Being distracted from the better part (preached at United Methodist and Nekoma Presbyterian Churches)

In a discussion of last week’s Gospel lesson, we were asked to describe the first time we had heard the story of the Good Samaritan. I couldn’t remember the first time. It may have been one of the early Bible stories read to me by my dad, or more likely, I learned it in Sunday School or Vacation Bible School. I can’t remember when I first heard this week’s story about Mary and Martha either.  I get this story about sisters. I’ve always understood parts of it. I have two sisters and I come from a long line of sisters. My parents each had five of them and I have two daughters.

This story is not just about a sisterly spat. It is also about hospitality, as are many of the stories which preceded it in the book of Luke. Jesus tells his disciples to go out without so much as a change of clothes or an extra pair of sandals. They are to be dependent on other’s hospitality. There is the story of Jesus as the guest of the Pharisee who forgets the traditional hospitality of giving Jesus water to wash. Jesus’s feet are washed by the harlot with her tears and anointed with expensive perfume. Hospitality and looking after strangers and guests is a reoccurring theme, not only in the gospel of Luke, but in the Bible as a whole. Abram and Sarah receive angels, not because they knew they were messengers from God, but because hospitality was expected in the harsh desert where they lived. It was customary. Without the hospitality of others, travelers would not survive. Such taking in of strangers was not uncommon in early homesteads that dotted the prairie in the 19th century. Newcomers were welcomed as guests in the homes of those who had come before. Hospitality means more than simply providing a place to sit and food to eat. It means relationship, talking, sharing of information, attention to the needs of your guest.

My mother had the gift of hospitality. Sunday dinners often included neighbors and friends. We didn’t have a large extended family so often those at our table were not related to us. The table we used for Sunday dinners could be extended to seat at least 10-12 people. It took up most of our living room. My mother covered it with her best damask table cloth, put out her best plates, her good silver and the matching glassware. There were cloth napkins folded to stand up in the middle of the plate. Knives, forks and spoons were measured to be an equal distance from the edge of the table. The table was set “properly.” My mother was a good cook and she spent a great deal of time preparing her best dishes for each special dinner. (I think there may have been a bit of a competition between the neighbors over these dinners.) She fussed and made our guests feel special by her careful preparations.

I understand Martha’s reaction to Jesus coming to dinner. She may have felt it was her obligation to feed Jesus well. Being a good hostess was her responsibility. There were expectations to be met. Whether she felt obligated by custom to do these things or if she just wanted to do her best because she loved Jesus and knew his visit was important isn’t clear. What is clear is that she was frazzled. She is hurrying about, frantically making preparations. Luke describes her as “pulled in many directions.”

My older sister loves to read. I read a lot, but she reads obsessively. Sometimes when it was time to prepare Sunday dinner and set the table for dinner, she would be lost in a book. I understand Martha’s reaction to Mary’s sitting and visiting. Not only wasn’t Mary helping her, but Martha may have been embarrassed by her sister’s behavior. She was not behaving as a good Jewish woman was expected to act. She was not setting the table and serving the men, she was sitting at Jesus’s feet, listening. That was a place usually reserved for men alone, men who were learning to teach others. Mary was breaking all the rules…and Jesus was letting her.

Martha, busy doing all that needed to be done and probably more, feeling flustered, embarrassed and frustrated, forgets how to be a good host and puts Jesus in the middle of her beef with her sister. Like my whining to my mother, “Make Arlene come help me set the table, it’s not fair!” Imagine Martha, hands on her hips, clutching a dishtowel. Her face is a frown and her voice is frustrated, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me”(10:40).” She accuses Jesus of not caring about her and how hard she is working and commands him to chastise her sister.

Can’t you just see Jesus shaking his head and saying, “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.” (Luke 10:41-42 NRSV.)

It would be easy to misinterpret Jesus’ response. It seems harsh and critical. He does not tell Mary to get up and do as Martha asks. Instead he seems to chastise Martha and tells her that she is fretting about many things and Mary is doing what is the right and necessary thing. Is he really telling Martha that she is wrong in doing what is needed to make him a meal and set the table? Is he saying, “doing” is not as important as listening and learning? As a youngster, I remember the interpretation of this story as one of either/or. That a response like Mary’s is better than Martha’s. That it is better to be a listener and a learner than a doer.

That, however, conflicts  with everything else I have ever been taught. Doing is good. Being busy is important. Sometimes we even have subtle contests with each other over who is the busiest. We get a feeling of importance from all the things we do, the stuff we own, the balance in our checking account and the status of our work. We take pride in multitasking and being so indispensable to our work and our families that we keep our cell phones always at hand. We check our email fifty times a day. We are on call 24/7 to the demands of our families, our friends, our work. We, like Martha are pulled in a hundred different directions. Our culture looks down on those who don’t keep busy, who put visiting above getting things done. We are taught that idle hands are the devil’s workshop. We make mission trips with the intention of doing things, fixing things. We measure our worth by our busyness, by what we do, what we accomplish, not who we are.

Often Jesus taught that what we do is important. He taught that what we do for the least of these we do for him. He told the story of the Good Samaritan in the gospel for last Sunday. The Samaritan interrupted his trip to DO something for the injured stranger on the road. He didn’t sit beside him and contemplate the meaning of his being robbed and left for dead. He picked him up. The priest and the Levite walked by, possibly thinking about the poor victim and praying for him, but doing nothing. Obviously, doing something is important…sometimes.

But read Jesus’ response carefully. “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.” He is obviously fond of Martha. His response is one of familiarity and concern. “Martha, Martha!” Even though she has chosen to embarrass her sister by pulling Jesus into her dispute with Mary, Jesus does not belittle her efforts to be hospitable. He just reminds her that she has gone too far. She has been distracted from her guest, the most important part of hospitality. Jesus is not saying that making a good meal and doing what is needed is not important. He is saying that at this moment, she has allowed herself to worry about things that aren’t the highest priority and those details have distracted her and what she is doing is preventing her from hearing what he is teaching. At that moment, on that day, in that place, Mary had made the choice to listen and that was the right choice.

The problem wasn’t that Martha was doing things and that Mary wasn’t. Martha’s mistake was letting the busyness of getting dinner ready, and the guest bed made  distract her from being present with her guest. She forgot what was important…her relationship with Jesus.

We all make the same mistake sometimes. We plan a wedding and are so obsessed with the details, and worried about making a good impression that we forget to enjoy the celebration. We serve dinner to friends and family on the best china with the silverware spaced perfectly from the edge of the table  and are so busy preparing the perfect meal that we spend the whole time in the kitchen cooking and cleaning up. We go on mission trips to build things and fix things and never sit down with the people we meet, learn what it is that they want and need. We try to prove we are good by what we do. We worry that we are never doing enough, being enough, aren’t good enough. We forget whose we are.

Jesus seems to be saying that sometimes we need to simply sit at his feet and listen, that sometimes we only need this one thing. We need to be in Jesus’ presence and be told that God loves us, not for what we do, for all we accomplish, or for how busy we are. He loves us for who we are: his beloved children. His love is separate from all the should’s and ought-to’s of our lives, from the obligations and the commitments, from the feelings that we don’t quite measure up.  Perhaps Sunday morning worship is one of those times when we just sit. A time to shut off our cell phones, to let go of our fidgeting, to let go of our false sense of importance, the millions of details of our lives and to let go of all the distractions the tug at us and stretch us like a medieval torture device that threatens to pull us limb from limb. Breath deeply and listen. Hear the Gospel. “God so loved the world that he gave is only son.”

The Bible tells us again and again that we are to be hospitable, to look out for the physical needs of those around us, and to serve others, but we must do so in balance with listening and being in relationship with Jesus and with one another. We need to break free of the things we think we should do, the things that steal us away, keep us worried and distract us. We need to sit, be still and know that we are loved because of whose we are, not because of what we do.

This next week, make a list of five things you really want to get done. Rank each on a scale of 1 to 10 based on how important getting that thing done really is. What are the consequences of not completing it: whose life will be affected, what will change or happen? This is not easy. Much of what we do each day is important.

Next assign a value to hearing that you are loved, that you have meaning, purpose, and value in and of yourself. Where would you put telling those you love and care about the same thing? Most of us, when we think about what we value the most realize just how important it is for each of us to hear and believe that we are loved not for what we do but for who we are.

This is not an either/or story. Jesus teaches each of us to be both like Mary and like Martha. There are times when we need to act and there are times when we need to be still. There are people who are better at acting out God’s love and others who are better at studying, reading and understanding. We need both hands and heads for our community to be healthy and effective. Sometimes we need to “go and DO likewise” and sometimes we need to “choose the better part, which will not be taken away from us.”

Copyright © 2013 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains