The Better Part

Jul 6, 2011

This morning I was reading the passage in Luke’s Gospel about Jesus in the home of Mary and Martha. Here’s the conversation:

Now as they went on their way, he [Jesus] 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, NRSV)

This story always chastises my compulsion for busyness and the tiny amount of time I spend with Jesus. But I wonder what Jesus would have said if the conversation had been flipped around, if Mary had blurted out in a snippy voice, “Lord, do you not care that Martha is not paying any attention to you? She’s out in the kitchen making corned beef and latkes for all of these people while I’m here soaking up your every word.” I can’t help but imagine how Jesus would have responded. I doubt he would have said, “Ah, Mary, you have chosen the better part.” In Jesus’s table-turning way, he might even have said, “Mary, Mary, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Martha has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

Jesus tells each of us what we need to hear at whatever time we ask. Sometimes I need to be told, “Sit down, be still, pray and listen.” But on other occasions I need to be told, “Enough reading, enough prayer, get off your duff and serve. Make some corned beef and latkes for others. Put your body where your prayer is.” The “better part” may shift from one day to the next.

Even more than the “better part” in this story, I think Jesus does not want me to evaluate or judge the role of others. My task is not to mind Mary’s or Martha’s business, but to figure out my business. More than once, I hear Jesus say, “Take your own inventory, Sybil.”