The Better Part

Robert S. Turner
Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
July 17, 2016
Luke 10:38–42

Coming on the heels, as it does, of the story we considered last week, this short
episode in Luke 10 seems somewhat contradictory. Last week, Jesus told a parable
whose protagonist took a variety of specific actions to care for a person in need—to
express hospitality, if you will—and Jesus’s message to the lawyer whose question
occasioned the parable was, “Go and do likewise.” Today, however, in the story that
follows that parable immediately, Jesus takes the side of the sister who does nothing
while offering a rebuke to the one who is busy performing the tasks of hospitality. What
are we to make of this apparent inconsistency?
The story itself appears simple enough. Jesus and his entourage come to a village and
a woman named Martha welcomes them into her home. While she is busy attending to
all the details of being a proper host, her sister Mary plops down in front of Jesus and
listens to his teachings. Needless to say, Martha doesn’t appreciate this, and becomes
so exasperated at the unfairness of the situation that she asks Jesus to intervene and
make Mary help her, but Jesus refuses to do say. He says, “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” (vv. 41–42).
Simple, right? It’s a story of competition between siblings and an appeal to a higher
authority to restore fairness. What could be more obvious or familiar than that? “Mom!
You told us to clean up our room, but Michael’s not helping! He’s just sitting there
reading his comic book and letting me do all the work. Make him help me!” If you have
ever said anything like this yourself, or heard it from your children, I won’t ask for a
show of hands or anything. Just … continue breathing. I thought so.
The surprising and kind of upsetting twist, however, comes with Jesus’s response to
Martha’s complaint. In my example, the mother’s response approximately nine-pointnine-
nine times out of ten will be, “Michael, put down the comic book and do what you're
told!” (In my family there may have been a “get off your duff” in there somewhere as
well, but such creative modifications do not change the essential point.) But Jesus takes
an entirely different tack. He defends Mary! He commends her choice to sit at his feet
and offers a mild rebuke to Martha for her failure to make the same choice.
The scene ends there, so we don’t know what Martha does or says next, but it would be
understandable if she found it hard to accept Jesus’s verdict. Who could blame her for
feeling hurt, undervalued, and misused? After all, she has merely been playing her role
as faithfully as she knows how. She has been trying to protect the honor of her
household by observing the all-important rules of hospitality. And it’s not as though
Jesus is unconcerned with hospitality himself. Earlier in the gospel he upbraids a
Pharisee for his failures as a host, and his instructions to his disciples when he sends
them out on their mission presupposes the giving and receiving of hospitality. He tells
them to stay in one house, eat whatever is set before them, and pronounce shalom on
those who welcome them. And as we have seen, in the parable immediately preceding
this episode, the Samaritan’s detailed acts of compassion are virtually indistinguishable
from the characteristics of hospitality.
It has long been noted that Luke has a tendency to balance episodes involving male
characters with ones featuring females, and vice versa. The account of the annunciation
to Mary and her Magnificat is paired with the story of Zechariah’s vision and his
Benedictus. Simeon and Anna both encounter the infant Jesus and his parents in the
temple. Jesus tells a parable on prayer featuring a man knocking on the door of a
neighbors house, and another about a widow seeking justice from a corrupt judge. And
here we have a story about hospitality featuring two women that follows a story about
hospitality with an all-male cast.
But there may be something more going on in this instance. Here we see Luke
providing a sense of balance that goes deeper than the fact that the Samaritan is a man
and Martha is a woman. With this story, Luke shows the importance of being to balance
out the emphasis on doing in the parable. Jesus never says that the things Martha is
doing are wrong or unimportant, but he does say that in choosing simply to be in his
presence and soak up his teachings, Mary has taken “the better part.”
The participle translated here as “distracted” carries the sense of being pulled or
dragged in different directions. When Jesus remarks that Martha is “worried and
distracted by many things,” he is observing a soul that is not at rest. Martha has so
many responsibilities, she is so conscientious about being a good host, that she has run
herself ragged. In doing so she has missed out on what is really important.
Have you ever gone to somebody’s home for a visit and not seen one of the hosts or
hostesses for the first hour or so? Some people become so intent on making a good
impression that they end up actually neglecting their guests. I would much rather spend
time in relaxed conversation with someone than to find a perfectly folded napkin swan
on my dinner plate. I think that’s the way Jesus feels about Martha. Her rushing around
to accomplish all the tasks she has set herself has kept her from providing a truly
hospitable atmosphere. I think he would prefer that she drop the Martha Stewart routine
and just sit down and relax.
On Friday night David Holifield and I visited the Tifereth Israel synagogue with the
Interfaith Association of Central Ohio. After a tour of the facilities, a reception, and a
brief orientation from the rabbi, we took part in their Shabbat worship service. I was
reminded of how long it’s been since I studied Hebrew as I struggled to follow along with
the liturgy. It was a baffling yet strangely beautiful experience, but what really struck me
was the rabbi’s description of the meaning and practice of sabbath.
He said that in Conservative Jewish congregations like theirs, Friday evening to
Saturday evening is primarily set aside as family time. They don’t go anywhere, they
shut off their phones and computers and other electronic equipment, and they enjoy
their time together in face-to-face conversation free of distractions. They stop doing for
a day and focus on being.
As I listened to this description, I felt a sense of conviction about my own practice of
sabbath (or my failure to practice sabbath, which strikes closer to the truth). I realized
how seldom I turn off everything else in order to give my full attention to those I love. It
occurred to me how many screens are involved in my daily life, not only at work but also
in my times of relaxation. Computer, phone, tablet, and TV screens get the lion’s share
of my attention from the time I get up in the morning until I go to sleep at night. With my
Kindle, even reading involves a screen. With the Bible and devotional apps I use, even
my times of meditation, prayer, and study involve some kind of screen.
It’s not that there is anything essentially wrong with screens per se. The trouble with
screens is when they go from being a noun to a verb. When the screen we are looking
at begins to screen us from the people and things that should be (and we say are) most
important to us, we have a problem. When the technological advances meant to bring
us together begin to do the opposite, we have a problem. When the distractions they
bring start to pull us in so many directions that they keep us from spending
uninterrupted time with our family or friends—or God—we have a problem.
What Jesus is talking about in this passage is sabbath. He is talking about stepping
away from the distractions that threaten to pull us apart and simply resting in the
presence of God. He is talking about the being that must precede our doing if that doing
is to have real meaning and not devolve into merely stroking our egos or padding our
résumés. He is saying that the better part, the one needful thing, is that which Mary has
chosen, and he will not let anyone take it away from her, not even her sister.
The ironic thing is that Martha, in her earnest desire to provide hospitality to Jesus and
her exasperation with Mary for not helping, actually proves to be a poor hostess. She
may have a variety of hors d’oeuvres tastefully arranged on a bone china platter and
fresh flowers at each place setting, but she has neglected the most important element of
hospitality: providing gracious attention to her guest. She errs further by trying to
embarrass her sister, asking her guest to get involved in a family squabble, and even
accusing her guest of insensitivity. She says, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has
left me to do all the work myself? Tell her then to help me” (v. 40).
If, as one commentator on this passage suggests, the greatest act of hospitality Martha
could offer Jesus is to give him her attention and simply listen to him, she gets an F. So
do many of us. While we should be emulating Mary, giving our undivided attention to
Jesus, many of us fall into Martha’s trap of seeking always to be doing something for
Jesus, including things he neither asked us to do nor wants. Sometimes we get so busy
“doing for” that we forget about the “being with” that gives the doing its meaning. That is
Martha’s problem, and assure you I can relate.
There are, of course, different ways to express our devotion and discipleship; not
everyone has to follow the same pattern. Some of us are more comfortable with
activism than with contemplation, and that’s okay. But Jesus is telling Martha and us
that we must find a balance. We must nurture the relationship that energizes and makes
possible the activism. At the same time, those who are more contemplative by nature
must not use that propensity as an excuse to hide from the world. If Mary were to lose
her sense of balance, sitting at Jesus’s feet until she grew roots, all the while neglecting
her other legitimate responsibilities, I imagine Jesus would rebuke her as well. Balance
is crucial.
Last week’s text told us that true hospitality demands that we draw near to others to
recognize their need, and that we then take actions to meet that need. This week the
message is that true hospitality is more about being present, listening, and learning than
about frenzied activity without reflection. I wondered aloud last Sunday how our world
would be different if we consistently drew near to our wounded neighbors and witnessed
their need. Today I’m wondering how much conflict and misunderstanding could be
resolved, how much fear and alienation could be overcome if we would learn to sit with
our wounded neighbors and to listen their genuine concerns. If we offered them that
kind of hospitality.
What if, instead of shouting back, “All lives matter,” we who are white were to take the
time really to listen to the concerns of those who proclaim that black lives matter? What
if we were to drop our defensiveness long enough to listen not only to their words but
also to the hurt and anger and long generations of frustration that stand in back of that
plea? What if, instead of ignoring those who are poor or blaming them for their poverty,
we who live relatively comfortably were to take the time to listen to the stories these
children of God have to tell? What if, instead of screaming our own slogans when we
encounter those with whom we disagree politically or theologically, we were to take the
time to listen to the reasoning behind their arguments? What if we were to resolve not to
pigeonhole or caricature anybody, but rather to honor their individuality and dignity by
letting them speak for themselves?
I don’t know how much this would help. I am sure it would not be a panacea that would
right all wrongs and heal every social divide, but I can’t imagine it being any worse than
our current practice in this nation, where it seems as if everyone comes equipped with a
megaphone and a pair of ear plugs. It may not be the cure-all, but I think Jesus would
call it the better part, and I’m willing to give it a shot. I am willing to try to extend
hospitality by drawing near, listening, and then seeking ways to meet the needs I
discover in the process. Who knows but that the very act of drawing near and listening
will be the seed from which peace and reconciliation will grow? Who knows but that in
our being we will find the key to our doing?
In sitting at the feet of Jesus, listening to his words and drinking in his presence, Mary
chose the better part. Now the choice falls to all of us Marthas. Will we too choose true
hospitality? Will we choose sabbath? Will we choose to stop … to listen … to be?
Mary chose the better part. Let us now go and do likewise.