The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
July 17, 2022
If we’re not careful, this short scripture can create tension between us. Because Jesus said Mary chose “the better part”, the Martha’s among us may get a little defensive; and the Mary’s, a little self-righteous.
I believe our doing that comes from our wrongly assuming Jesus was making a point about the comparative value of a contemplative life of profound devotion and an active life of practical service. I believe rather He was making a point about the supreme value of letting go of what preoccupies or distracts us in order to give Him our full attention and so make the most of a moment when He pays us a special visit.
Jesus was paying a special visit to three dear friends: sisters Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus who lived together. Jesus realized it might be His last such moment with them before He returned to heaven. For He was aware that there in their home He was but a few miles from Golgotha and but a few weeks from dying on that horrid hill.
Facing the challenge of feeding sixteen people – that is, Jesus, the twelve disciples and the three siblings – Martha scurried around to do her best to serve them all. Conversely, facing the opportunity to interact with Jesus in a small group setting, Mary put aside for a while her domestic duties and plunked down at Jesus’ feet to relish His nearness and hang on His every word.
While Mary pursued her choice, Martha pursued hers. She threw herself into doing something beautiful. By going the extra mile to provide for them all, she was telling Jesus, in her language of love, how much He and His friends mattered to her. Even if she hadn’t yet heard Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, which in Luke’s Gospel He had just told, she was acting in line with its message to jump in and help the needy God has put before us – in this case, the hungry and tired travelers who’d showed up at her doorstep. Martha was hustling to bless them as much as she could.
But somehow her beautiful service turned ugly. She let herself get too fussy and concerned about making a meal that was “just so”. She was also entertaining a growing bitterness about how she was the only one breaking into a sweat and how in particular his sister was just sitting there, not doing her fair share. Martha fell into the self-pity pit of the martyr left to take care of everyone by herself.
When at last she couldn’t take it anymore, she broke in on the conversational circle whose participants she thought had forgotten about her. As she barged in, she refused to even look at Mary and she cut off Jesus mid-sentence to tell Him to tell her sister to get up off her duff and help her get the food on the table. Jesus looked into her heart and tenderly replied, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of one thing.”
Martha had allowed herself to get caught up in the thick of thin things. Martha had let herself major in the minors of life. And it made her miss the uniqueness of the occasion. Jesus didn’t drop by often, and this might be the last time. Under the circumstances, everyone would’ve welcomed her into their circle of conversation; and afterward no one would’ve complained had they had to throw together a late dinner of stale sandwiches and leftover soup. She didn’t have to put on the Ritz!
Some of us say, “If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing well.” But if doing something well keeps us from doing something more important, we’d do well just to do the lesser thing so-so, to do it simply but sufficiently. If we, like the Good Samaritan, come across a mugged man on the Jericho Road, we should abandon our previous plans and help him; but we don’t have to put him up in the Four Seasons or establish a new chapter of the Traveler’s Aid Society.
Moreover, whenever we do a good thing with a bad attitude, we undermine our good thing from doing much good. Martha’s self-righteous, self-martyring resentment must have hurt at least two people she loved very much – and three, if you count Martha herself.
Because she was boiling over with exasperation, she risked spoiling the moment. Storming into the room, she embarrassed her sister, insulted her Lord and derailed a no doubt deep discussion. And she didn’t exactly tiptoe over to Mary and whisper, “Sweetie, would you please lend me a hand?” No, she refused to even to acknowledge Mary, she interrupted Jesus and then scolded the Almighty for insensitivity. She said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself?” Then she bossed the One she called Lord and gave Him instructions!
There is a time to do, and there is a time just to listen and reflect. Martha had lost touch with that truth. But Mary bore it in mind – and thereby kept perspective. Mary understood that in that special grace-filled moment of visitation, it was all hands on deck and all attention on Jesus. It was time to linger close to Him and to take in what there might never be another chance to take in.
Contemplative reflection should inspire active service. But we serve best only when we’ve given Jesus an opportunity to serve us. If we depose ourselves to open up to receive His blessings, we gain more and greater blessings to pass on to others.
This is why, I believe, Jesus said that Mary chose “the better part”. She set aside for a while some important concerns for the sake of more urgent and foundational concerns. She let go of some things so as to do the “one thing” most needed: soak up Jesus’ words and absorb His heart into her own.
Mary sought that one thing and the gift it brought could not be taken from her, not even by her sister’s childish behavior. Because Mary ate her fill when Jesus served up a feast of His grace, Mary had more of His life, light and strength. Because she let Him love her like that, her capacity to love others in practical service enlarged.
When Jesus pays us a special visit – whether it be in church, our prayer closet or a place where we don’t expect it – may we like Mary drop everything to make the most of the moment, that we might become more like Martha at her best and serve other with diligence, generosity and grace.
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