I like to cook, and as a corollary, I’m a fan of cooking shows. I probably watch the Food Network more than any other channel, and the “reality shows” that hold me are “Top Chef” and “The Next Food Network Star.” I’ve been in my time a committed fan of “Iron Chef” (especially the Japanese original).
But I enjoy the instructional shows as much as anything. As I said, I like to cook; and while I don’t try everything I see, I certainly see things at times that I do want to try.
Now, some of the shows focus on entertaining; and there’s one sentence I hear a lot: “If you need to, you can do this ahead of time.” The point, sometimes stated explicitly, is to allow the cook to enjoy entertaining by being available to the guests, instead of stuck in the kitchen.
Jesus dropped in on Mary and Martha. At other places in the Gospels it is clear that Jesus knew and loved Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus. But Luke’s description of this meeting sounds fortuitous, unexpected: “Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home.” (Luke 10:38) It’s as if Jesus happened to be in the neighborhood and just dropped by; or perhaps this recalls the first time they met, and Martha just opened her home to this itinerant preacher. In any case, Martha seems to have shown remarkable hospitality in opening her home.
Unfortunately, Martha found herself caught in the kitchen, unable to enjoy the party. She couldn’t be with the guests she was working so hard to care for. I can only imagine how galling it must have been at the time to hear Jesus say, “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.” (10:41b-42)
Now, over the centuries we have been certain we knew what that meant. This was a comparison of the active life and the contemplative life, and the contemplative life was clearly better. “The only think needful,” as we have seen it, was to sit at the feet of Jesus, taking in his teaching and his person. Martha had chosen many tasks, all of which seemed to make sense at the time; while Mary had chosen the one apparently unhelpful task of being a good disciple.
We know that interpretation well; but tonight as I sit, typing away, I wonder whether we’ve missed something. No, let me be more clear: I think we have missed something. Because, you see, the essence of true welcome is not in what we do for those who come to us, but how we meet and interact with those who come to us. Like the host of the cooking show who encourages us to “do this ahead,” this passage calls us to see that hospitality is more a matter of personal encounter than of personal service. And so the “better part” that Mary chose was to be with Jesus, to be present to him as a person. Martha’s efforts were noble, perhaps, but they withheld the one gift that only she could offer to Jesus: herself.
I think there is some support for this in the Genesis lesson. This is the famous story of Abraham at Mamre, meeting the three men who will speak to him in the voice of God. There is really the same distinction here between Abraham and Sarah as there is between Mary and Martha. True, Abraham leaves his guests long enough to give appropriate instructions to Sarah and to the household; but he seems to do that as quickly as possible so as to return and be present to his guests. And surely he was really present to his guests. After today’s lesson, when two of them leave to assess the sinfulness of Sodom, Abraham has the sense of openness in the relationship to negotiate with the third, knowing he was negotiating with God, over the lives of the Sodomites. What came out of this encounter was not simply good service to guests, but a good relationship, one that could sustain tough arguments even with God.
In many ways this is counterintuitive for us. We may honor contemplative Mary, but we do it as much in the breach as in the observance. We may set aside some time for quiet and reflection; but for most of us it is a small portion. For all our apparent criticism of Martha, we are more likely to focus on her activity. Even in my profession, where we speak often of the importance of “being” rather than “doing” (a chaplain joke: “Don’t just do something! Stand there!”), it’s all too easy to get caught up in function instead of the encounter with the patient as person. We scoff at those who are “so heavenly minded as to be no earthly good,” and so neglect what we think of as Mary’s “better part.”
But that takes us away from more than just listening to Jesus. It takes us away from being present to Jesus. We preach that God sought not just obedience from us, but relationship with us. After all, why make us sentient, why make us free of thought and will – why make us human – if all God wanted was properly programmed robots? Why give us the capacity for relationship, if not for us to live in relationship with God. We identify the Trinity as relational, and our capacity for relationship as part of what it means to be made in the image and likeness of God. We claim the importance of prayers of intercession and lament as well as prayers of praise and contemplation, and sing of sharing “all our sins and griefs,” and not just waiting for what we might hear.
No, I think perhaps Mary’s “better part” was not simply basking in the presence of Jesus, taking in his every word. Her better part was to be present to Jesus, to establish a relationship with Jesus that, according to John’s Gospel, would allow for mutual grief every bit as hard as Abraham’s negotiations. Martha’s loss was not simply contemplation, but interaction and conversation and relationship – personal relationship for which the best of service is no substitute.
We say that part of being Christian is a “personal relationship with Christ;” and a relationship, even with Jesus, is a two-way street. All our business, like Martha’s, separates us not only from being in the presence of Jesus, but also from being present to Jesus. This Gospel calls us not just to hang around Jesus, but to offer ourselves fully in relationship. Let us, like Mary, choose the “better part,” a full relationship with Christ, trusting that it will not be taken away from us.