February 28, 2008

The Better Part

Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet and listened to what he was saying. But 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." But the Lord answered her, "Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her."

Luke 10:38-42

This familiar interchange between Jesus and the village sisters is a crossroads, a moment for decision, for all involved. Offered an invitation, Jesus chooses to accept the gift of generous provision and warm company. Met by a rabbi whose teaching apparently stirs her soul, Mary chooses literally to adopt the posture of a pupil. Faced with the responsibilities of hosting an eminent guest, Martha chooses to busy herself with recipes and resentment. And thus it all plays out, familiarly so.

But what interests me now, in this Lenten season, is the second choice of Jesus: his decision to place receptivity to God's word over responsibilities to fulfill. He honors Mary's decision to learn and grow, calling it "the better part." We can only assume he means "the better part" of life lived with and for God (see Psalm 119).

To be sure, the sisters' contrast is not a proof text for all faith and no work. There are times to labor and times to learn, days to be Martha and days to be Mary. The wisdom Jesus' commends is this: knowing how to choose which posture is faithful at what time. Hurried, haggard, task-oriented living turns out to be no living at all, if in the end one has no knowledge of the One who gives life in the first place, and who gives it abundantly in this same Christ. In the manner of Mary, regular sitting before God's Word turns out to be the better part of life. Indeed, it is even a necessary part of life if all those other pieces – the many details of living we must all steward – are to make any sense at all.

Jesus commends for us the better part. What choices will you make with your time during this third week of Lent?