In the last post I defined contemplation as the intellectual and ruminating aspect of our communion with Christ. I said that contemplation is a gospel-centered (and thus content-based) cognition of the mind that seeks to understand and appraise the person’s union with God in Christ. With this general definition in mind, I will now briefly demonstrate why contemplation is important to the Christian life through the story of Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42; cf. John 12:1-8):
Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching [lit., “his word”]. But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.’ (ESV)
In writing a short post, of course, I am not going to deal with all the textual and literary issues here (for a good discussion see Marshall’s commentary, 450-454); rather I want to focus on what this passage says about contemplation. Now, the passage certainly does not intend to prioritize the ‘contemplatives’ (e.g., Mary) over the ‘servants’ (e.g., Martha), as Origen supposes. It does, however, teach us something about seeing and savoring Jesus, actions that are at the forefront of contemplation. As Marshall aptly notes, Luke understood his recorded story in a “spiritual” sense, and thus its historical occasion has practical implications (450).
The contrast between Martha and Mary should already be apparent. While Martha strives to be hospitable to her guest, Mary would rather listen to Jesus’ “word” (v. 39), which is Luke’s technical term for the gospel itself. Mary wants to know and love the Lord. She is “taking in” Jesus, so to speak. After Martha complains, Jesus lightly rebukes her and affirms Mary’s choice of the “best portion,” that is, the right meal that is the word of God (cf. Luke 4:4; Deut 8:3). I like how Robert Stein highlights the contrast: “There is a need to focus on what is most important, for although serving is good, sitting at Jesus’ feet is best” (Luke, 321). Jesus here reflects what Paul later summarizes as “setting your minds on things that are above” (Col 3:2). To hear and appropriate the gospel is key.
The story thus reflects the importance of contemplation. At the risk of sounding like a cliché sermon, we too often become ‘Marthas’ as we fail to perceive and give notice to the creator, sustainer, and redeemer of all things. We often fail in our theologies as we focus on our own framing of Scripture while ignoring its framing of us. We likewise cause harm in our commentaries as we seek merely to find the ‘objective’ meaning of the Bible, forgetting that this very meaning is directed to us in Christ. We also overlook the truth in our lives as we “eat, drink, and be merry” (Luke 12:19); but we all the while fail to recognize that God is the originator and upholder of all good things, and his redemption secures all enjoyment therein. It is easy to focus on the externals of life; easy to believe that our limited perception is ultimate reality itself.
Contemplation keeps the gospel foremost. It keeps us sane.
I hope an analogy will suffice to stress more concretely the importance of contemplation. It will also serve as a conclusion. Before I was married to my lovely wife, Laura, I was once told to remember to boast about her from time to time (tastefully, of course). While it may seem mundane and even melodramatic, it works. If I speak highly of my wife’s positive qualities, if I note her treasure to others, I will more cogently perceive her beauty myself. I am sure that the same applies to our perception of God. The more we “boast” about him—in word and thought (i.e., contemplation)—the more we see the greatness of his majesty. Herein lays the importance of contemplation. The more we think God, the more we sense him; the more we see him, the more we treasure him; and the more we treasure him, the more we, by his grace, live out the gospel with our hearts, souls, and minds.
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matt 22:37). Contemplation is not the whole gospel, but it is certainly a big part of it. It is the intellectual ruminating and practical appraising of who God is and why it matters for us. Therefore, in large part, contemplation involves thinking both God and ourselves and correlating the two through the gospel. (As a side note, if I had time, I would interact with Calvin’s famous opening epistemological statement in this context. To be continued another time. . . .)
As Martha and Mary teach us, we ought to be livers of life and servers of people; but also, and more fundamentally, we ought to become partakers of the gospel, sitting quietly and humbly at the feet of Jesus. Contemplation, therefore, is one manner in which we become ‘Marys’ of Christ.
Go to His feet.