So often we read scripture by chapter and verse divisions, never considering that those structures were not part of the original writings. Chapters were added much later, and verses later yet, as a way to organize the text. They're very helpful, but they limit our thinking too often.
In this text, imagine if the enormous "11" didn't exist on the page. We'd likely read as if the episode with Mary and Martha (which is almost always read as its own distinct unit, and is almost always read as a condemnation of Martha and an endorsement of Mary's devotion, satisfying to those who land on the "NF" spectrum of the Meyers-Briggs assessment) differently. We would assume that it's connected to the first dozen or so verses of chapter 11.
Consider the connection points: Martha is concerned with welcoming Jesus into her home as a guest. She is focused on serving, which might mean household details but likely centers on preparing and serving food. In the following verses, Jesus uses the example of a person going to a friend's house to borrow food because a guest has arrived from a journey. Clear connection! Later, near the end of this section, Jesus cites the example of a parent giving their child fish or an egg. Again, concerns about food and serving appropriate food.
Another connection point: After seeing Jesus' interactions with the household, and then observing Jesus' own prayer life, the disciples ask specifically for teaching about prayer. (By the way, it's intriguing that Mary and Martha's home is just a short distance from the Garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives east of Jerusalem, and it's very possible that the "certain place" of 11:1 is in fact that garden, where we're told elsewhere that Jesus liked to spend time.) It's quite possible that Mary's devotion is part of what spurred the Twelve on to ask Jesus about prayer. The prayer that Jesus teaches here is the supreme example of a disciple's prayer that exemplifies Mary's attitude of single-minded submission to the Father through Jesus.
And finally, do not miss the point, well worth digging into, that Jesus sums up all his teaching in this section by saying that the gift the Father is so eager to give is not just a sop to the disciple's desires, but in fact is the Holy Spirit (11:13). Jesus is not simply telling the disciples how to communicate with God -- instead, he is encouraging them to seek the one best gift that God has to give: Himself, in the form of his Spirit, residing in the life of the believer. As we begin to know God better and better, we desire him more and more, and the answer to this desire is that God gives us his Spirit. This is our truest longing, going back to the Garden of Eden where God breathes into us his Spirit, the wind / breath of his own life. It is what we are created for -- the indwelling of God's vitality in us, in our relationships, in our loves, in our passions, in our creativity, in our community, in our devotion, in our solitude and in our partnership, in our work and in our play.
A couple other things worth noting. N.T. Wright points out that culturally speaking, Mary sitting at Jesus' feet and listening to his teachings was scandalous partly at least because it meant that she was in the men's part of the house, breaking the gender divisions that said women couldn't learn, couldn't be disciples, couldn't take part in meaningful discussions and debates. (If you've ever seen the old Barbra Streisand movie "Yentl" you have a sense of this in the Jewish community. It's worth watching.) Over and over again an honest, contextually informed reading of the New Testament -- and the Old Testament, for that matter -- shatters the cultural limitations that kept women in servitude in those times. We take our self-centered, post-Enlightenment assumptions and read these words as though they were written for our culture where women have achieved major strides forward in equality and respect, and we do violence to scripture. So we read Paul's words that a woman should learn at home in full submission to her husband as placing a limit on women, but Paul's original hearers would likely have been shocked by the idea that a woman could learn at all, and Paul gives her full access to the intellectual, spiritual, and devotional discussions around the faith, just in a culturally appropriate context.
Jesus is doing a similarly radical thing here. Allowing Mary into the conversation, affirming her as an example of appropriate devotion, calling Martha to recognize the unhealth of her own attitude toward the details, hospitality, and her sister -- Jesus radically reinterprets the cultural expectations leveled at the women in his context. It is possible and legitimate to see in Jesus' rhetorical question in 11:13 to be in part a linguistic way to say "those who ask him" implicitly includes the women who were culturally swept aside.
So what does one do, personally with this story? I've been parked on this section of Luke for many days now. The last few days especially I have been in a "Martha" phase of life, managing details and trying to stay on top of too many spinning plates. (How's that for a vivid visual?) Yesterday was our Fall Kickoff here at The Open Door, and this campus was full of kayakers and kids with treasure maps and a bounce house and pulled pork sandwiches and newly installed outdoor speakers playing background music and excellent all-beef hotdogs over the bonfire. Lots of moving parts, lots of preparation, lots of "serving" in a multiplicity of ways. Then yesterday evening I had the final training session with my Alpha leadership team before we launch next Sunday. This group of a couple dozen leaders are dear partners in an adventure, launching into something that feels bigger than what we can manage, repurposing our old building in New London, dealing with facilities issues and all the rest. At least three times during last night's training, I said, "Don't worry about the horses, just load the wagon." So often if we are living by God's Spirit, in that pneumanaut sailing that he calls us to do, we have to plan in such a way that if God doesn't show up we will look utterly foolish. So it is here -- we are extending as fully as we can, yearning for God to do the work that only he can do, and knowing that if he doesn't show up, we will look foolish and be bitterly disappointed.
That's why Jesus' words toward the end of this section are so critically important. We're not asking for a scorpion or a snake. We are asking for good gifts. God loves to show up and do what only he can do. He has promised that if we lift him up, he will use us to draw people to himself. In the process, even our potentially disappointing trust becomes a witness to the goodness of God himself. How much more will he pour out his Spirit, giving the good gift of himself to his children?
Even in the midst of a life consumed by details, there are potent reminders of the provision, power, and love of God. As I was about to dive out the door and scream off to our old North 40 campus yesterday afternoon, No Tail and her twin fawns were grazing acorns in my front yard and I stopped to watch, to grin, to breathe, to pray. Yesterday morning in the midst of scrambling around to find this and install that and prepare the other thing, in the middle of one of our gravel roads I found a snapping turtle, no larger than a half dollar, and picked him up en route to relocate him to the beach where he's less likely to get driven over. Along the way I introduced him to a couple people, one of whom dubbed him Clarence, and eventually we got him to his new home. As I drove home last night after Alpha training, just before I turned into Decision Hills, off to the left in one of the neighbor's yards I saw the little buck who last winter fogged my living room window with his breath. He's growing in a respectable six-point rack for a yearling, and I see him around frequently. I'm off to the Cities briefly today to pick up my younger daughter who's in town for a few days, and she'll come out to DH for a Mary-like time of peace and quiet. I'm so excited to have time with her! Next Saturday my little brother's stepson is getting married down in Red Wing, so we'll have the family together for a while.
Life is full, and good, and intense, and I need to remember to stop, to breathe, to sit at Jesus' feet. To ask him for his Spirit, over and over, more and more. He loves to give that best of gifts, and so many other good gifts that go with a life lived in love and submission to him.