Choose that better part

The Rev Cynthia K R Banks; The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost—PR 11—Year C; Amos 8:1-12; Psalm 52; Colossians 1:15-28; Luke 10:38-42

Okay, I need the kids up here to help me tell this story, and Bill Marr. Okay, I need you, you, you, and you to be my Martha characters. You dust, you sweep, you polish silver, you are cooking. And you, you, and you are my Mary characters. You sit here at Jesus’ feet, and you soak up every single word that Jesus is saying. That’s all you do. Okay, Martha’s, work on your task; now rotate tasks and do another task; okay, switch again; okay, switch yet again. Martha’s, what do you notice about Mary? While you are doing all of this work, what is she doing? How are you feeling about that? Is it fair? What do you need from Mary? What do you need from Jesus? What would you like to say to Jesus? [pause] 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 to help me. (I think Martha is a “2” on the enneagram, or maybe a “1” who has gone to that bad “4” place—in either case, we’ve got a little bit of a martyr thing going on here.)

But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”


Okay, let’s ‘fess up—who in here are the Martha’s? Who in here are the Mary’s? Think back to chore time in your families growing up—if you were to ask your siblings if you were a Martha or a Mary, what would they say?

And honestly, isn’t there a part of us that kind of feels for Martha? I mean, she is just trying to extend gracious hospitality to a guest; she was just trying to do what every good Middle Eastern host would do—knock herself out to make sure that her guest would enjoy a good meal and a clean home and a peaceful, restful stay. I mean, just how is that house going to get clean, or that meal cooked, or that peaceful, restful atmosphere established if she doesn’t do it? It’s sure not going to happen if Mary’s in charge because she wouldn’t get off her duff to a lift a finger to make any of those things happen. I would love to sit at Jesus’ feet and soak in all that great energy, but chores have to get done, and if they don’t get done, it will be a disaster! I mean this house will spin into chaos; it will be a wreck; it will be out of control, and I can’t function in chaos!

And I think we have just left Martha and Mary’s house and entered a typical day in the Banks’ household—am I alone here? Are these conversations happening in any other houses, or in any other heads?

This passage evokes so many feelings. Some of those feelings get churned up because it is so daggone familiar. I would imagine that all of us, at least once, have had an experience where we felt like we were doing more than our fair share. And if you can touch that memory, can you feel that anger building toward a big whopping resentment? And can you then sense how your anger and resentment absolutely undermine the hospitable, peaceful, restful atmosphere you are trying to create? Oh, it’s a deadly stew.

And then there is the tragic side of this passage that has pitted these two women against each other throughout the ages. The doing-type Martha against the being-type Mary, always judging one acceptable and the other wanting. Pitting the traditional-womanly role of Martha against the boundary-breaking-moving-into-the-male-position-of-discipleship role of Mary. As a woman, it feels like the judgments that sometimes get flying around women’s choices today: mom’s who stay at home working their tails off vs. mom’s who work outside the home trying to balance it all vs. women who make a choice to pursue a work vocation as their primary vocation vs. women who have no choice at all because of economic necessity. Judgments can abound, and nobody comes out feeling good—and it partly goes back to this passage where judgment is passed, and judgment is felt. If we’re going to look deeper into this passage, we at least have to acknowledge that this has always been a difficult passage for women who have wrestled with their roles—always.

So, let’s just set the Martha-gets-a-bad-rap feeling aside for minute and simply look at what Jesus is trying to get at here. First, Jesus isn’t judging Martha as a doing-type. In the passage just before this one, Jesus makes a powerful case for the loving action of the Good Samaritan vs. the callous inaction of the Priest and the Levite who left the man bleeding in the ditch. So, it’s not that doing is bad and being is good. That is a false choice. What Jesus is critiquing Martha for is her level of worry and distraction. It’s Martha’s inability to be present that is her problem. The worry, the distraction, the anger, the resentment—these all pull her out of presence. When you are filled with worry or anger or resentment, when you are distracted, which our world has taken to an artform, are you able to be present to what is? Are you able to attend to Presence capital “P”? Are you able to attend to the Holy that is within you and above you and below you and all around you? Does it really matter if the house isn’t perfectly clean? Does that really equate to world-ending chaos? And even if chaos ensued, is that always a bad thing? As Genesis reminds us, creation itself was borne out of such chaos.

“There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” What is the one thing? There is a footnote to this verse that reads, “Other ancient authorities read few things are necessary, or only one.” So, according to these other ancient manuscripts, Jesus says to Martha, “Few things are necessary,” or “There is need of only one.” Again, the question that comes to Martha, and to us, is, “What is the one thing? What few things are necessary? What is the one? Who is the one?” Each of us has to answer this question for ourselves. It’s like when Jesus turns and says to Peter, and to us, “But who do you say that I am?” For Mary, her one thing is to sit in the presence of Jesus and to listen to him and him alone. Martha struggles to hear the one thing because her energy is going in 40,000 different directions.

How do you answer the “one thing” question? As I meditate on this question, the answer that that has been given to me is another question, straight from the mouth of God, “Do you know how much I love you?” That’s my one thing. Do you know how much God loves you?

Nothing else matters because everything else holds together in that one question.

It’s the same kind of mystical sense that Paul is struggling to express in Colossians—“Christ Jesus is the image of the invisible God…all things have been created through him and for him…and in him all things hold together…for in him the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things,” and Paul goes on to say that this is the hope promised by the gospel…which has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven. To every creature under heaven—this is about the whole cosmos—wow! When we grab a hold of the one thing, or when it grabs a hold of us, then it all comes together, it all hangs together, it all holds together. As those studying Cynthia Bourgeault’s book on Fridays are discovering, this is the place where the horizontal and the vertical meet, and Jesus shows us what this place of intersection, what this love looks like, in his life, in his teaching, at the center of the cross, and in his Risen Presence that bids us “Come” at every moment of every day. The one thing is the love that is both our ground, our source and our goal. This love is the root of all of our action, and it is the action itself.

Mary won’t just sit at Jesus’ feet forever. Remember John 12? John 12 tells us that one week before his death, she will rise to her feet, and perform an action that will blow the lid off of any notion that love has a limit. She will rise to her feet, and she will take a pound of costly perfume—a year’s worth of wages costly— made of pure nard, and she will anoint Jesus’ feet and wipe them with her hair in an act of such lavish love that the shockwaves of its extravagance are still reverberating in heaven and on earth.

The thing is, these aren’t just two women, these are two energies that live inside of each one of us, often duking it out, but secretly longing to come together. We get so distracted, but deep down, we know, we know that we have a Mary energy that sits at Jesus’ feet in perfect alignment with him. And there is a Martha energy in all of us that frets and worries and is so distracted, but she, too, longs to rest at Jesus’ feet. She, too, longs to come into that perfect alignment and to have her actions driven by only one thing, the love that surpasses all understanding. She longs to be driven by love and joy and peace and to shed all fear of what others think about her; she longs to shed all fear of what she thinks of herself; she longs to rest at the feet of Love, and to know that nothing else is necessary.

Yes, there will still be work to do; the chores don’t go away, but when you are aligned, when you are firmly rooted in the one thing that truly matters, when that Love, that Presence, is filling you, then as you move along your life in this horizontal realm of time and space, as you go about your tasks, you do so as a single one with a heart aligned with the One in whom everything holds together, and then, every act becomes a manifestation of that Love.

Mary has indeed chosen the better part—to move through her life united with, aligned with, the fullness of God. She acted when she chose that better part, and that choice dictates all her actions for the rest of her life. Today, Mary issues a most gentle invitation to Martha, her sister, and to all of us: release your worries and distractions and let the one thing that is needed fill your being—let it fill your heart, let it fill your mind, let it fill your body, let it fill your spirit, and then your work will be just one more outpouring and manifestation of the Love that never ends. Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
July 21, 2013