The Better Part

My sister always sits sideways in her chair during meals. Whether the table is surrounded by family members or invited guests, she is poised for action. She jumps up if she’s forgotten something in the kitchen, if someone wants steak sauce rather than the ketchup that is on the table, or if it is time to pass the serving dishes around again. My sister seldom relaxes enough to enjoy the food and conversation.

There is biblical precedent for that instinct and posture in the account of Jesus’ visit to the home of two sisters, Mary and Martha. Martha offers immediate hospitality, welcoming Jesus and then busying herself with meal preparation, while Mary sits down with Jesus. One can imagine how the clatter of dishes in the kitchen grows steadily louder until Martha’s exasperation at working alone is audible to Mary, who is engrossed in what Jesus is saying. Who is to say that passive-aggressive behavior didn’t exist in New Testament households?

Finally Martha can’t bear working alone any more and comes to where Jesus and her sister are talking. Pulled in all directions by a dozen tasks, she can no longer contain her frustration. She confronts the guest himself, challenging his care for her and asking him to send Mary into the kitchen. In an astounding breach of etiquette, Martha embarrasses her sister, and her Lord and no doubt herself as well.

Jesus doesn’t mince words in his response. Calling her by name not just once but twice, in a manner that sounds more like a parent than a friend, he describes the situation. Jesus says: “Martha, dear Martha, you’re fussing far too much and getting yourself worked up over nothing. One thing only is essential, and Mary has chosen it — it’s the main course, and won’t be taken from her.”

Perhaps the words “main course” for “better part”  can help this well-worn story be heard in fresh ways. A woman in the parish where I serve commented that she never likes hearing this text preached because she always comes away with the sense that it’s never possible to get things right. If, like Martha, she works hard, she will be labeled “overfunctioning.” If, like Mary, she sits and listens too long, nothing gets done. Giuseppe Belli’s 19th-century sonnet “Martha and Magdalene” ends with Martha snapping back at Jesus when he tells her that Mary’s choice is more important: “So says you, but I know better. Listen, if I sat around on my salvation the way she does, who’d keep this house together?” (Divine inspiration: The Life of Jesus in World Poetry).

Thinking of God’s word as the “main course” in the feast of life, however, doesn’t give that immediate sense that listening is better than doing. Rather, it places these activities in balance. Whereas the world reminds us to keep the “main thing the main thing,” Christians are urged to remember that the main course is just that, the main course. Jesus is the host, not Martha or Mary or anyone of us, and he spreads the word like a banquet to nourish and strengthen us. The word has within it commands both to sit and listen, and to go and do. We “sit on our salvation,” as the sonnet has it, but then scatter into the world and work of daily life.

Living this side of Easter, we know what Mary and Martha could not know: that hearing and doing are finally in the realm not of law, but of gospel — because the host of the banquet has himself become the main course.

The good news is that Jesus the host grants permission for all distracted, frantic people to sit down and eat their fill of word and promise. When we join them and nourish ourselves at the table, we’ll be ready to put hands and feet, hearts and minds to work.