Choosing the “Better Part”


Genesis 18:1-10a
Psalm 15
Colossians 1:15-28
Luke 10:38-42

Prayer of the Day: Eternal God, you draw near to us in Christ, and you make yourself our guest. Amid the cares of our lives, make us attentive to your presence, that we may treasure your word above all else, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord

“Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” Luke 10:42.

This text has often been used to elevate the “contemplative” life over the “active” life. A lot of sermons portray Martha as the one with the “to do” list and a dozen irons in the fire. She has little patience with people who want to “stop and smell the roses” or pray when there are toilets to be cleaned, rugs to be vacuumed and a meal to prepare. Mary, by contrast, understands that work is not an end in itself. Priority must be given to reading, marking, learning and digesting the Word of God. Only then does one’s path to action become clear. Martha would probably reply that this is all well and good in theory, but the roast is in the oven now and it’s not going to wait patiently for you to arrive at perfect inner clarity before burning to a crisp. What follows in such a sermon is a reflection on achieving the proper balance between care for the soul and responsible action.

I think, however, that all of this misses the point. There is nothing wrong with what Martha was doing. Hospitality ranks near the top of biblical values. As we learned a couple of weeks ago, Jesus’ ministry depends on the hospitality of people who support that ministry by receiving and caring for his disciples who carry it out. Luke 10:3-9. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews admonishes us to show hospitality to strangers because you never know whether the one in need of it might be an angel. Hebrews 13:2. The ancient cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed for their abuse of strangers in need of hospitality which, unfortunately for them, turned out to be angels! (Trump & company take note).

Furthermore, Jesus does not denigrate Martha’s ministry. He does not suggest that Martha should have been sitting with Mary listening to him or that she ought to drop what she is doing to join her. This isn’t about the relative worth of what Martha or Mary were doing. It is about Mary’s choice of the “ better part.” Martha’s mistake was not in dutifully attending to the ministry of hospitality. Her error was in trying to override Mary’s faithful response to Jesus’ teaching by appealing to her own priorities. For Mary, at this time and in this place, faithfulness to Jesus called for listening to and engaging with his teaching to the exclusion of all else. That may or may not have been the case for Martha.

The most difficult church conflicts I have seen arise not over choices between good and bad courses of action, but over two seemingly good opportunities. A deceased member leaves a substantial amount of money “for the mission of the church” without giving specifics. Some in the congregation insist that the money should be spent making the sanctuary barrier free for persons with disabilities. Others argue that the mission of the church lies outside its doors. The bequest should therefore be spent on ministries to the homeless and hungry in the community. The barrier free supporters counter that the sanctuary, as it is, excludes a whole class of people from worshiping and engaging in the church’s mission and the very ministries it promotes. There are no pat answers to questions like these. For this reason, we are always in a posture of listening to Jesus and trying to choose in this time and place what is for us “the better part.”

For over a decade now I have seen tea shirts, buttons and bracelets bearing the acronym “WWJD,” that is, “What would Jesus do?” The problem here is the assumption that Jesus is long dead and we are left to speculate over how he would respond to one thing or another. Disciples of Jesus believe, however, that Jesus is very much alive and with his church “to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:20. We don’t have to guess where Jesus is or what he is doing. He is with the poor, the hungry, the imprisoned, the naked and the sick. Matthew 25:31-46. If we would follow Jesus, a good place to start is at our nation’s southern border. Another might be the many neighborhoods struggling with the effects of decades of racial discrimination, predatory banking practices and decaying infostructure. We can hear the call of Jesus from across our borders appealing to our consciences against the fascist screams of “America First.” Anyone pondering what Jesus would do should take a good look at where Jesus is and what his disciples are doing.

We have, I believe, arrived at a moment that demands our choosing the “better part.” In its recent history, my own ELCA has issued apologies for Lutheran silence and complicity in the Holocaust and for our church’s complicity and inaction during this nation’s years of slavery and Jim Crow. It is my prayer that a future generation of Christians will not be issuing apologies for the church’s failure to denounce as heresy the Christotrumpist evangelicalism preached by the likes of Franklin Graham, Jerry Falwell, Tony Perkins and Robert Jefferies supporting nationalism and white supremacy. I hope my grandchildren will not be embarrassed by the silence of our pastors, the inaction of our leaders and a paralyzing preference for peace in the ecclesiastical household over the justice of God’s reign. I pray that the machinery of institutional ecumenism will not become a barrier for the unity in Christ Jesus that we need so much in this hour. Most of all, I pray that we will not hear on the last day that haunting and damning indictment: “I was hungry, homeless, imprisoned, naked and thirsty…and you did not…”

Below is an ancient poem from the Book of Ecclesiastes. The book as a whole is attributed to King Solomon of legendary wisdom, referred to as “the teacher.” Though actual authorship of biblical works often differs from attribution, there is good reason to believe that some of the book’s material goes back to the royal court of the united kingdom of Israel under David and Solomon. The poem appears to be an independent source subject to extended commentary and interpretation by the teacher. Poems, of course, are never entirely exhausted by commentary. Thus, it is fruitful to consider this poem in its own right and apart from its immediate biblical context for what it can teach us about the contingent nature of our existence and the ever shifting circumstances calling for very different courses of action depending on the “time.” Jesus’ injunction to recognize the “signs of the times” gives the lines of this piece an added sense of urgency. Matthew 16:1-4.

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.

Source: Ecclesiastes 3:1-8.

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