Mary and Martha are wonderful proof of the honest reality of the gospels. The snapshot picture we see of them here is just so true to life! Today I want to look with you in some detail at this quite exquisite cameo piece and use Paul's theology from Colossians to help identify what this intriguing "better part" is, that Jesus recommends.
This little story is a window into an ordinary family. It has images of everyday tensions and real humans. Even as they have an important visitor and all should be on their best behavior, the family roles still shine through; It's not like we have Martha in curlers and pink fluffy slippers for dramatic contrast, we find Martha in the kitchen doing what she knows has to be done and Mary sitting there, at Jesus feet, taking it all in. We hear Martha getting frustrated and looking for some support from Jesus, who is plainly her friend too. Those "I always" and "but you never" accusations are just lurking between the lines.
It's a common enough story, the story of family roles and sharing of labor, but why is it here in the Bible? The answer has often been given that the story is meant to teach us to be more like Mary and sit at Jesus feet; to learn, to meditate and to pray, but this is too shallow an answer and is in fact contradicted by the story before it, of the Good Samaritan, the answer lies in looking deeper.
When Jesus says to the stressed and over dutiful Martha that only one thing is necessary, he is talking about himself and the big picture of what is really important.
Jesus, says Paul, with a truly inspired burst of theological eloquence, "he is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; through him all things were created - through him and for him."
Martha had all the right intentions didn't she; she invites Jesus in to share the hospitality of their home, she is being a good neighbor, helping and providing for a traveler.
Remember in the story of the Good Samaritan which comes just before this, it's the foreigner that all Jews hated who does the Godly thing, spending his time effort and money to help a man in need. "Go and do likewise" is Jesus conclusion. Maybe Martha had heard the story and was putting it into practice.
See, Martha hears and does and she goes off to prepare the meal for the hungry travelers. Now of course there were no freezers or microwaves to whip dinner up in three beeps and a quick stir. It was hard work and Martha begins to feel that her sister, lounging at Jesus feet, is not pulling her weight. "Hey" says Martha, "Jesus, how about telling that lazy sister of mine to get her act into gear and help out?" "No, Martha," says Jesus, "here, settle down for a bit and lets talk. Doing is good Martha, there's nothing wrong with that. But there is a lot to be said for sitting and listening too." Both women were active and concerned with feeding, in truth - Martha in doing her duties, to feed the body, Mary in choosing to listen, to feed the soul - and listening can be hard work - for Jesus had just begun his journey to Jerusalem, the road to the cross. I can imagine Jesus talking to them about not living by bread alone and the fact that he didn't have much longer to live, so his time for teaching and talking was limited and there was some serious feeding to be done.
"He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together, he is the head of the body,... in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell."
What an opportunity, to sit at the feet of the one in whom "all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell."
Martha, of course was trying her best, she wanted to do the right thing and to serve, but in truth it is Jesus who serves us. He feeds with the bread that won't perish and the living water that we will never thirst again from. The one thing that is necessary ...is Jesus himself.
As Paul says, "the mystery that has been hidden throughout the ages and generations... has now been revealed." All that had been hoped for, longed for, generation after generation; for the messiah, for the one who was to come, making plain God's truth and bring new hope - had now come! He had taught and healed, lived and died for all people, the mystery of the "better part" had become flesh and dwelt among us.
Martha thought she was doing the right thing, but Martha discovered that to invite Jesus in was to invite more than she had perhaps bargained for. Inviting Jesus into your life and mine is not just about fixing up a good meal for the preacher who is soon to be on his way, not just about what is hopefully an inspiring hour on Sunday our about giving our society a good moral base - it's about taking God, the author of life, into our lives. It's about engaging with this mystery of the "better part" of life, elsewhere it's called "life abundant" and "eternal life." And fundamentally there is this choice presented to us; a choice between a Martha - like self directed busy-ness, or a Mary - like engagement with this one "in whom all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell."
Open your door to God, but remember that this is a real God; not a make believe image of ourselves who we can use to justify what we wanted to do ourselves anyway - this God is not a tame deity that we can just have over for tea, scones and a chat or to make us feel good in a mega sized rally - when we break bread with the living God, we don't know how we will be surprised.
To our modem eyes it may seem that nothing remarkable happened in this story, but in truth, the whole event was revolutionary in Jesus day.
Women did not invite men in the first place, unless it was a red light district. And no teacher or Rabbi taught women in those days. Yet Jesus came in and allowed a woman to sit at his feet - (the early readers were aghast!) - and he invites another woman out of her traditional role of preparing the food to come and sit at his feet in the role of disciple where only men had sat. And it has taken our wonderfully advanced western world nearly 2000 years to start to catch up with Jesus breaking of gender barriers.
Can you see that Christianity is less about keeping the old traditions than it is about being open to God changing the way we see ourselves and our world? It is about a devotion engagement with Jesus, the mystery of God revealed, about seeking the better part, knowing that Jesus can still be invited into our lives, invited in, not to do what we want, but to open our eyes, to change us, to challenge our habits, give us a new menu and food to really satisfy us and to free us so that we can be free indeed.