38Now as [Jesus and his disciples] went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 40But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” 41But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
Who else here has ever felt “worried or distracted by many things?” I remember being responsible for setting up the registration area for an event, complete with typewriters to use for name badges (yes, this was a few years ago!) I was just at the point of congratulating myself because everything was in perfect order, totally under control, when I realized with horror that I had forgotten to bring the extension cords. I can still remember the sinking feeling in my stomach, the heat of shame flooding my face, as I spiraled from confidence to disaster in about 6 seconds. No typewriters, no badges. No badges, no attendees. No attendees, no event. And it was all. My. Fault. And everyone would know it.
Illogical, I know, but in that moment, it made perfect sense to me. It is so easy, isn’t it, to get focused on the details of a project or event or situation, to the point where we completely forget why we are doing it in the first place. Thankfully, THAT TIME, my worry and distraction was short-lived. For one thing, we quickly found that we could borrow extension cords from the facility. (And in retrospect, the fact that there was a hardware store 5 minutes away, or that people could have hand-written their nametags, feels rather significant, although it never dawned on me at the time!)
More importantly, I had friends with me that day. “What is our purpose?” They asked me. “To have inspiring speakers and workshops, and opportunity for people to connect and learn and have fun together,” I answered, not quite convinced that this was actually relevant to the catastrophe unfolding in front of me. “Is not having the extension cords going to prevent that from happening?” “No, I guess not.” “Well, then, it’s all good!” Slowly, what they said sank in, and worry and distraction began to dissipate.
The simple wisdom of that question, “what is our purpose,” has stayed with me through many years of projects and workshops and events, up to and including Jessica and Jason’s wedding yesterday. There have been times over the years when I have been able to share what I learned that day with others. And there have been times when I have been humbled when someone I had shared that story with repeated that question to me years later, when I was, one more time, collapsing under the weight of distraction and worry over a small detail gone wrong in a much larger picture.
There is a little book in recovery circles called “When I Got Busy, I Got Better.” It talks about the importance of giving to others, of being of service, and how when we find ways to reach out we do better all the way around. Which has been very true for me. And, I remember hearing someone talk about that book once, and they shared that when they got busy, they got bitter, as they allowed the details and minutia to distract them and weigh them down!
It seems, as we enter into our Gospel today, that maybe Martha could have benefited from the second title, as she wrestles with feeling taken advantage of by Mary as she focuses all of her attention on the kitchen duties while Mary “does nothing!”
All too often, the story of Mary and Martha is taken as an either/or tale, an affirmation of one way of serving God at the expense of another. Lifting up Mary for taking the “better part,” sitting and listening to Jesus, while Martha is gently chided for not being so wise. But if we remember that just last week we read the story of the Good Samaritan, which affirmed the Samaritan for doing “something” while the others did nothing to help the man in the ditch, we have to realize that, like so many other stories in scripture, it is not quite so simple.
Really, I think what Jesus is trying to do is to help Martha understand that her problem is not so much that Mary isn’t helping, as that Martha herself has forgotten why she is busy in the first place. Jesus is asking Martha to refocus her attention on the most important thing—why is she serving? What is our purpose?
Putting the story of the Good Samaritan and the story of Martha and Mary side by side, as they are in Luke’s Gospel, is profoundly important to understanding the wisdom that Jesus is trying to share with us. Turning away from someone—anyone—who is oppressed or wounded, as the priest and Levite do in the story of the Good Samaritan, perhaps especially when we claim we have a moral or ethical basis for doing so, is completely contrary to who we are called to be as children of God. And, as Martha learns, being busy, so busy that we forget what is really important, can be equally problematic.
Putting these stories together, we are reminded that what matters is not believing the right thing or being part of the right group. We cannot earn God’s grace and mercy and love, and it is not our place to judge whether those around us are worthy or not. Jesus is telling the lawyer, and Martha, and us, to keep our eye not on whether another person is following the law or the commandments or fulfilling our expectations of them. Instead, we can hear Jesus gently calling us keep our eyes on him. When we serve, why are we serving? When we listen, to whom are we listening?
Martha, and the priest and Levite, and we, can be so easily distracted and worried by many things that we forget. Especially these days, it can be easy to be so frantically busy and so invested in the outcomes of our work that we lose sight of who we are called to be, and who we are serving with our busy-ness. Or, to be so paralyzed, or burned out, or overwhelmed, by the work there is to do, that we fail to do anything at all. Or, to be so committed to the way we are serving, the rules and criteria we feel are right, that those rules and criteria become more important than the Christ in the person in front of us. We miss Christ present with us, longing to show us the love and mercy of our God who knows no such limits.
Jesus is asking Martha, and us, to remember what our purpose is. Calling us to choose anew the “better part.” Jesus is reminding us that in everything we do, everywhere we go, Christ is present, and being present to God and those around us is our purpose. We are called to see the face of God in our neighbor the immigrant seeking safety and life, our neighbor the soldier standing for justice and peace, our neighbor the person living on the street, our neighbor who stood up for us when we were being rejected, our neighbor who is ill and has asked for help with yard work or meals. When we serve, we serve Christ. When we listen, we listen to Christ.
We all get distracted and worried by many things at times. At times, we all need reminding. What is our purpose, what is the better part? When we stick together and help each other remember, the answer become much more clear. Thanks be to God!