Text: Luke 10:38-42
Life is a series of priorities. Whether we approach setting daily priorities with intention or not, the fact remains that every day we make choices about how we use our time and what tasks will get our attention or wait until another day. Many of the priorities we set are of the routine, ordinary, or mundane nature. Things like: Do we go to the grocery store on the way home and cook a home-cooked meal or order take-out? Do we get up and go to the gym or sleep an extra hour? Some of the priority setting we do in life carries a bit more weight. Do we put in 12 hours at the office or go see our child’s school play? Do we take a lower paying job that brings us joy or take the high paying job that drains our spirit? In retirement, do we find a just cause to give our time to or rest on the laurels of our former accomplishments and contributions?
Immediately you may ask, “Does it have to be either or?” “Can’t we do both?” And the answer to that is yes; and much of the time we do both. Some nights we prepare dinner at home and other times we pick up take-out. Some mornings we get out of bed and go to the gym and other mornings we take in that extra hour of sleep. Some days we are able to leave work and go to our child’s dance performance and other days we can’t. As much as life is about setting priorities, life is also a balancing act—trying to make the best decisions we can about what is important and what needs our time on any given day, at any given moment. In all honesty, setting priorities is not the hardest part. Balancing the priorities that we set is actually the hard part for it seems that the different aspects of our lives tend to compete with one another—having a career and raising a family; work and rest; being disciplined and being spontaneous. These can be just a few places where living a balanced life can challenge us.
The story that Luke tells of Mary and Martha highlights this issue of setting priorities and then trying to balance them in real life moments. For years, this text has both annoyed and perplexed me. Like many preachers, I have hailed Mary as the hero of the story. Identifying with Martha as a type A personality, I have also tried on several occasions to defend and redeem her. I have fussed with Jesus and his seemingly harsh criticism of Martha. And I have asked the question, “What is the one thing needed?” As I read the narrative this week, it was the second part of verse 42 that caught my attention: “…Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” What does it mean to choose the better part? And maybe more importantly, how do we know if we are choosing the better part?
Before I get to “the better part” and choosing the better part, it is important to say a word about the historical context in which this story occurs. The story begins with Jesus and a large number of his disciples entering a village where a woman named Martha lives and has a home. Luke tells us that Martha opens up her home to Jesus and his companions; and then at some point becomes irritated with her sister, Mary, for sitting at the feet of Jesus and listening to what he is saying instead of helping with all of the preparations that need to be made for the large group gathered. Martha is so put out by the situation that she goes to Jesus and says to him “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” which, by the way, seems like a perfectly reasonable request to me. But Jesus replies, “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.”
It is fair to wonder why Jesus didn’t tell Mary to get up and help Martha. In his response, is Jesus saying that it is better to be contemplative than to be actively serving? That doesn’t exactly resonate with some of the other stuff Jesus has said about being a servant. Just several weeks ago, we read the story where Jesus praised an unnamed woman who crashed another dinner party and was held up as an example of taking care of his physical needs when no one else did. Remember that story? The one where the known sinner, or prostitute, went in the Pharisee’s home and washed Jesus’ feet with her own tears and dried them with her hair. In that story it wasn’t the ones sitting at his feet wanting to glean from his teachings that Jesus held up as an example. No, it was the one who served him.
So what was Jesus’ point in this story? Surely it wasn’t that the better part is to sit at Jesus’ feet rather than serve one’s neighbor. That doesn’t sound like Jesus. If we consider the historical context in which this story took place it becomes obvious that Jesus was making a much larger point. Jesus and Mary were committing a social taboo. Women could serve men, but it was inappropriate for them to join in with the guys the way that Mary was doing. Women weren’t supposed to be taught by rabbis or sit in the room with a bunch of men discussing the Torah. In its historical context, it would be a logical assumption to think that people hearing this story would have been much more shocked about Mary assuming the role of a religious disciple than her not helping in the kitchen. Once again, Jesus was turning things upside down and inside out. In this story, Jesus liberates Mary from her socially defined status of inferiority and marginalization. In doing so, both Mary and the world she lived in were transformed.
But this story isn’t just about Mary’s choice, or even about women’s rights. It is bigger than that. It seems that through Mary, Jesus is denouncing social, political, and religious structures that do not practice God’s radical inclusiveness – the sort of inclusiveness that overcomes injustice and is grounded in love and mercy and compassion. So Jesus draws the circle to include Mary. But he goes one step further – he defends her choice, her action to take the social risk and cross the unspoken line, and to take hold of this justice he has offered her by allowing her to join him and his disciples. Jesus says not only that it is right to include her, but that she is right to assert herself and claim her spot with him, even when her conventional duties conflict with that right. One could argue that in its historical context the lesson in Luke 10:38-42 is not that reading the Bible or praying is superior to cooking a meal or cleaning house. The lesson may very well be that as followers of Jesus we are not only invited to partake of God’s radical inclusiveness but we are called to practice it by seeking justice for those in the margins, challenging discrimination wherever we see it, and transforming our relationships so that they reflect the love of Christ.
Bill Finlator used to love to quote Karl Barth saying, “One should read the Bible in one hand, and the newspaper in the other.” As I was studying Martha and Mary’s story this week, I wasn’t reading the newspaper, but I was reading our State Constitution for the work I am engaged in within our community around public education. In Article I, section 2 of the North Carolina State Constitution I read these words: “Sovereignty of the People: All political power is vested in and derived from the people; all government of right originates from the people, is founded upon their will only, and is instituted solely for the good of the whole. It was that phrase, “for the good of the whole” that caught my attention. Believing that all things are connected, I started wondering, “Who was acting for the good of the whole?” Martha, who was caring for the needs of others in her traditional role, or Mary, who took a personal risk and a personal action and began dismantling the walls of injustice; liberating herself and others from a socially defined status of inferiority and marginalization? The answer is both. In their own way they were both providing for the common good. So, why then, does Jesus say that Mary has chosen the better part?
In the end, the Jesus story is about transformation. It is about changing the social structures of our society that keep people oppressed and inferior. The Jesus story is concerned with justice for all—for the good of the whole. And although Martha acted as a servant by caring for the needs of others, she missed the opportunity and the moment to step outside of her own oppression. By remaining within a socially defined status that kept her inferior and marginalized, she missed the more significant lesson—that Jesus calls us to practice God’s radical inclusiveness by seeking justice for those in the margins and challenging discrimination wherever we see it—not by participating in it or perpetuating it. Seeking justice for those in the margins and challenging discrimination is the better part and when we dare to take a personal risk and take action for God’s justice, as Mary did, we do so “for the good of the whole.”
Life is a series of priorities. Some priorities carry more weight than others. For people of faith, though, none carry more significance than the personal risks and actions we take “for the good of the whole” and for God’s justice in the world.