Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
8 Pentecost, Lectionary 16
My friend Larry taught me to cook. He taught me to use a knife, to season a salad, and to prepare a party so that I didn’t have to spend time in the kitchen by myself while everyone else was having a good time. I was thinking of that this week. Of how lonely it can get in the kitchen while everyone else is having a good time. And about the perfectionism that had always dogged me as I was getting ready for a special occasion until Larry showed me how to enjoy my own party.
I was thinking of my mother’s friends, too: those Church-Ladies who always saw to it that there was something wonderful to eat in a church where ‘fellowship’ meant ‘food.’ They spent their lives in the church kitchen while men were elected to be the spiritual leadership of the congregation. Those dear women always had an edge about this story. Although the church told them this was not a story which said that working in the kitchen was less than listening to Jesus, they knew perfectly well that their work was really regarded as ‘women’s work’ and thus not valued in the same way as the stuff men were allowed to do. “So what would they have to eat if it weren’t for Marthas?” was the question as I heard it.
Is Jesus really saying that it doesn’t matter if dinner’s ready? Is he really putting down ‘women’s work’ in favor of theological work? What is the real question here?
First of all, remember that Jesus has “set his face toward Jerusalem.” He is on his way to the culmination of his ministry. He has done all the preaching and teaching and healing that should have shown beyond the shadow of a doubt that he is God’s anointed one. He has just told the Biblical scholar who wants to show off a radical story about who can be considered a neighbor. He’s put the man on the spot. He tells him to forget keeping the purity rules and act from compassion. As God has acted toward God’s people form earliest times. “God and do..” he’s told him.
Now he has a chance to rest with friends. This is a aculture in which hospitality is the most valued social interaction. Look at how Abram greetd his visitors – he rushed out to meet them and begged them to stay. It sounds as if Abram’s visitors had to wait all afternoon for their meal – if you start dinner by slaughtering the meat. Abram probably delighted in the conversation over the roasting fire. In light of that story, Martha sounds resentful of her duties. She sounds put upon and hassled.
Could it be that what Jesus really wanted was conversation more than a meal? Could it be that the real gift to a friend is presence,not preparation? Could it be that crackers and iced tea are food enough in the presence of someone you love? This visit is the last one that Jesus will have in the flesh with these friends. The gift that Mary gave was attention; being present to the gift of someone she loved.
I have buried more than a dozen people in the two years I have been here. Those occasions are reminders that time is short. Any day, any conversation, can be the last one that we have with someone important. I think this story tells us that this is true of our connection with Jesus, as well.
Doing is so important to God’s people. It’s how we live the Gospel we’ve been given. We do for others because we have been loved and so we love. We care about other’s lives because w have experienced God at work in our own lives. We have been rescued from despair and sin and loneliness by God coming to us in Jesus and destroying all that can separate us from God’s love. Even though we are imperfect and often fumble in our attempts to witness to God’s love in this world, we are assured that our sins are forgiven and we are safe with God from this moment and throughout eternity, and that our work will be effective.
But doing is never meant to be a substitute for a relationship with God through Jesus himself. Our action comes out of our time together with Jesus: time for reading Jesus’ word, time for asking for the deepest desires of our hearts, time to come to this meal of Christ’s promise, time for resting in God’s presence. Those are the foundation of our actions, and the place where the love we learn becomes action in the world. You can’t have one without the other. The Church Ladies’ work is just work if it is not for Christ in the community. In the same way, reading Jesus’ words is just intellectual exercise if it doesn’t move me to do something. “There is need of only one thing,” says Jesus. That time we spend with Jesus will never be taken away from us when everything else we have done falls away. You never know when this is your last chance to be present to the One who love you most in this world.
And now may the peace of God which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.