The Better Part

Painting by He Qi

Preached this morning at the Twin Churches in Holland Patent, NY.  The text is Luke 10:38-42.

One of the most common misconceptions about Christians is that we’re mainly interested in getting our “pie in the sky in the sweet by and by”.  People tend to think that Christians want to escape from the harsh realities of this world and live in an insulated bubble until they receive their blessed reward after death.  Karl Marx shared this misconception when he wrote in The Communist Manifesto that Christians are interested in salvation when what the world needs is revolution.  That’s why he referred to religion as the “opiate of the masses”.

To be fair, many Christians have earned this reputation for being too heavenly-minded.  Some of us sing hymns like, I’ll Fly Away and This World is Not My Home. Some of us use our faith as an excuse to disengage from important discussions about problems like poverty and injustice.  We say, “I’m just glad that Jesus is coming back soon to take us away from all this mess!”

Certain passages of Scripture, such as the one we read from Luke’s gospel this morning, are often used to justify our disengagement.  Many believe that Jesus is honoring Mary over Martha for investing in spiritual pursuits rather than worldly ones.  Several theologians have even taken the two sisters as metaphors for the life of Action (Martha) and the life of Contemplation (Mary).  The great reformer John Calvin attacked this interpretation head-on when he wrote about this passage in his Commentaries, “no sacrifice is more pleasing to God, than when every [person] applies diligently to his (or her) own calling, and endeavors to live in such a manner as to contribute to the general advantage.”  What Calvin is trying to say is that a life of passive contemplation lived in isolation from the harsh realities of the world is actually less holy than a life lived in service to God and one’s neighbors, not vice versa.  I tend to agree with Calvin in believing that what Jesus has in mind for Mary (and for us) is not a life of cloistered mysticism, but a life of discipleship.  To put it another way, Jesus does not want to take us out of the world; Jesus wants to change the way we interact with the world.

Let’s take a closer look at this passage in order to get a clearer picture of what Jesus is talking about with Mary and Martha.

Our story begins on a rather bizarre and radical note.  Jesus is welcomed into the home of a woman named Martha as he makes his way toward Jerusalem.  We see first that Martha is the one to welcome Jesus into her home.  This is odd because we know from John’s gospel that Mary and Martha had a brother named Lazarus who lived with them as well.  In first century Palestine, it was customary for men to do the welcoming and govern all interactions between the household and the outside world.  Why then is Martha the one to welcome Jesus?  Second, the house itself is referred to as Martha’s house.  Again, property was traditionally owned by a male member of the family.  We can see already that this family tends to push boundaries when it comes to gender roles and stereotypes.  Martha comes across as a strong woman with an independent personality.

Things get even stranger when we learn about Martha’s sister Mary.  We read that she “sat at Jesus’ feet and listened to what he was saying.”  This might sound like a passive and submissive posture at first (maybe even a little demeaning to “sit at someone’s feet”), but it’s important to realize that to sit at the feet of a rabbi in the ancient Jewish world meant that you had been accepted as a disciple of that rabbi.  This should have been impossible for women in that culture, yet Jesus welcomes her into the community of disciples.  While we are most familiar with the famous twelve disciples (who were all Jewish males), the author of Luke’s gospel seems to be telling us on the sly that Jesus accepted women as disciples as well.  In another passage we see Jesus doing the same for a Gentile (a non-Jewish person).  In that culture, theological education under a rabbi was a privilege reserved for Jewish men only (no women or Gentiles allowed).

The next thing we learn is that Martha seems to be having a hectic day.  Our translation says she was “distracted”, but the term in Greek is periespato, which literally means “yanked around”.  So it would be fair to translate the sentence to say, “Martha was being yanked around by her many tasks.”  Have you ever had a day like that?  I sure have!  Sometimes I feel like there just isn’t enough time, money, or energy to get everything done that needs doing.  Sometimes my appointment calendar and to-do list run my life so efficiently that I forget to leave enough time for myself, my family, or God.  It’s not long before I start to feel like a spinning top that starts to wobble as it runs out of energy.  Stop me if this doesn’t sound familiar!  I think we can all relate to what Martha is going through.  Isn’t that just the way life in the real world goes?  So it makes sense that Martha gets upset when she perceives that Mary might be checking out of reality.

Martha snaps, “Rabbi, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.”  Martha expects Jesus to help her sister snap out of it and get back to work, but Jesus does something surprising and gives Martha the reality check.

After acknowledging all the hard work that Martha is doing, Jesus tells her that “there is need of only one thing” and that Mary had “chosen the better part”.  What is this “one thing” and “better part” that Jesus was talking about?  We have already established that Mary had taken the position of a disciple and was listening to her rabbi teach.  We are not told exactly what Jesus was teaching her at the time, but we can assume it was probably consistent with the kinds of things we’ve heard Jesus teach elsewhere.  In these ten chapters of Luke’s gospel (9:51-19:27), Jesus and his disciples are moving slowly toward Jerusalem where he will suffer, die, and rise again on the third day.  His teachings in this section have a few common themes that run through them: the cost of discipleship, the inclusion of outsiders in God’s family, and principles for living as spiritually-centered people in difficult world.  Jesus constantly finds himself getting into conflict with the political, religious, and economic realities of his day.  These days, we call them governments, churches, and corporations.  Jesus taught his disciples to resist the effect these things have on our consciousness by practicing things like simplicity of life, care for neighbors, regular prayer, reconciliation with enemies, and non-anxiety over daily needs.  Jesus then sends his disciples back into this hostile world as agents of healing.  Theirs is an active and engaged spirituality that doesn’t prepare people to “fly away” to heaven, but instead shouts out loud in the streets, “The kingdom of God has come near you.”  Jesus doesn’t send people to heaven; he brings heaven here!  Remember the Lord’s Prayer?  “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”.

This, I think, is the “one thing” and the “better part” that Jesus had in mind when he was talking to Mary and Martha.  I also think this is what God has in store for you and me.  We don’t have to be constantly yanked around anymore by the demands of this broken world-system.  Nor do we have to cloister ourselves behind walls of piety and heavenly-mindedness.  We can choose instead to sit at the feet of our Rabbi Jesus and face this world again as spiritually-centered agents of healing.

May God’s kingdom come and God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.  Amen.

2 thoughts on “The Better Part

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