Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things. . . .
Project Reason styles itself as an organization “devoted to spreading scientific knowledge and secular values in society.” It has that irreligious mandate because it believes the foundations of a flourishing culture—the scientific and artistic enterprises for instance—are grounded in a “vigorous self-criticism” that, from their perspective, religious discourse does not permit as a matter of principle. Since religious thought still pervades, “dogmatism,” they argue, reigns on the earth, “dividing humanity from itself, inflaming conflict, preventing wise public policy, and diverting scarce resources.” Therefore, overturning the influence of religious thought in the public sphere represents the Project’s Great, if not Greatest, Commission.
You may have caught wind of its most headline-grabbing effort several months ago when it published an admittedly eye-catching chart alleging 439 distinct contradictions within the Bible. Number two on the list cites Romans 4:2 and James 2:21 as ostensibly disparate answers to the question “Was Abraham justified by faith or by works?” The former, argues Paul, insists Abraham was a model of faith alone as the basis of his favor with God. While James points to Abraham’s works—his willingness to sacrifice his one and only son, Isaac—as the linchpin of God’s affirmation.
Project Reason isn’t the first entity to make a claim of biblical inconsistency on this doctrine so central to the Christian faith. And surely on its face, the respective testimonies of Paul and James appear irreconcilable. So what can be adduced to break the impasse—either to concede the contradiction or reaffirm the complementarity of the testimonies?
Let’s consider what we heard of Martha and Mary in the sermon last Sunday. Mark walked us through the clear distinction Jesus made between the two women. One worked frenetically while the other sat quietly. Martha preferred activity to Mary’s ostensible passivity.
On one level you might infer that Jesus is exalting faith over works. Here’s Mary, literally having her quiet time with Jesus, believing there’s nothing she can do—no kindness she can perform—to obtain His favor. Her faith in Him leads her to do nothing but sit at His feet—a choice the Lord wholeheartedly affirms. Sounds like simple faith that simply pleases.
But listen carefully to what Jesus lightly but lovingly upbraids in Martha. He does not scorn her choice to serve, but only that she has become “distracted”—overwhelmed, undone, unhinged—in the serving. Mary sits to learn in peace while Martha rises to serve with anxiety. Each had a different focus in that moment. Yet what distinguished them most was as much the motive behind their focus (and its result) as it was the object of their focus.
As Martha prepared a meal—itself a diligent work—she missed the greater meal of His word (cf. Deut. 8:3; Lk. 4:4)—the “portion” Mary would not lose. To prefer feeding one’s body to the exclusion of feeding one’s soul signals a deep misunderstanding of what ultimately fortifies.
But we dare not infer that following Jesus means never serving—even sacrificially. (The Cross! The Cross!) For it was another woman later in Luke’s account (Lk. 7:36f) that diligently sought to lavish Jesus with costly perfume. She, too, approached him at his feet—not to listen, but to regale him with an aromatic love. And Jesus’ only rebuke in that moment was directed toward those who rebuked her work of love.
So we cannot reduce life before Jesus as only hearing from Jesus. Nor can we marginalize the attention to Jesus if ever we wish to serve Jesus in the manner and for the reasons He prescribed (and displayed).
Mary sat that she might rise. The sitting was the foundation of her future serving. Her faith would lead her to good works (cf. Eph. 2:10).
And Martha would only become unburdened in her serving by finding strength from Him to serve. A strength derived from a confidence in His steadfast love, a confidence cultivated by taking a posture of earnest and frequent inquiry. Her serving was to be what flowed from her sitting. So any good works would have to be grounded in simple, pure faith that Christ’s work is enough to make us—and sustain us as—God’s child (cf. Jn. 1:12).
In this short scene—its remarkableness amplified by the fact that it showcases women in a then counter-cultural posture of learning—we see the synthesis of faith and works subtly but clearly displayed. They do not stand in opposition to one another any more than Martha truly opposed Mary. Rather we see the intimate dance of invisible and visible belief—just as we see in Abraham, the father of faith whose simple belief translated into humble works.
In his wistful short story, A Father’s Story, Andre Dubus’ protagonist, Luke Ripley, recollects his failed marriage and what the intervening time has taught him:
“. . . I wish I had known then what I know now, and we had performed certain acts together every day, no matter how we felt, and perhaps then we could have subordinated feeling to action, for surely that is the essence of love. I know this from my distractions during Mass, and during everything else I do, so that my actions and feelings are seldom one. [Such a coincidence] does happen every day, but in proportion to everything else in a day, it is rare, like joy.” (emphasis mine)
Our affections—our deepest desires and loyalties—drive our every choice. And the God who made us cognitive and affective (among other things) means to redeem as much what we desire as what we do. But the life of faith to which He calls us is at its core a life of love—a fact our debates about salvation and faith and works sometimes miss. (A fact those at Project Reason—tendentiously?—exclude from their assessment.) For we are saved by love for love—saved through love to love—even if our love sometimes—most times?—must subordinate feeling to action.
Was Abraham saved by faith or by works, then? The answer is yes. As our forbears have taught us, we are saved by faith alone but saving faith is never alone; faith acts in love because it trusts in Love—His Love.
It’s the only reasonable conclusion.