The Assurance of One Thing
I grew up with a subscription to Highlights magazine. In this kids’ magazine, there was a regular feature called “Goofus and Gallant.” Goofus always did dumb stuff – left his dirty dishes on the dinner table, didn’t make his bed, went to school with uncombed hair; while Gallant always did the right thing – cleared the table, made his bed, combed his hair. I won’t go into all the reasons why this was a terrible feature, but it did get its message across: No matter what, you don’t want to be a Goofus! The whole thing was like a moral True/False test. Every question only had one right answer, so do the right thing and you’ll get a good grade.
It’s easy to take a similar approach to today’s gospel lesson – the story of Martha and Mary. We can read this passage as a study in contrasts between two sisters – one who is busy preparing things for her house guests, and the other who is not helping but simply sitting at the feet of Jesus; one is getting nervous and distracted and frankly a bit grumpy, while the other is quiet, focused, and seemingly a model of piety. One is Goofus, one is Gallant. Except this approach has a whole lot wrong with it.
Take a breath and now step into Martha’s shoes for a moment. She lives in Bethany near Jerusalem and is a close friend and follower of Jesus. She is very devoted to him, calling him “Lord” when she addresses him. Right now he is her guest – and since Jesus has a bunch of disciples, my hunch is that Martha’s house is full of folks at the moment. She is trying hard to be hospitable, to be a good hostess. But it’s not going well, and she’s getting frustrated over all the household details she’s juggling. We have no reason to believe this is a chronic issue for Martha; it’s just how that day unfolded for her. Now step into Mary’s shoes for a moment. She too is a devoted follower of Jesus and we assume she has always relished the times when Jesus stayed with them on his way to Jerusalem. She likely helps run the household, but on this night she has the opportunity to listen to Jesus’ teachings firsthand. Normally women don’t sit at teachers’ feet, but at the moment Mary doesn’t care about rules made by men about how she should behave. We have no reason to believe she does this all the time; it’s just how the day unfolded for her as well.
Potentially this passage is nothing more than a snapshot into a private household and a home visit of Jesus with two of his good friends. But over the ages, this story has been used to contrast two types of behavior – Martha-behavior that appears to be negative and legalistic, and Mary-behavior that appears to be positive and pious.
Thomas Merton once told a story (The Wisdom of the Desert) about how a certain monk arrived at a monastery, and when he noticed how hard the monks were working – out in the garden, in the kitchen, in the laundry room – he piously commented, “Why do you work for the bread that perishes? Remember Mary, who chose the best part, namely to sit at the feet of her Lord without working.” So the Abbot for the monastery said, “Give to our brother a book and show him to a room in which he might read.” Later, sometime after noon, the new monk stuck his head out of the door to see if someone was going to call him to lunch. After a while, the monk found the Abbot and asked him, “Did the brothers not eat today, Father?” To which the Abbot replied, “Oh yes, certainly; they just had supper.” “Well,” said the monk, “why was I not called?” The Abbot answered, “You are a spiritual man; you don’t need this food that perishes. We have to work, but you have chosen the best part. You read all day and can get along without food.” Quickly the monk learned the error of his ways. There are times to work and times to pray, and ideally every day contains some of each.
Reading this passage from Luke as if Martha is one type of person and Mary is a totally different type of person will always get us into trouble. We are all Martha and Mary. We all have Martha moments and Mary moments. It’s like the Schubert Impromptu I played earlier. The piece contains quiet tuneful parts and more agitated melodic sections, yet both are needed for the piece to be as it was intended by the composer long ago. Both parts are central to its beauty.
Having said all that, something was going on with Martha that merited a word of correction from Jesus. Verse 40 says that Martha was distracted by her many tasks. I’m sure this is something to which all of us can relate. Family are coming to the house for a holiday meal – guests are stopping by for a visit – yet you’re feeling frazzled because there’s just too much to be done to get ready. Work assignments pile up so you don’t feel like you’re doing your job well. Juggling the kids’ schedules day after day means you occasionally drop the ball on some details and that bugs you. And don’t get me started on churches – committee reports that have to be written; Zoom meetings that interrupt evenings at home; volunteers busy in Zimmerman or Fellowship hall putting up tables or preparing refreshments while in the sanctuary everyone is happily, faithfully participating in the worship service.
Yes, Martha probably was distracted on this day. It happens to us all. But look carefully at what Jesus said in response to her. First, he says her name twice, which suggests a tone of patient love intended to counter her frantic mood. Then the NRSV translation has Jesus say, “You are worried and distracted by many things.” A better translation would say, “You are worried and troubled by many things.” Jesus used those same words on other occasions when he wanted to calm anxious spirits and show people a better way. Remember the Sermon on the Mount? Jesus used almost these exact same words when he said, “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” (Mt 6:25-26) How precious it is to imagine Christ saying our names twice and then saying “Do not worry about your life.”
But there’s more to this story and again it is important to look carefully at the bible translation. After Jesus named how Martha was worried and troubled, he said, “There is need of only one thing.” Jesus doesn’t name what this one thing is. But he does point to Mary. The NSRV has Jesus say, “Mary has chosen the better part.” But I’m not a fan of that translation, because it brings up the old interpretation of the two sisters being in competition with one another. The Greek text uses the word “agathen” which doesn’t mean “better” but rather means “good.” It’s the same word that appears in the Parable of the Sower, which speaks about the seeds that fall on the “good soil” and produce a rich harvest. Mary chose a “good part” and that was not something anyone should take away from her.
What is this “good part?" If I try to be too precise about this, then you’ll risk falling into the Martha-trap again of getting fixated on details and losing sight of what’s important. So start simply by remembering Mary’s posture – seated there at Jesus’ feet, listening to what he was saying, focused quietly on the one they knew as their Lord and friend. When I was at Chautauqua this past week, I heard a talk by the Celtic scholar John Philip Newell, and he called to mind the posture of John, the beloved disciple. In John 13:23 it describes how at the Last Supper this disciple was reclined next to Jesus – and Newell said that some scholars suggest this posture was one we should aspire to because it was one in which the disciple could literally hear Jesus’ beating heart. So when you’re feeling distracted or anxious or troubled, think about how you might choose the “good part.” In that moment of your day, how might you quiet down and like Mary find yourself focused on Jesus and his teaching? How might you find yourself like the beloved disciple reclined close enough to Jesus to hear his beating heart? How might you remember the words of the Sermon on the Mount, not to worry about the things of this life, but rather seek first the kingdom of God and of God’s righteousness and all good things will then be given to you.
Another way to think about this “good part” is through our focus today on the hymn “Blessed Assurance.” The good part of faith is remembering that in Christ we are given an assurance that sustains us through all the seasons of our lives. It is something we can rest in and rely upon. It is there in our moments of Martha activism – doing works of faith, seeking to make the world more just, peaceful and righteous – and in our moments of Mary contemplation – being people of faith, praying for ourselves and everyone in need, interceding for those distraught over gun violence, the persistent grip of addiction and alcoholism, the burden of grief that lingers even when people tell us we should be over it by now. In Christ we have an assurance that is truly blessed. It is a gift freely given to us, a grace unmerited, part of the beating heart of our loving Savior that calms our spirits.
Though the Schubert Impromptu had different sections, it was still one piece. Though Martha and Mary acted differently on that day, their stories belong together. In all times and places, at home, at work, wherever, seek the good part and always remember the blessed assurance given to us in our loving Christ. AMEN