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“The Better Part”

7/21/2019 Sixth Sunday after Pentecost. The text is Luke 10: 38-42. Today’s preacher is Licensed Lay Minister Tom Houston.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to You, O Lord, my rock and my Redeemer.

Grace, mercy, and peace are yours from God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. And God’s people say…Amen!

Examining this passage in Luke has historically resulted in quite a bit of tension. For those among us who consider themselves to be ‘Marthas’, dedicated workers in the Kingdom, Jesus’ scolding for being distracted might them feel as though their efforts are not worthy. For the ‘Marys’ among us, let’s not feel too justified, too complacent just yet. I feel we should confront this right from the start; traditionally, the story of Mary and Martha has been regarded as being ‘either/or’. Jesus’ admonition to Martha that she is too worried and distracted, makes her, for lack of a better term, ‘wrong’. It would then follow that Mary, in pursuing the role of a disciple, must therefore be ‘right’. And it would seem that Jesus has arrived at this definitive conclusion and has made his judgement. But, as is nearly always the case, Jesus’ declaration may not be quite as black and white as it seems at first glance.  

We will come back to this hypothesis in a moment. For now, let’s consider the role of hospitality in the ancient world, in the time of Mary and Martha. And prior to that, in the time of Abraham and Sarah, we find that hospitality is the main theme of this morning’s Genesis passage. Nomadic travelers to Abraham’s tent were to be accorded genuine hospitality, and a hearty meal was central to this obligation of kindness and consideration for guests. Even more so was hospitality important when the guest was someone who was known to their host, as Jesus was to the women. However, the desire to perform the duties and responsibilities of a hospitable host may become the thing that deters us from experiencing what might turn out to be more important. As Jesus tell us, we are liable to miss out on ‘the better part’.

And Martha has apparently allowed her wish to be hospitable to keep her from the more valuable role of disciple. For Mary was sitting at Jesus’ feet; this is the term usually translated as ‘taking instruction’, or ‘learning’. Mary has decided that there is no more worthwhile action than to simply be present with the Master; hearing, listening, learning. Jesus tells Martha, who is feverishly attempting to be the perfect host that she is worried and distracted by many things and is missing out on the wisdom that Mary is gaining. The Greek used for Martha’s ‘distraction’ is periespato, and is translated as ‘being pulled in many directions’, or more succinctly, to be ‘dragged all around’.

Jesus states that Martha’s distraction, which was centered mainly on being a good host and ensuring that a meal was made ready for her guests, was enough to keep her from something deemed much more important. This pales in comparison to the volume of preoccupations that disrupt our lives and divert us from experiencing ‘the better part’ that Jesus refers to. From data published in 2017, I discovered the following: during an average lifetime it is anticipated that a person will spend seven years and eight months watching television. Time on social media; Facebook, Snapchat, and others: five years and four months.

These numbers continue to increase and the statistics show that some teens in America spend as much as nine hours a day on social media. How could those five and a half years be spent differently? A little over ten thousand marathons could be run. If the space program were to resume, one could fly to the moon and back thirty-two times. And Jesus was concerned that Martha was wasting time!      

Let’s revisit the tension we noted earlier, now that the importance of hospitality in ancient Israel has been examined. Does hospitality overshadow spending time with Christ? Do the different actions of Mary and Martha remain as ‘either/or’; or can they be ‘both/and’? It’s clear that both those who do the ‘work’ (the Marthas) and those who listen to the ‘Word’ (the Marys) are indispensable to the individual Christian life, the church, and the wider world. And to take it a step further, each of us has the capacity to be both, Mary and Martha. Perhaps the best way to do this is to listen for what God is asking us to do, and replying, ‘how can we help, Lord?’; rather than thinking we know what we should be doing and asking for God’s help in doing it. This is best accomplished by taking some time away from our distractions and being still in the presence of God, listening to God’s Word, and mindfully, willingly receiving God’s grace.

Being caught up in the worries and distractions of this life leaves us little time to listen for the small, still voice of God. We isolate ourselves from God’s Word and fail to make ourselves available to profit from Christ’s instruction; ‘the better part’ that he shared with Mary. Scurrying about doing the work that is a manifestation of Christ’s commandment is rather hollow if the work isn’t done with a heart that is inspired by the Word. Conversely, spending time with the Word, ‘sitting at the feet of Jesus’ and keeping his truth and grace to ourselves; this too is purposeless if we are not then encouraged to turn that discernment into doing the work. While the tension between being hospitable and spending time with the Lord isn’t as divisive as the text would have us think, Jesus’ admonition that Mary has chosen ‘the better part’ still holds true. The work of hospitality is important, but receiving God’s Word first and then serving others, is in fact ‘the better part’.

As broken, sinful people we are in constant need of God’s unmerited grace. Paul tells the Colossians that ‘Christ is in them’, as he is in us. Through the bread and the wine, Christ abides in us, and we in him. The need for refreshment, the renewal of trust, and reminder of our salvation; these are ongoing essentials. Without them, it is difficult, if not impossible to be Mary. And if we don’t emulate Mary by resting in the grace of the Lord, it won’t be possible to do the work of the distracted and worried Martha. So, let us strive to be both; Mary and Martha. Willing to sit and rest at the feet of Jesus, hearing his truth and basking in God’s love, mercy, and grace. We will then be strengthened and restored, ready to do the work that God expects of us; within this place and most especially, outside of these walls.           

Will you pray with me? Good and gracious God, we thank you for the ‘Marthas’ in this place. We thank you also for the ‘Marys’. And we give thanks especially, for those who manage to be both. For those who hear your Word and strive to do your work, to implement your will in your world.

And the people of God say…Amen!

You have chosen the better part, which will not be taken from you.











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