The Better Part

a sermon for the 9th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 11C)

Martha complained when her sister was not doing her share of the work. But Jesus saw things differently.



I was born the oldest of four children. My brother, Danny, is three years younger than me and we used to fight all the time, brothers and rivals for our parents’ affection. Whenever I wanted to do one thing, he would want to do the exact opposite. If I’d say the sky is blue, he would argue that it was red. I liked reading books, and he liked sports. But as we have grown older, we’ve grown closer. We see that we agree on the things that matter, while still being distinct individuals.

The bible has lots of stories about sibling rivalry: Cain and Abel, who competed for God’s love by offering competing sacrifices (that one didn’t turn out so well); Esau and Jacob, who began fighting even in their mother’s womb; Joseph and his 11 brothers, who sold him into slavery; James and John, the sons of Zebedee, who wanted to sit at the left and right hand of Jesus. There’s the story of the prodigal son, where the young brother squanders all his inheritance before he comes home, and the older brother gets angry.

In today’s Gospel, we hear about another pair of siblings, Martha and Mary, who are close personal friends of Jesus. One evening while traveling, Jesus and his disciples stop at their home to rest and have a bite to eat. Martha, who must have been truly delighted to see him, springs into action, chopping up vegetables, setting the table, cooking suMaryMaryAdventpper. Meanwhile, Mary takes a place in the other room, with the men folk, sitting at Jesus’ feet and listening to what he was saying. Not surprisingly, Martha gets a little peeved, both at her sister and at Jesus. “Don’t you CARE that my sister won’t help me with all this work?”

The problem was, Jesus did not care, and he told Martha so.

Over the centuries, hospitality has been a cornerstone of middle-eastern culture. As we heard in our Old Testament reading, Abraham and Sarah dropped everything to show hospitality to three strangers who happened by, divine visitors who were none other than the Lord God. In the bible, God often appears as a stranger, so it only made sense to treat every visitor as if he or she might have been sent by God.

And so in this sense, Martha was doing exactly what would have been expected of her in Jesus’ day – living fully into a ministry of radical hospitality and diaconal service. To be honest, the of this work fell to women. Although hospitality was a basic virtue of the culture, the center of hospitality, the hearth and kitchen, has traditionally been the domain of women.

At the same time, tradition and custom also established that the Word of God, expressed by prophets, teachers, and scripture, was as vital to life as food. Remember how Jesus said, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God?” And, by custom and tradition, this was typically a role left for the men folk.

Over the centuries, this story has almost aways focused on one key question: which is more important – service or prayer? Action or contemplation? Doing God’s work in the world or studying God’s word?

This is where we, from our modern perspective, tend to miss the point of the story. We fall into a common fallacy called a “false dichotomy.” We force ourselves into binary thinking, trying to decide who was right, looking for a winner and a loser. Which sister did Jesus think was following him the best, Martha or Mary. Which is more important, good works and service to others or prayer and contemplation? Are we to follow the example of the Good Samaritan that we heard last week and do likewise, or sit quietly at Jesus’ feet?

In the story, when Martha asks Jesus to force her sister to help her in the kitchen, Jesus replies that Mary has chosen the better portion. That sounds clear enough. Surely Jesus believes that serving others isn’t as important as prayer and worship.

But time and again, Jesus teaches us that discipleship isn’t an either/or proposition. Discipleship takes both: service to others and prayer and devotion. Jesus wasn’t criticizing Martha’s hospitality; he knew that this was Martha’s greatest gift of ministry. What Jesus was concerned about was her worry and distraction. Martha was busy, yes; but she was so busy doing her chores that she missed the big picture, the “better portion.”

At the same time, Mary, like many siblings, had a different set of gifts. Certainly, she knew the ancient rules of hospitality. But she also knew that the best place she could learn to follow Jesus was by listening to her rabbi. So she chose to step away from her traditional place in the kitchen and took a place with the men. Mary saw her opportunity to become a disciple. She saw the big picture, she seized the better portion.

The other day, I made a donation to the Alzheimers Association, because Doug Graul was riding his bicycle hundreds of miles in the “Ride to Remember.” Does my donation to the Alzheimers Association mean that I don’t believe that breast cancer is important? Of course not. As far too many in this congregation know first hand, breast cancer is a terrible disease that we need to eradicate as soon as possible. But it is also the most successfully funded of all cancer research. My contribution Alzheimers research doesn’t mean that breast cancer lives don’t matter; it means that Alzheimers matters, too.

Many years ago, when the girls were very small, Rindy was suddenly struck by a kidney stone attack. It happened on a Sunday morning, so I threw the kids into the car and rushed over here to the church. I literally handed the kids off in the parking lot to the first people I saw, told them take care of them and that I would be back later. Then, I rushed Rindy to the hospital. Did that mean that I didn’t care about the lives of my daughters? Of course not. It meant that Rindy’s life mattered, too.

In the same way, when Jesus told Martha that her sister had chosen the better portion, did he mean that Martha was any less important to him? Did he mean that diaconal service and hospitality was less important than prayer and study of scripture? Of course not. Time and again, Jesus has taught to heal the sick, feed the hungry, comfort the afflicted. None of that had changed; it still mattered. He simply meant Mary’s life, her spiritual life, matters, too.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is saying that Women’s Lives Matter, their whole lives matter – body, mind and spirit. It means that women were released from the societal expectations and roles that made full discipleship very difficult. He was saying, yes, service and hospitality are important, and Martha was doing a great job with that. But there is more to discipleship than just service and that “more” is the better part, the fuller part, the part that makes a disciple complete.

And if Jesus did that for women – if Women’s Lives Mattered – that necessarily meant that others’ lives did as well. To proclaim that the lives of some matter, does not mean that other lives do not. That is a false dichotomy. Taking care of my wife didn’t mean that I wouldn’t take care of my daughters. But we must respond to the greatest need.

For Jesus, to say that Mary’s Life Mattered did not mean that Martha’s life did not. That is a false dichotomy. It meant that while there is a great deal of good work being done in her outreach and service, that there was still a great deal more that she was missing. She was missing the other side of being a disciple. It takes both, prayer and works, Word and Sacrament, to be a complete disciple.

Sitting together at Jesus’ feet will take us to surprising places. We have to avoid the busy-ness that keeps us distracted from the better part, the fuller part – the fact that in Christ we are new creations, created for new things, created for greater service, created for deeper prayer, created for new work.

Jesus walks into the hustle and bustle of our lives and asks us to focus. He walks in and says that when we discover the better portion, the fuller portion, of God’s kingdom, we will discover the peace that surpasses all understanding by living as a disciple of Christ.

And in this we will bear God’s kingdom to a world that needs it so.

Thanks be to God.

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