The Better Part

Homily at St John Lloyd, for The Sixteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C.

Episode 2 of 4 in our new series, The Teachings of Jesus.

Mary has chosen the better part. But Martha has her defenders!

A few weeks ago, we pondered today’s gospel passage at the Churches Together Bible Study here at St John Lloyd. Many of those who came rushed to Martha’s aid. Surely she was doing something good, and right, and proper, by tending to the needs of Our Lord and the other guests who came with him?

No-one is saying Martha was doing something bad. She was doing what was expected of her in that culture, where taking care of guests was extremely important. Apart from her uncharitable comment about her sister, we can commend her for doing her duty. Jesus didn’t say she was doing anything wrong. But he did say: “Mary has chosen the better part.”

Perhaps that doesn’t sit so well with us. We might question whether Jesus really said it. But the Gospels are our best link to the words and action of Jesus, and our Church is confident that they teach the honest truth about what he said and did. So yes, I think we have to accept that Jesus did say: “Mary has chosen the better part.”

If he said it, do we have to agree with it? That depends whether Jesus is a member of your panel of religious advisors, or your Lord. If you are developing your own religion based on those sayings of Jesus which you agree with, then it’s up to you. But as Catholics, we profess every Sunday that we believe “in one Lord Jesus Christ… true God from true God”. This is why St Paul could say to the Christians in Colossae: “God made me responsible for delivering God’s message to you, the message…now… revealed to his saints. It was God’s purpose to reveal… the Christ we proclaim.”

If Jesus is God, he isn’t going to make a mistake. If we call him Lord, we are implying that we will follow his teachings. And what Jesus wants to teach us on this occasion is that what Mary chose to do is better than what Martha chose to do.

As for why it’s better… ah! Now we can begin to have an open-ended conversation!

Let’s look again, and what do we see? Mary, sitting, listening, at the feet of Jesus.

Martha, “distracted” by the serving, asking Jesus to intervene in her relationship with her sister, and being politely but firmly told, no, because Martha was fretting about “many things” when Mary had chosen “the better part”.

Perhaps Martha’s fault was that she jumped to her own conclusion about what was needed, while her sister was willing to listen. Love is patient!

Perhaps Martha’s fault was too much attention to detail – were the “many things” the preparation of an elaborate meal when a simple snack would have been enough? Love is not expressed in the detail so much as in the simple act of caring.

Perhaps Martha’s fault was wanting her sister to hold exactly the same values as herself. Her exasperated request for Jesus to put Mary to work reveals something about very ordinary family tensions, revealed here because Jesus was already a friend of the family. Love allows other people to be different from yourself while still respecting and cherishing them.

Painting by Otto van Veen - Martha protests with Jesus while Mary sits at his feet.

Perhaps Martha’s fault was in wanting to bring her sister down from her boldness in daring to sit at the feet of Jesus, the rabbi – a place where only men would normally sit in that culture. But Jesus seems unconcerned. He often questions the Jewish traditions of his day, so perhaps he’s saying that it’s better for the ladies to learn from their rabbi, on this one-day-only opportunity, than to take on the normal duties of hospitality. Love does not seek to embarrass others for their boldness.

Perhaps Martha’s fault was in not recognising that the Lord of the work is more important that the work of the Lord. The Church needs Marthas – it needs activists who get things done. But even the most active Catholic needs to take time to stop and listen to God, and here Martha is hosting God in person, yet missing out on his words of life.

But don’t despair. The Martha we are speaking of is Saint Martha – a friend of God recognised for her true holiness. It was Martha, not Mary, who recognised that Jesus was the true Christ before he raised Lazarus from the dead. Martha is part of the company of heaven, and if we follow her example we will do much good.

Yet… “Mary has chosen the better part.” For this reason our Church prizes women and men who respond to the call to be hermits, monks and nuns. In the eyes of the world, their existence seems futile. But to our eyes of faith, those called to a lifestyle of daily prayer and contemplation are the ones who have responded to the deepest invitation to “choose the better part”.

Is today’s Gospel about the excellence of spending time with Jesus, in holy listening? Is it about the importance of living simply even when a guest is at hand? Is it about avoiding jealousy in sibling relationships? It could be any or all of these things. You are free to pick your own interpretation, so long as you agree up with one basic conclusion:Mary has chosen the better part. So go, and do likewise.