Choosing the Better Part

Opening Reflection

Go back and read the Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Look where Jesus invested his life: it was in the lives of others. You will not read about Jesus’ bank account, or his home, or his clothing. You will read about people whose lives became intertwined with his. People like blind Bartimaeus, or little man Zacchaeus, or the woman caught in adultery. Jesus was concerned first and foremost with people.

“Choosing the Better Part”[1]

A Reading from Scripture             Luke 10:38-42   CEB

38 While Jesus and his disciples were traveling, Jesus entered a village where a woman named Martha welcomed him as a guest. 39 She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his message. 40 By contrast, Martha was preoccupied with getting everything ready for their meal. So, Martha came to him and said, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to prepare the table all by myself? Tell her to help me.” 41 The Lord answered, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things. 42 One thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the better part. It won’t be taken away from her.”

Today is the third Sunday in Lent. Lent is a time for reflection and redemption, a time to draw closer to God as we ask for and receive forgiveness for our mistakes and seek to live better and love others as Jesus did. The Lenten season is 40 days plus Sundays, and we will continue to work with the Gospel of Luke as we look at the meals that Jesus had with others.

On Saturday, one of our friends called. Donna and her husband have finished the second round of covid shots. Donna was suggesting that soon we can get together for a dinner. I am all for it! Yes – yes let us do it after Easter. Being together with others is absolutely vital to our mental health and stability. We have companions – the word companions means — people we break bread with. Dinner, sitting down for dinner, is so important for family life.

Today’s Scripture is about a dinner party. Something we have all experienced. Martha has a very important guest. Jesus has come to her home. Jewish teachers don’t come to the home of a woman to teach, yet he is there, and he is teaching. This is very important. Martha wants everything to be just right. The house, the food, everything should be perfect. She may never have this chance again. Ever been there? Having a dinner party? Having a large family gathering? Are the candles in order? Is the table centerpiece adjusted correctly? Is the silver polished? Is the meal scheduled to come out of the oven on time? Do you have any more thoughts about a dinner party?

Then comes good old sister Mary! This is an important chance. Jesus is in Martha’s home. Mary sits at his feet soaking in his teaching. Sitting at his feet. Listening to his teaching. This is what the men do. But Jesus is not like other teachers. For Jesus it does not matter whether you are a man or a woman. Either way you are a child of God. Both men and women can listen to his teaching. This is very important! Maybe even life changing. Mary listens intently as Jesus teaches in Martha’s home. She may never have this chance again.

Then comes trouble. Martha is upset. What is Mary doing? What can she be thinking? There is so much to do. The work will never all get done and there Mary sits. Doesn’t she see all that what needs doing? Can’t she help? Martha has no choice. She interrupts Jesus. Jesus will remind Mary that her correct role is to help her sister and then everything will be right again. But what does Jesus do? Jesus tells Martha that she, Martha is too busy, too distracted to see what really matters. Jesus says, “There is need of only one thing.” Mary understands that. Mary chose the better part. Okay — sounds good – BUT!

Today’s story is all about Martha and Mary. Poor old Mary and Martha—much ink has been spilled over the years about their own entertaining debacle. The deeper heart lessons from the story are well discussed in books and are frequent topics in sermons. Clearly, the Lord calls us to be more like Mary when it comes to taking time away from our busy lifestyles to spend time with him. But around this time of year as we are nearing Easter, it can be helpful and fun to look at the surface of the story for some practical holiday entertaining tips. I can certainly relate to Martha’s desire to entertain well, while longing for the kind of freedom Mary must have felt to just chuck the chuck roast and relax with special company. Surely there is a way to incorporate the best of both!

The praise for Mary’s laissez-faire approach to the work of entertaining is valuable because more than ever we need to discern what is a trifling Martha distraction and what deserves our rapt Mary-like attention. There is no getting around the fact that it takes work to produce the smells, tastes, and glorious comforts of the holiday season. Few of us realize what it takes to host Thanksgiving or fill the house with the warm, sugary, smells of Christmas until it’s our turn and we want the same things for our friends and families. Making sensory holiday memories can mean we labor at the very things the Lord seems to have rebuked in Martha: Frantic cleaning, time-intensive cooking, and spectacular efforts in the name of a really good cheesecake (one of Ann’s specialty that is prepared a week in advance)

It’s safe to assume Jesus wasn’t against gracious entertaining; his first public miracle spared the Cana wedding hosts from the embarrassment of running out of wine. Jesus seemed to be all about gathering around good food; many of his great teaching moments happened while enjoying a meal. We know that like any good host, Jesus felt keenly aware when those in his company were hungry. He worked miracles on more than one occasion to feed bread and fish to thousands of his followers. The Last Supper imparts the sense that Jesus was a man of meals— leaving Christians with directions to forevermore bring food and drink to their lips in remembrance of him.

Mary decided that her knowledge and love of God were her one thing, her first priority. For Martha, her relationship with Jesus was important and she would get around to it after she finished all the tasks in front of her. Isn’t that what we do? It’s all too easy to say that finding meaning and purpose in your life is important. It’s easy to say that you want to explore more about this whole God thing and decide for yourself where you stand. It’s easy to say that you want your relationship with God to come first. But then it is even easier to let those ideals stand idly by while you stay busy with the mundane day to day tasks of life. But those mundane tasks have to be done by someone. The groceries have to be bought. The meals have to be cooked. The house has to be cleaned. But the point still holds. A lot of boring and somewhat irrelevant stuff has to get done, right? Sure, it does.

The Christian writer Frederick Buechner once wrote, “I am a part-time novelist who happens also to be a part-time Christian because part of the time seems to be the most, I can manage to live out my faith: Christian part of the time when certain things seem real and important to me and the rest of the time not Christian in any sense that I can believe matters much to Christ or anyone else…. From time to time, I find a kind of heroism momentarily possible—a seeing, doing, telling of Christly truth—but most of the time I am indistinguishable from the rest of the herd that jostles and snuffles to the great trough of life.”[2]

I think that Buechner is right to point out that in the mundane details of our lives, Christians are no different from any other person. Christians don’t shop for groceries with a deep-seated purpose unknown to others. Christians don’t find a deeper meaning in cleaning the bathroom. But all of those mundane things are the other stuff, the rest of life. Getting first things first can be a helpful way to keep the minor stuff minor.

Jesus challenges Martha to not get so lost in the many distractions of her life that she loses sight of what really matters to her. Martha should set aside the work for a time and sit at Jesus’ feet to listen and learn. Sitting, listening, and learning sound great, but there is one big problem. Sooner or later, everyone, Jesus included, is going to get hungry and somebody has to make dinner.

Well, I think ideally you would want someone as spiritually grounded as Mary, but as industrious as Martha, wouldn’t you? And if we take a closer look at our story and it’s context, we’ll find that Jesus is telling us we need balance. We have to look as to where this story is placed in Luke 10— just before Martha and Mary is the story of the rich young ruler which leads Jesus to tell the story that we know very well – the good Samaritan.

You’ll remember that a lawyer confronted Jesus. We know that the law he was well-versed in was Moses Law—scripture. He asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus asks him what he has found in the law. The lawyer gives a good scriptural answer saying “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with you’re your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” The answer is flawless and Jesus replies, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” Then being a good lawyer and wanting to hone the distinctions, the man asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” In answer Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan.

In the story, there is a man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho who falls in the hands of robbers. A priest and a Levite, who, like the lawyer himself, are well-grounded in a knowledge of scripture see the injured man and leave him by the side of the road to die. The third man is from Samaria. He’s a man the lawyer would consider beneath him. It is the Samaritan who tends to the man’s wounds and arranges for him to be cared for. Jesus then asks, “who is the neighbor of the injured man?” The lawyer answers correctly that he “is the one who showed mercy.”

In the parable, Jesus tells of two men who know God’s word but yet don’t act on it. It is in that context that Luke would have us read our brief story from today. The two stories fit together to form a complete picture. The story of the Good Samaritan and the story of Martha and Mary are complementary. Read together, they show how we are to act to achieve a balance.

Jesus met a man who knew the scripture backwards and forwards, but somehow missed the meaning. Then he met a woman so busy serving that she too was missing the meaning of Jesus. To the lawyer Jesus says, “Stop studying and do something about it.” To Martha Jesus says, “Stop your busyness and listen.”

If we were to ask Jesus, “Does the parable of the Good Samaritan apply to my life? Or is it the story of Martha and Mary?,” Jesus answer would probably be “Yes.” Because at different times, each of these stories applies to each of us.

If we find ourselves busy with many things, but never making time to read the Bible and pray, then the story of Mary and Martha should be speaking to each of us. The things that busy your life may be good and necessary, but should they have your top priority? What comes first for each of us now? Job, friends, family, relationship with God, mundane tasks. All of these demand time. How much time do we give to each? Many people say that their family and faith are most important, but it’s a challenge to put those priority into action. What do we want to be first in our life? The story of Mary and Martha is a wakeup call to look at our priorities.


[1] Some of this message is from How To Be a Gracious Host: Three Tips from Mary and Martha by RACHEL BLACKMON BRYARS

[2] Frederick Buechner – Alphabet of Grace