What is ultimately important?

Lessons for the Day: Amos 8:1-12; Psalm 52; Colossians 1:15-28; and, Luke 10:38-42.

Just when we think we have the formula all worked out, the path to success all laid out, the one easy answer for earning us an A-plus for discipleship, Jesus goes and throws a wrench into the works. Last week we heard the story of the Good Samaritan, where the point was: Go and do. Love is shown in verbs. Remember? The Samaritan sees, goes, bandages, lifts, takes, gives, pays, promises.

This week we meet a woman who is doing and doing and doing – and all to exercise the virtue of showing hospitality. But this time, doing doesn’t seem to be the key. “Stop and listen” seems to be the right answer. What happened?

Jesus and his disciples have come to visit Martha and Mary – not a planned visit by the look of the narrative. But Martha wants to be hospitable; and, so, she rolls up her sleeves and goes to work. She puts the proverbial soup on and sets a table before her guests. Her sister has failed to respond likewise. Their mother did not raise them like this. So, Martha pokes her head into the living room, hoping to get Mary’s attention, but Mary’s still just sitting and listening to Jesus.  Martha wants help. Is that so wrong?

“Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.”

Luke 10:40b

This story can really irk us. And it seems so natural for the story to turn into an exercise in choosing between the two sisters. Whom do we choose, Mary or Martha? Which of the sisters are we most like? Who is more important? More faithful? More valuable? It is so tempting to launch into an enthusiastic defense of Martha?

We might wish that Jesus had said, “You are absolutely right, Martha. Let’s just all come into the kitchen and help with the dishes. Let’s visit while we put the plates away. Many hands make light work!”

But he doesn’t. Instead he says,

“Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things. You are worried and distracted about many things. There is need of only one thing.”

Luke 10:41-42

She is described in the translation in the New Revised Standard Version as “distracted by her many tasks.” We know. We understand. Martha is not just busy. She is not just multitasking. She is not just overbooked, over-scheduled, and overwhelmed. She is distracted – distracted by too much. There is need of only one thing. But some days it is so hard to remember what that one thing is.

What if the point of the story is not to further divide Martha from Mary and Mary from Martha, not to pit the sisters against each other, not to choose either of them, but to choose Jesus? What if this is not a story about choosing between Bible study and outreach ministries, between making time for nightly devotional study and hands-on service to others? What if it’s not a story asking us to choose between being Mary and being Martha, but of keeping our focus on Jesus, choosing Jesus, choosing just one thing he’s asking of us, or offering to us, just now?

But what is the one thing?

Just before he visits Mary and Martha, in the tenth chapter of Luke, Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan as an answer to the lawyer who wants to test Jesus.

‘Teacher,” he says, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”And Jesus asks him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?”

Luke 10:25-26

In Luke’s gospel it’s the lawyer, not Jesus as in Matthew and Mark, who gives this summary of the law, this all-encompassing picture of whom and how to love. The lawyer answers, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself. ”

And Jesus says to him, A-plus. “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” “Do this,” Jesus says, as if it’s a simple thing – a whole slew of words that mean all encompassing devotion and commitment – all boiled down to one little word: “this.”

Paul Tillich once said,

“There are innumerable concerns in our lives and human life generally, which demand attention, devotion, passion. But they do not demand infinite attention, unconditional devotion, ultimate passion. They are important, often very important, for you and me and the whole of humankind. But they are not ultimately important….” 

Paul Tillich, The Essential Tillich, 33

Jesus reminds us that there is only one thing, and that Mary has chosen the better part.

Figuring out what is ultimately important is, indeed, the challenge of the Gospel.

Recall the narrative from Luke’s Gospel we read just two weeks ago. Jesus sent out the seventy, and when they returned they rejoiced that in the Lord’s name, “even the demons submitted” to them. The Lord, however, reminds them not to rejoice in that but that their “names are written in heaven” (see Luke 10:1-20). What is ultimately important?

And recall the story of the Good Samaritan. The Priest and the Levite pass by the man beaten and robbed and left for dead. They were on their way to Jerusalem, probably to the Temple, to do important work on behalf of the people. But they passed on by a man in need of help. What is ultimately important?

Martha is worried and distracted and busy? Take a number, Martha–we are all waiting at the same counter. Maybe Martha, as with many of us, needs to recognize here worry and distraction and busy-ness for what it really is – an excuse to miss out on what is important. Jesus talks over and over about “the Kingdom of God” and here we are, believing that we are to be God’s hands on earth as in heaven. After all, we do pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done,” do we not? Or are we not ready to transfer our membership from the Cult of the Busy? Martha’s an acolyte, that’s for sure. But aren’t we all? 

Jesus is telling something to us through Martha. We are busy, worried and distracted people. We race ahead in our busy-ness, but we forget to pay attention to what really matters all around us: The Kingdom of God is at hand. That is the truly important thing, and it has to do with helping to work towards a place of building the kingdom, in peace, freedom, justice, and hope for all.

But if we stop listening, we can perhaps become deaf to the reality that racism is and remains a major obstacle to equality in our time. If we stop litening we can fail to see the struggle and suffering of the LGBTQ community, with particular venom aimed at transgender people, and much of it done in the name of “religious freedom.”

If we stop listening, we will miss the need of our neighbor who lost his wife of sixty-five years, and just wants someone to listen. If we stop listening, we will fail to see the teen in our midst who is picked on and bullied because they are just a little bit different then their peers.

If we don’t stop and listen, we might not see the homeless man on the street corner – oh, we might notice him but we are unlikely to really see him. If we don’t stop and listen, we might fail to hear why the refugee is fleeing his home, his family, and the only life she has ever known.  

We sometimes just have to stop and listen in the busy-ness of our lives, to where we are in that Kingdom of God–that place of justice that Jesus spoke of during a twilight dinner to a listening Mary. If we do choose the better part and take time to listen carefully to the message that Jesus gave to Martha and Mary, indeed to each one of us since he left that house in Bethany, we might see how the history of violent prejudice on the basis of race, religion, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, immigration and more, leads on to splitting the peace in our communities.

William Barclay is credited with once opining, “There are two great days in a person’s life–the day we are born and the day we discover why.”

And so maybe this week is about finding our equilibrium, for our own good as well as for the well-being of our community. Stop. Turn around and listen. Feel with your heart what leads you towards building a just community and a whole world. Take the time to listen to what is important–beyond filled schedules, over-bookings and meetings about meetings that remind us we are busy and skilled folks. 

And…of course, the “better part” is Jesus himself. We are people who profess to be followers of Jesus just like Martha and Mary, so that we can also say that we too have chosen the better part–as bringers of the vision of a Kingdom of God that values all of God’s people.


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