The Better Part
Sometimes I get frustrated that we have such little snippets of the life and teachings of Jesus. Jesus walked on earth for more than thirty years. Even if we look just at his recorded ministry, he was busy teaching and preaching for three years. And out of that time, we get a scene here and a scene there – maybe a month’s worth of stories, if we’re generous in our tally. I want to know what Jesus was doing and saying on all those other days! And then, out of all the things the gospel writers might have shared with us, I’m sometimes confused at their choices. Take today’s text, for example. This is such a short little scene. Just a few verses. A quick vignette of Jesus hanging out at the home of Mary and Martha. Yes, there’s a brief teaching, but mostly it seems like Jesus is settling a mild dispute between sisters. I can’t help but wonder – why, out of all the things the author might have included – why did Luke choose to tell this story?
Our gospel lesson picks up right where we left off last week. This happens right after Jesus had finished speaking with the lawyer who asked, “Who is my neighbor?” After that scene, Jesus and his companions went on their way, and they come to a town where a woman named Martha welcomes Jesus into her home. From other gospel texts, we identify this woman as Martha of Bethany, sister of Mary and Lazarus. So Martha welcomes Jesus into her home. Luke tells us that Martha’s sister Mary “sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying.” Martha, though, is “distracted by many tasks.” She comes to Jesus and says, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” Jesus, though, doesn’t see things her way. “Martha, Martha,” he says in a gentle chide, “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.” And that’s it. The whole passage.
My first reaction is that Martha gets a really bad wrap, a really unfair reaction from Jesus in this story. Jesus has come over for dinner, and Mary isn’t helping at all, leaving Martha to do all the work. It reminds me of family Thanksgiving gatherings. You know – there are some family members that work hard preparing the meal and setting the table and dishing everything up. And then there are some people who sit in the living room and watch football while everyone else works, and then happily come in to eat the fruit of your labors. Isn’t this what Mary is doing to Martha? So why is Jesus criticizing her? Yes, Mary sits at Jesus’ feet and listens to him, and sure, wouldn’t everyone like to be able to just sit and relax? But then who would take care of the household? It feels like Jesus isn’t being fair, and isn’t honoring the work that Martha has to do. And yet, this text takes place just after Jesus has finished talking about how it is the one who shows mercy, the one whose actions are loving and welcoming, the one who goes out of their way to help who is the true neighbor. Why, then, is what Martha is doing wrong?
John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, wrote that when we try to interpret scripture, and something we read seems like it contradicts something else we’ve read, a way we can figure out what is meant is by thinking about what he called “the whole scope and tenor” of the scripture. What is the main message we read in the scripture? Wesley used the example of the text from the book of Malachi, where the author records God saying, “Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated.” If you took that verse alone, you could conclude that God hated Esau unequivocally. But, Wesley argued, the whole scope and tenor of scripture, the main message, the predominant message is God is love. He points out text after text that show God to be a God of love and mercy. (1) So, for us to understand and interpret the particular verse, we can understand it only in light of the message of the scripture as a whole.
I’ve found this to be a helpful guide when studying texts like ours from Luke today. Jesus consistently honors those who serve others in the gospels. In fact, he says of himself: “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve.” He repeatedly speaks about humbling ourselves, putting ourselves last. He lifts up the role of the servant again and again in his parables. So, we can gather that Jesus is not devaluing the role of service with his words about Mary choosing the better part. So what is he saying?
Like with our text last week, it can be easy to read here what we expect to read. I can’t tell you how many images I’ve seen depicting this text (like the one I’m showing here) where Martha seems to be working on dinner and Mary is at Jesus’ feet. But as I was struggling with this text this week, I came across a suggestion that transformed my reading of this passage. (2) Mary Hanson suggests that Mary was, in fact, not at home (or not necessarily at home) in the passage we read. Instead, Mary has been on the road with Jesus, and is out with the other disciples, sharing the good news. Martha is not upset because of a one-time event where Mary wouldn’t help Martha get ready. Rather, Martha is upset because Mary has gone to follow Jesus, leaving Martha at home to manage the household. When I first read Hanson’s interpretation, I thought it was impossible. But I looked again at the text: When Jesus enters the house, it only says that Martha welcomes him. Then it tells us that Martha “had a sister Mary,” a sister who would sit at the feet of Jesus and listen to his teaching. This phrasing, these actions describe someone who is a disciple. A disciple, literally a student, would sit at the feet of the teacher to learn. So the text tells us that Martha has a sister named Mary who is a disciple of Jesus. But Martha is not a disciple, because she’s distracted and worried by many things. We’re not told what these things are, but we’re also not told that Martha is talking about housework, or that Martha is fixing dinner for Jesus, or anything so narrow. When Martha asks Jesus to make Mary help her, what she says is that she has been “left behind” by Mary. But Jesus won’t send Mary back. Mary is a disciple, one learning at the feet of the teacher. She’s become a Jesus-follower. And that won’t be taken away from her.
Finally, things click into place. Rather than chiding Martha for showing hospitality as would be expected, I think Jesus is telling Martha that Mary’s place is with the disciples – and Martha’s is too! Whatever she feels she can’t let go off, can’t leave unattended, whatever has filled her heart with worry and distraction – the priority must be following Jesus and sharing the good news of God’s grace. Instead of this passage reading like Jesus putting Martha in her place, I realize at last that actually Jesus is inviting Martha to join Mary – they can be disciples. They can follow Jesus. They’re invited to sit at the feet of the teacher and live their lives serving God. Jesus has made possible for Mary and Martha what was typically seen as a role only for men. He’s both expanded their realm of what’s possible and eliminated any excuses for discipleship at once. Mary has already taken Jesus up on the invitation. She’s a disciple. But Martha isn’t there yet, and rather than plunging ahead to follow Jesus, she’s hoping she can pull Mary back to the safety of what she’s known. Understandable. But not what Jesus has in mind. Better, Jesus says, to follow him, to be a disciple, to take the risk, to see what happens when you pin all your hopes on God.
What is it that’s got you distracted and worried? What is it that’s holding you back from giving your life and your heart and your service to God? What is it that God’s calling you to that you keep insisting isn’t for you? What role, what mission, what adventure do you keep insisting is for someone else better qualified, better equipped, with more time and resources? God is calling, inviting us to be disciples, inviting us to follow Jesus. What holds us back?
I would follow Jesus, except – what? I have this dream for the church, for the community, but I can’t do it because – what? We’re invited to sit at the feet of Jesus and learn. It’s a gift to us and a responsibility. We’re invited to let Jesus take away the limitations we’ve put on ourselves, invited to let Jesus free us from our distractions, free us for service. And we’re invited to invite others – to let them know that’s there’s room for them, too, at the feet of Jesus, room for them to learn and serve in Jesus’ name. Mary chose the better part – because Jesus gave her a path of discipleship to choose! Mary chose the better part – and Martha was so distracted and worried she didn’t realize there was a place for her too. Mary chose the better part – and now it’s our turn. What part will we choose? Amen.
(1) Wesley, John, “Free Grace.” http://wesley.nnu.edu/john-wesley/the-sermons-of-john-wesley-1872-edition/sermon-128-free-grace/
(2) Hanson, Mary. http://stromerhanson.blogspot.com/2014/11/what-was-martha-doing-diakonia-in-luke.html