able to listen!

Pick a quiet place and time as much as possible (Matt. 6:6).  This is easier during certain stages of life (single; empty-nester/retired).  Don’t compare your previous quiet times when you were single and worked part-time to now that you are the parent of young children.  But it can be done (SUZANNA WESLEY).

Expect your flesh (Gal. 5:17) and Satan (Jas. 4:7) to prevent/reduce/eliminate this.  There will be a battle.  One of the key forms of resistance will be to call your attention to all that you have to do.  When you get distracted (during this time or from spending this time), don’t waste time beating yourself.  Just thank God for His acceptance and draw near.

Ask God to help you to be quiet before Him, consciously entrust your cares to Him, and ask Him to open your eyes/ears to hear/see (Ps. 119:18).

Read the Bible (or a quality Christian book) devotionally.  Note what lights up for you – and give attention to it.  Look at other passages related to this truth.  Maybe record it, coupling it with prayer related to it.  George Mueller was a faithful worker until he died in his nineties.  At the age of seventy, after many years of ministry in England, he became a world-wide evangelist until he was 87.  When he was asked the secret of his long, faithful life, one of the three reasons he gave was “the love he felt for the Scriptures and the constant recuperative power they exercised on his whole being.”[2]  Mueller described how he was strengthened by the Bible in these words: “I saw more clearly than ever, that the first great and primary business to which I ought to attend every day was, to have my soul happy in the Lord . . . I saw that the most important thing I had to do was give myself to the reading of the Word of God, and to meditation on it . . . What is the food of the inner man? . . . The Word of God; and . . . not the simple reading of the Word of God, so that it only passes through our minds, just as water runs through a pipe, but considering what we read, pondering over it, and applying it to our hearts.” [3]

Don’t take your spiritual pulse during this time – checking to see if you feel better, etc.  Do this by faith; the benefits (peace; poise; alertness; stamina; etc.) are often experienced later in the day.


NEXT WEEK: Developing Hope

SUMMARY >> Questions & Comments

[1] “This is an instance of the positive adjective used in place of the superlative adjective. According to ExSyn 298, this could also be treated as a positive for comparative (“better”).”  Biblical Studies Press. (2005). The NET Bible First Edition; Bible. English. NET Bible.; The NET Bible. Biblical Studies Press.

[2] George Mueller: Man of Faith, ed. A. Sims (privately published in Singapore by Warren Myers), p. 52.

[3] George Mueller, A Narrative of Some of the Lord’s Dealing with George Mueller, 2 vols. (Muskegon, Mich.: Dust and Ashes, 2003), 1:272-273.