Mary and Martha v. The Good Samaritan

A week or so ago I asked about a dozen people the following question:

Imagine you're a poor farmer in Bethany,around 2000 years ago. You've heard of Jesus and you pass a house where he is speaking. There's a man at the door and he beckons to you - there's just space for one more he says.

You are about to go in but your glance catches sight of an old woman struggling to pick up some things she was carrying - someone has knocked her over. She's crying out for help but, though there are people about, nobody is helping her.

You don't know what to do - help the old lady or take the last seat to listen to Jesus. So you call out to Jesus - asking him what should you do.

How do you think Jesus would answer ?

Those I asked were a mix of people who held Christian beliefs, those who didn't and some whom I had no idea if they were Christians or not. Most of the answers I received said that Jesus would tell the man to help the old lady.

Were the majority right in their answer ? What do you think ? Is there any way the Bible gives us any clues as to how Jesus would have responded ?

In my view the Bible does give us some clear pointers here, but at first sight they might seem to be in conflict. The two passages that I think can help here are both in Luke 10 - the stories of the Good Samaritan ( verses 25 - 37 ) and Mary and Martha ( verses 38 - 41 ). Luke places the account of Mary and Martha right after the story about the Good Samaritan. Is this a coincidence or is there a relationship between these two apparently conflicting messages that Jesus gives us ?

The Good Samaritan - how to inherit eternal life

The Good Samaritan is about a lawyer ( religious law rather than commercial ) asking Jesus about the conditions of entry to Heaven. Jesus tells him to obey the first two commandments - loving God and his neighbour, and he's made it. But the lawyer won't leave it there - he asks Jesus to explain who qualifies as his neighbour - and he gets the story of the Samaritan who tended an injured man who had been ignored by people with a clearer brief than he had to help - a priest and a man of his own social group. When the lawyer admits that the Samaritan was acting in a neighbourly fashion, despite not being a neighbour in the every-day sense of the word - Jesus tells the lawyer to go away and do the same. So, Jesus answer to qualification for eternal life seems to be, at first sight, by doing Good Works. There is no direct mention of faith.

Mary and Martha - faith before works

The Mary and Martha story seems, again at first sight, to give a different take on the Good Samaritan. Martha is busying herself in the kitchen preparing a meal for Jesus and his disciples - and probably a few more beside. She wants to do her best. Mary, her sister, however isn't in the kitchen helping - she's sitting somewhere else in the house listening to Jesus speak. Martha asks Jesus to tell her sister that it's more important to help her get the meal ready but Jesus tells Martha that it is Mary who has got her priorities right. So here it seems, faith takes priority over Good Works.

Do we take Jesus' words at 'face value' or look deeper ?

Is the answer here to see beyond the simple words Jesus used to the Lawyer at the end of the Good Samaritan story - "Go and do likewise" ? If these words described a straightforward task like an instruction to "Wipe your feet before you enter the hallway" it might be a reasonable request. But ask yourself - to never pass by someone in need for the rest of one's earthly life - do you think you can do that ?,

So were these words said by Jesus a bit 'tongue in cheek' ? - were they said to make people realise that they cannot earn their way to salvation by adherence to the Law - the 10 Commandments ? - that, however much they try, they'll never be able to say to God 'I've earned my way to heaven - you've got to let me in - I've done it in my own strength, without any help from you'. Were Jesus' words meant to make people realise their total dependence on God's Grace - God's unmerited favour - and to understand that without this nobody would stand the smallest chance of salvation.

Faith v. Works - which comes first ?

If you are challenged to see a deeper meaning in the story of the Good Samaritan and perhaps its consistency with the Mary Martha tale - to consider that both stories maybe saying that knowing Jesus is more important than trying to copy the good works he did - you might want to listen to the two sermon recordings from All Souls Langham Place listed below.

And then go back and see if your answer to the opening question in this post has changed !

What must I do ? - Hugh Palmer (The Good Samaritan)

Having the right priorities - Richard Bewes (Mary and Martha)

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