All Ears for Jesus
What follows is a snippet of my interview with Dr. John Kleinig about Christian contemplation on our podcast. Dr. Kleinig is a pastor and professor in the Australian Lutheran Church. Among his many books, he has written commentaries on both Leviticus and Hebrews, and the book that inspired this interview: Grace Upon Grace: Spirituality for Today.
You can listen to the whole interview here or you can find our podcast on all the popular platforms.
(Note: this transcript has been heavily edited for clarity ad conciseness)
The story of Mary and Martha is the starting point
Dr. Kleinig we were emailing back and forth about this, and you said that the Christian approach to contemplation does not depend on any one method, but on what we contemplate and how. You also mentioned that the biblical model for it is the story of Mary and Martha. Can we start there and maybe have you unpack that a little bit and tell us what that means?
Certainly, the story of Mary and Martha has been used traditionally to teach contemplative meditation and meditation generally… But we need to be clear on our use of language.
There's a big aura attached to the word “contemplation” and it's unnecessarily complicated. Contemplation is a Latin term and it means to look attentively and intently at something. So it's a kind of looking in order to see what's not obvious to sight. It has to do with looking in order to discover something.
Now the story of Mary and Martha is very interesting because the contrast is between Martha who is busy preparing the meal for Jesus, and Mary who sits at the feet of Jesus and listens to his word—what he says. Jesus chides Martha because she's angry with her sister because she's not pitching in and helping her prepare the meal. An all too human story! And Jesus says very gently, "Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things, but Mary has chosen one of the many things, which is the better thing, the better portion, which will not be taken away from her."
The story is very often misapplied by saying, “Mary is meditating and Martha is working.” And so, there was a tradition in the church which spoke about the active Christian life and the contemplative Christian life. There are ordinary Christians and then extraordinary Christians, the spiritual elite.
Now that's not what the story tells us. There's not one way of meditating. Martha could have meditated and should have meditated as she was preparing the meal. preparing the meal for Jesus, focusing on him, but her focus was wrong.
Her focus wasn't on Jesus, but her focus was on her sister. She could have, if you like, “contemplated” Jesus as she prepared the meal, but she didn't. Her attention was on the wrong thing. She was distracted. On the other hand, Mary had her focus and her attention on Jesus, but not just on Jesus, and this is the important thing when it comes to meditation and spirituality, her focus was on what Jesus said—his word. She was all eyes for Jesus, and all ears for Jesus, focused entirely on him.