Thursday, May 28, 2009

The better part

Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But 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.’ But the Lord answered her, ‘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.’

- Luke 10:38-42

I really like the story of Martha and Mary, not least because I identify with Mary in the sense that I feel like someone who's pretty much emphasized one thing in life (or shall we say, certain things) - sometimes at the cost of making the right appearance in what a good organizer, housekeeper, and all-around good image of woman that I am.

But I think there's more to this story than my personal feelings; there's plenty to this story for all of us to think about in each of our lives. Martha and Mary are the sisters of Lazarus. The three of these siblings make up a family that is in some sense central to Jesus' ministry and to his life. They seem like deep personal friends to our Lord and he's involved with so much of their lives in some personal way. We find Jesus weeping when his sisters and neighbors are mourning the death of Lazarus, although Jesus knows he plans to save Lazarus. Jesus' simple counseling and love of these people, in their great loss when mourning their brother, or their daily concerns when Jesus visits, are really personally touching. They show truly his most personal relationships with his close friends, and this is like a great balm, a wonder, in the midst of all the public teaching. At least, I feel that way about it.

Martha, of course, is tending to important household matters for Jesus' visit. She's doing the chores necessary for the social aspects of Jesus' presence in their home. Jesus is doing his job of teaching at the same time. So Martha's sister, Mary, sits at his feet and listens with the other disciples and followers of Jesus. Naturally, Martha complains - and she goes right to the top. "Make my sister help out," she seems to say. How many times have we (especially the female "we" out there) been in this same situation or witnessed it somewhere, say at a family gathering?

In this sweet personal story, we have Jesus intervening in the household matters. '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.' Jesus reaffirms the importance of discipleship and relatedness for all of us: a woman's worth is not just about her social skills, or how well she fits the image of what woman should be - be that now or then. Mary has chosen what's truly necessary, that relationship of the soul and spirit that must feed and inform all of our lives, and no one is left out - through social obligation or status - from this. While this by no means discounts the work that Martha is doing in her hospitality to Jesus and fellow guests, Jesus emphasizes that we all have jobs to do to take care of what is necessary: to take care of our souls, our inner and spiritual lives, to think about that which is truly necessary for us each as persons in the sense that we are created in the image of the Creator, and hence we all have need of spiritual food.

While we may all concern ourselves with the image we must live up to in the world, the image of a dutiful person who fulfills appropriate social and personal obligations - we must each consider with what food do we feed ourselves. We must also take the time for that, and not be lost to the identity that the social would confer on us, without forgetting the obligation to the identity we have internally, the need we have for spiritual food and nurturing. That is what Jesus terms the one thing of which we have need, the better part. We mustn't forget, no matter how much we minister to others, the true need within ourselves. Coming after the story of the Good Samaritan, this is another pertinent and timely teaching that balances "good works" against the "one thing necessary." We must have faith, when we choose this true self-nurturing, that this is the better part that will not be taken away from us. I believe that in order to minister with discernment and in appropriate ways, we need first this better part.

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