The Better Part

I was in a novelty store in Delaware a few years back. Among the antique road signs and various other bits of kitsch, I came across a series of little statuettes commemorating some of the lesser-known saints. They were clearly meant to be funny. There was St. Gertrude, patron saint of cat lovers, and St. Rufus for dog lovers. I saw St. Bibiana (aka St. Vivian), the patron of hangovers, and St. Andrew, who, because he is the patron saint of Scotland, is also the patron saint of golf!

stmarthaThen I came across the patron saint of waiters and waitresses. You guessed it – St. Martha! The box even promised those who bought it, “Get better tips!” In reality Martha is revered as the patroness of servants and cooks.

When we hear today’s gospel lesson, I’m afraid Martha has become little more than a stereotype. In many sermons, preachers might say, “Oh, Martha, don’t be such a busy-body. Leave your sister alone. Jesus likes her better.”

Certainly, the story presented to us in the Gospel would seem to show that Martha’s concern over fixing dinner for Jesus, her houseguest, pales in comparison to the image of Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet. But as is often the case, there is more to this story than we might see at first glance.

What do we know about Martha and Mary? The text here tells us they are sisters. In John’s Gospel account, they have a brother, Lazarus, but he is nowhere to be seen here. Earlier in Luke, Martha is mentioned as a financial backer of Jesus. So before this encounter, we know that she is serious about Jesus’ ministry. And one phrase in this morning’s reading should jump out at us, “a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home.” Now this is something we can easily read past, but culturally speaking, this is not a small detail. The text doesn’t say, “the family home” or “Lazarus welcomed Jesus into his home and Martha fixed dinner for everyone.” No, this is Martha’s home, and Jesus is her guest.

While Martha slaves away over dinner, Mary, her sister, assumes a very non-traditional role by sitting at the feet of Jesus. Now, what does this mean to sit at a Rabbi’s feet? This was the place of one of his students, one of his disciples. She isn’t one of the 12, but she still chooses to listen and learns from him. And Jesus willingly teaches her. Both Jesus and Mary are breaking with convention.

What else should we see here? Let’s not assume either that Jesus has simply dropped by for tea or is simply coming over just for dinner. The gospel says, “Martha welcomed him into her home.” Jesus is staying at Martha’s house, and what’s more, probably some if not all of his disciples stayed there as well. There is a crowd in Martha’s house and hospitality dictates that they be fed and well-cared-for.

Don’t forget the important of hospitality in their day. There was every-day hospitality you would show to travelers and strangers, but if you had a special guest, you’d certainly want to show him the best! Martha is truly a saint in this regard. One of my own heroes, Dorothy Day, who was a Martha in many ways herself said, “If everyone were holy and handsome, it would be easy to see Christ in everyone. But it was not Christ’s way for himself. Ask honestly what you would do when a beggar asked at your house for food. Would you give it on an old cracked plate, thinking that was good enough? Do you think that Martha and Mary thought that the old and chipped dish was good enough for their guest? It is not a duty to help Christ – it is a privilege.”

Of course, anyone who had siblings growing up knows what it means to help with the chores. Mary, as her sister, should have been helping to show Jesus hospitality, not because she is a woman, but because she is related to the host. She’s part of the household. Now many preachers like to read a back-story into this text:  this is the way it always is – Mary never helps and Martha is always worn out. Poor Martha! But we don’t know that from this text. We have no sense that Mary never helps out. In fact it seems that Mary is doing something unexpected. Mary is quite bold not waiting on Jesus as the sister of the host would be expected to do. Instead she is featured in this place of learning, “at Jesus’ feet,” waiting on his every word as it were. Jesus is not like any other guest, and Mary gets that.

“Mary has chosen the better part,” Jesus says to Martha. “There will always be work, Martha,” Jesus seems to be saying. There will always be guests we can show hospitality to, and rightly so! But I’m here now, and Mary has chosen to learn from me.” Martha’s choice isn’t wrong – Mary’s choice is better. And I love Jesus’ words – “Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” Mary has earned her right to be a disciple.

Of course, we need the Marthas of this world, women and men who are generous with their hospitality, those who see to the needs of others with grace and skill. But we also need Marys, women and men who can stop their busyness long enough to learn from Jesus, who is here, now. We need women and men who recognize their spiritual hunger and thirst and long to drink of the living water and eat the bread of life.  Alongside the statuette of Martha perhaps we should have one of Mary, patron of students.

And so whether we are showing hospitality or we are engaged in learning, we are all called to serve Jesus. Both are work – serving and learning, both are necessary and needed. But sometimes, Jesus is saying, the dishes can wait. Let me satisfy your hunger and thirst first. Learn from me. Amen.


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