A little behind on posting this one! Here’s the scripture: Luke 10: 38 – 42.
At first glance, this fairly familiar story seems pretty self explanatory. Jesus comes to visit two of his dear friends. After being welcomed into their home, one sister, Mary, sits at Jesus’ feet while the other sister, Martha, is busy in the kitchen presumably making a meal and trying her darndest to be hospitable.
Martha just can’t stand it anymore–the fact that no one is helping her–so she heads into the living room to get Martha to come help. How does she do it? She tries get Jesus on her side, but Jesus responds to her: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
Most of the time when we hear this story, the take away is simple: you want to be a Mary, not a Martha. It’s better to sit at the feet of Jesus than to do the busywork of the kitchen.
But, as you know, we don’t live in a black and white world. Rarely are there absolutes. Sometimes I’m Mary. Sometimes, I’m Martha. Sometimes, all I want to do is sit at the feet of Jesus, listen to the wisdom and insight drip from his words. Sometimes all I can do is check to be sure that everyone is on the same page, that no one is too mad. That everyone got the memo, that everyone likes me.
So, let’s look at this through a multi-colored lens. The first thing we should note is that hospitality is vital to Luke. Actually, it’s an important theme throughout the whole of the New Testament, but Luke gives it particular weight. When Jesus shows up to Mary and Martha’s home, we are told that they welcomed him. Welcome, of course, is part and parcel to hospitality and so its a pretty safe bet that the “many tasks” that she was busy with were ones that swirled around Jesus’ arrival. Basically, she’s fulfilling her socially mandated role. Simply put, she’s just doing what she’s supposed to do!
A second point we should note is that Mary really isn’t doing what she’s supposed to be doing–societally speaking, that is. You see, when Mary sits at the feet of Jesus, she’s assuming the position of a student listening to a teacher. We see this other places in the New Testament. Students, of course, were men, not women.
All this to say that from the start of our story today up to the point that Martha asks her question (which, by the way, she asks confidently because she was pretty confident in the answer she would get) the first time reader of this story from that period would expect Jesus to tell Mary to go help Martha.
Of course, that isn’t what happens at all, is it?
“But the Lord answered her,” (and I see him doing this with the genuine smile of a friend, not a corrective scowl) “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.”
The truth is we all get distracted–and not just by things that aren’t worth our time, but also by the things that are–ideas or plans or dreams that hold tremendous value for us. We hold onto those ideas or plans or dreams so closely that they end up distracting us from our true work–God’s work. And what’s more is that sometimes the very things that distract us are the things that we feel are helping us accomplish God’s work of love in this world!
“Mary has chosen the better part,” Jesus continues, “which will not be taken away from her.” A better translation of that Greek might be “Mary has chosen the good part.” For me, that changes the game. More often than not, I’ve heard this story presented in ways that prefer Mary over Martha as though it were some competition, as thought one of them did it the right way and the other screwed it up.
But when we think of Mary choosing the “good” part rather than the “better” part, what we begin to realize is that Jesus is affirming that Mary has chosen to be connected to God in that way.
This is a story about distraction. This story does not say there is only one proper form of devotion; It’s saying there’s only one proper object of devotion.
Jesus isn’t chastising Martha’s devotion to him shown through her dedication to her tasks. He doesn’t want the worries and distractions those things create to take her away from her purpose as a follower of Jesus which is…you guessed it…to follow Jesus.
So what does this mean for us? It means that when we’re planning our programming or visitations or services or events and when it becomes easy to get caught up in all the details that those programs, visits, services, and events necessitate, that we will ask ourselves “Are we choosing the good part?” Meaning, is this event bringing me and those part of it closer to God? Are we choosing the good part?
Or are simply worried and distracted by everything that’s just got to get done that there’s no room for the good part anymore?
Together, whether we’re busily making decisions about details or sitting quietly together listening for the Spirit’s whisper, let’s choose the good part.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.