Monday, July 12, 2010

Mary Has Chosen the Better Part

The big idea of the 10th chapter of Luke up and until this point has been the nature of true discipleship. The chapter begins with the sending of the 70 out into the places where Jesus desired to go. The disciples go and find that like Jesus they are able to cast out demons and cure diseases. They come back understandably astounded by these miraculous things. Jesus then tells them not to stay too focused on these things, but to be aware that the most important thing is to be written into the book of heaven.

The next section of chapter 10 includes the story of the lawyer and the Good Samaritan. Here it would seem that the while the lawyer understands the surface requirements of the law “Love God and love neighbor” he doesn’t understand that, in the eyes of Jesus, the love of neighbor entails a core sense of mercy and compassion among all of the people...even those who should be hated, despised, and ultimately rejected.
Then we arrive at this very interesting little bit about Jesus coming into the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Jesus is invited into the house (Much like the 70 are invited into houses and seemingly the household is eager to hear about the kingdom of God. He won’t be scraping off any dust any time soon.) Then there appears to be a domestic disagreement between Mary and Martha (at least from Martha’s point of view.) Mary is not helping out in the preparations of hospitality as she should.
Luke Timothy Johnson writes in Sacra Pagina: Luke that this is a great breech of etiquette on the part of Martha. Martha has enlisted the help of a stranger to settle a family dispute. Thus Martha ironically has violated the very same domestic hospitality that she blames Mary of having violated herself.
The question then here is, "Is this the point?" Is Jesus pointing out that the more important work of the disciple is not to worry about the surface obligations or the product of the work at hand, but rather to engage the guest who has come into the house? The important thing is not the hospitality being provided, but the guest being feted. This would seem interesting in the notion of discipleship that seems to be playing out in the course of the 10th chapter of Luke. Discipleship is about a climate of interiority that stays focused on the foundational notion of God’s love for the disciple over and against the works that defeat Satan (Luke 10:17-20), an inner sense of mercy that transcends soci-political-racial and class division to see in the “other” in need the identity of the neighbor that allows one to fulfill the law (Luke 10:36&37), and here finally a reprioritization of daily living to notice the one necessary thing which is the good portion that Mary has chosen. (Luke 10:42)
N.T. Wright in Luke for Everyone writes some interesting notes on this passage. He points to the fact that there is a great transgression going on on Mary’s part. In her world to sit at the feet of a teacher was the place of men only. Therefore, for her to do this would be scandalous in Martha’s sense of right and wrong. Wright focuses in on the fact that Luke has a propensity for breaking down the boundaries that exist between men and women; Jew and Greek; slave and free. Mary has taken the equal place of a man at the feet of Jesus and thus recast the notions that Martha knows too well and by which Martha is ultimately circumscribed. For Wright this passage isn’t about the "active vs. spiritual" Christian as many interpreters have thought. Instead it’s about the abundant love of God flowing in and through all people giving everyone access to the kingdom of God.
I.H. Marshall in NIGTC: The Gospel of Luke includes this passage in a grouping entitled “The Characteristics of Discipleship.”
- (40) The interest shifts back to Martha. The verb PERISPAOMAI means in the passive ‘to be pulled, dragged away’, hence ‘to becomedistracted, busy, overburdened’...The implication is that Martha wished to hear Jesus but was prevented from doing so by the pressure of providing hospitality.” p.452
[The implication of this gospel story for parishes is just astounding. How often are parishes so concerned about getting the work of ministry done that they forget to sit at the feet of Jesus to listen and learn? Distracted by Ministry would be a great title for a book! ;) Ministry and hospitality can become a distraction from choosing the better part.]
I wonder if this story isn’t all that unlike the Good Samaritan...Martha and the lawyer occupying the same basic role with Mary as the Samaritan. The lawyer asked Jesus a question about the law. In doing this he was trying to affirm that Jesus believed the way that he did. He was looking for Jesus to give the same answer. “How do I inherit eternal life? Love God and love neighbor. At question in that story was the character of the love of God and the love of neighbor not the outward action.
Was it love for those who are my neighbors in the sense of first century Jewish religious and purity expectations or was it in terms of a spirit of mercy that sees all suffering as a moment to demonstrate love? Love of God and love of neighbor for the Lawyer and Martha is the satisfaction of the encoded obligation. The lawyer fulfills the letter of the Law of Moses, while Martha fulfills the letter of the Law of the Matriarch. Like the lawyer Martha believes she is doing the righteous thing, but in reality (like the lawyer) she’s missing the deeper notion of the Kingdom of God. She has completed the obligation of the “law” but in so doing she’s missed the grace of loving her neighbor in this case it's Jesus himself and he's sitting in her kitchen.

Mary's better part (and by extension the Good Samaritan's too) is to reject the righteous obligations that distract us from our God. Whether he's teaching about the Kingdom in the living room or lying by the side of the road rejected by those who had righteous reasons for leaving him there we can choose the better part.

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