The Better Part
Week of Sunday July 21 – Pentecost 9
Gospel: Luke 10:38-42
38 Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 40But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.’ 41But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42there is need of only one thing.* Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’
I am interstate for the funeral of a colleague. We only met once. I know his son via the web. We appreciate each other, but have never met in the flesh! So I will be at a large funeral where I may know no one. It is even possible that I may not get to meet my friend; it will be a difficult day for him. Why am I going?
It's not yet twelve months since my own Dad died. I like my friend, who has been kind and supportive. He has shared a little of his dad's journey as he was dying. Although I am not entirely sure what has led me to drive 600 miles for a funeral, it seems to be "the better part."
Luke's story of "the better part," and Jesus, Martha and Mary, is about what it is important in life. The story is not about housework roles, or women's work.
This passage is wildly ambiguous. Is it giving Mary a male role and otherwise deprecating women’s work, represented in Martha? Is it lauding Mary the submissive female and dismissing the caring Martha? Is it praising impracticality? Is it feminist in orientation, making space for Mary beyond women’s traditional roles? Or is it the opposite?
I think we make it ambiguous because we are hung up on gender, and still very sexist in much of our church life. The real problem is that Martha is "worried and distracted by many things." Jesus is clearly spending some time teaching. It is a time to listen. Mary has shown that by sitting at his feet. But Martha chooses not to sit and listen. Instead she fusses, and then gets resentful.
Sitting at Jesus' feet is not a gender based issue, either. Everyone sat at the Rabbi's feet. It was a mark of respect for the teacher. He sat in a chair, and you sat on the floor so all could see and hear.
The domestic issue, if there is one, is how we arrange church and worship so that everyone can be involved in the fellowship around the Word, and everyone can be involved in the fellowship around the sink or the barbecue. That sink fellowship can be just as Word-full as the sermon; perhaps more!
Rather than see the story as a gender issue, perhaps we should see Martha as that person, of either gender who steadfastly stays out in the church hall because "it all has to be prepared," and then complains that they don't get into church to hear the sermon.
Sometimes we do need to reorganise the way church is done, because we really are exploiting some members. But sometimes the martyrs need to stop being silly, or narcissistic, or simply stop avoiding worship.
The better part is about taking the time to stop and listen and think. Even to pray. It is finding a life balance that refuses to be run over and ruled by the needs of the capitalists who run the world, or by the little empires of our own self-importance. And yes, that may mean we have less money!
I am clear about what I want from the clergy. I want them to be people who can, by their own happiness and contentment challenge my ideas about status, success and money and so teach me how to live more independently of such drugs. I want them to be people who can dare, as I do not dare, and as few of my contemporaries dare to refuse to work flat out and to refuse to work more strenuously than me. I want them to be people who dare because they are secure enough in the value of what they are doing to have time to read, to sit and think, and who face the emptiness and possible depression which often attacks people when they do not keep the surface of their mind occupied. I want them to be people who have faced this kind of loneliness and discovered how fruitful it is, as I want them to be people who have faced the problem of prayer. I want them to be people who can sit still without feeling guilty and from who I can learn some kind of tranquillity in a society which has almost lost the art. Monica Furlong. 1930 – 2003
Jesus does not want the clergy to be Mary and the rest of us to be Martha! We should all be sitting at Jesus' feet, and regularly. Which means more than stopping work but turning on the TV or Facebook.
A stray thought a few weeks ago left me thinking I should try and come to Robin's funeral. I have cancelled the meetings, arranged board for the dog, hired a car, and come. I'm staying with friends. I've even managed to line up a meeting over here that I would have done via a conference call, or a separate trip. But I'd have come anyway.
What will it profit me? I have no idea. I know how much money it will cost! But profit and loss is not the issue. What matters is to trust; to sit at the feet of the Word and listen. All the busyness in the world will not heal me. It will only deafen me to the voice of the Word which is speaking to me even in my own house!
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!