The Better Part

Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village where a woman named Martha welcomed him. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at Jesus’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, but few things are needed – indeed only one. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38-42)

The event of the dinner with Mary and Martha and what Jesus says to Martha is unique to Luke. Unique in the way Luke tells it, anyway. It is unique because the focus on Luke is on two sisters. One sister is busy getting the supper ready. Martha had welcomed Jesus into her home. She had invited Jesus to supper. Then, as now, if you invite someone to dine with you, you want things to be right. You want the food to be right. You want to be a good host and do everything you can to make the evening a nice experience. That was Martha’s concern. But Mary didn’t seem concerned at all about that. She sat at Jesus’ feet and listened to what he was saying. When Martha complained to Jesus about it and wanted Mary to help her do what was necessary for the meal, Jesus said, “Martha, you are distracted about many things…. Only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

In a way, I understand both Mary and Martha. I understand Martha being busy to make things comfortable and relaxing for Jesus. We are task-oriented people, after all. We have been taught by watching and by word what we are expected to do. We want to succeed. We want to be well thought of and a person of whom people speak well of – especially people we care about and people. So, I understand Martha. She was focused on serving him.
I understand Mary, too. The picture of Jesus we get from Mark, especially, and Luke, too, was someone who amazed people in what he said. He took their breath away. People wanted to touch him. People crowded around to listen to him. I would love to be able to have been one of those who heard his voice and listened to what he had to say in a setting like the one Luke tells us about with Martha and Mary.

Both of these people were showing their love, affection, and high esteem they had for Jesus. Martha was busy serving him. Mary was engrossed with listening to him. Jesus said Mary had chosen the better way. If I was to put myself into this event, if I was the one who welcomed Jesus into my home and offered him a meal and a bed for the night, would I be like Martha? Or, would I be like Mary? I would want to do both – make his stay comfortable with good food and service and sit at his feet, listening to what he was saying.

Maybe what this remembered event might suggest to us is that we can become so task focused that we become distracted from what Jesus is saying to us. We see it all the time. The busyness of work that gets in the way of hearing what God is trying to say to us. The busyness of ministry, even, that takes us away from hearing the voice of Christ as he speaks to us in our time and place. It is a difficult passage to understand and a passage that challenges us. But, at bottom, I think Luke is telling us to not let life’s distractions come between us and what Jesus is saying to us.