Flinders Ranges under cloud Nov 2014. North of Merna Mora on the way to Brachina, looking east.

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.

Loader says

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!

Andrew Prior
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!

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I have turned off the feedback module due to constant spamming. However, if you would like to comment, or discuss a post, you are welcome to email me, and I may include your comments at the bottom of this article.

Rohan Pryor 24-07-2013
I could have responded to Andrew privately, but know that a significant part of our relationship flows from his insightful sharing through these online posts (as well as the common loss of our fathers recently, our shared love for the Uniting Church despite the wounds we each still carry from some of its structures and leaders, our joint interest in technology, our common interest in engaging the Bible with contemporary life, and the list probably goes on). I have known Andrew virtually for some years, but only met him earlier this month when he attended the service to celebrate my dad's life and ministry. It was a very large funeral, and I knew many of the broad network as I have travelled similar roads to my dad, and my mum, within the Church. In the throng afterwards, Andrew made a simple self-introduction. I was deeply touched at his presence and his long journey, based on a brief connection with my dad, and a virtual connection with me. Some might say he came on a whim, but I know his deep sensitivity to things that matter, deeply. Spirit connects us, and I can see the cost of that in the arrangements Andrew had to make to attend. There are many connections in his several posts since, and I have not found the space in which to read let alone respond. Like Martha I am burdened by many needful things, some of them the emotional and practical needs of my various forms of family, some of them vocational as I prepare to help others 'sit at the Lord's feet' ('Who Is Jesus?': http://ctm.uca.edu.au/layeducation/lay-ministry-intensives/christology/). Like Andrew I have wrestled with prayer, the words and hopes that comprise them, the theology and worldview that are revealed through them. The weekend after my dad Robin was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer my parents were attending a weekend retreat, and there were faithful pray-ers there who were very clear that this situation was not acceptable: God was very clearly (and forcefully) told to cure my dad of the cancer, by the end of that weekend at the latest! Throughout his journey with cancer faithful prayer continued, around the world and around the clock, but he was not healed. Faithful prayer uplifted and sustained him, but it did not cure him of cancer. He radically changed diet, meditated even more, and was perhaps in the best physical health of his adult life while the cancer slowly killed him. Before death he was healed, but not of cancer. He died, and I have begun to realise how much I will miss him. He said early on that he was open to what the universe held for him, and within the complex mix of our family and faith networks he was gracious in allowing the many diverse expressions of theology (and of no theology) to find voice, even if they might not adequately represent his own voice. He was a gracious host, and continued to listen to what people were saying (often about their own journey rather than his). He wrote a lot of poetry through that journey, called 'Odes to the Pancreas', and I began to write again too. Poetry is a helpful mode when allusions are wider than direct reference, when inference and space and depth trump spelling out exactly what is meant, when voice is important but being correct isn't. Dad's poetry is about what is important in the minutiae of life, and in death. The necessary arrangements around death and funerals quickly showed that our (church) culture still looks to the eldest son for decisions, and my two sisters - terrific capable leaders in their own fields - quickly showed that they needed to be involved in those decisions too. Together we were able to coordinate Martha's tasks as well as Mary's (and were deeply grateful for the kitchen full of church women who fed and watered the throng, as well as the church women who prepared and held the space for reflection and celebration). Like Andrew, I know how much money the funeral celebrations cost, but have no idea yet what it will profit me. What I do know, and can trust with heart as well as head, is that listening to the words of life beyond death will teach me more about what is really important in life while I have it. I have begun to write a poem on hope, but not the hope I learned as a child with visions of a heavenly throne and choirs of angels. Instead this is the hope of an adult who recognises the limitations of language to represent the eternal, who relies on science more than magic to live each day in this world, and yet who lives in the confidence that through Jesus Christ we can know the personal and intimate love of the mysteriously eternal ground of all being, that which we call God. That is a life-long and eternally-deep journey. My dad was a man of science and of faith, a geologist and demographer whose call to ordained ministry came in personal form, whose faith-filled contemplation of the Spirit in the landscapes of both Australia and the human heart-mind-spirit have enriched the Church through his ministry, and whose presence I am beginning to mourn. I am blessed to be in the company of others who mourn, and who pray, and who live in hope each day, gently.

re Gratitude
Andrew 24-07-2013
Your students are lucky to have you, mate!

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