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The Better Part

Happy New Year! As we make our way into 2023, I want to reflect on a New Testament story that speaks into our lives in church. In Luke 10:38-42, Jesus pays a visit to friends in the town of Bethany. Two sisters busy themselves in the presence of Jesus. Martha busies herself with the activity of hospitality, filling drinks and clearing tables. Mary sits attentively at the feet of her guest, Jesus, listening and growing in his teaching. Martha protests to Jesus that Mary has left all the work for Martha to do, and Jesus corrects her with the famous response: “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.

The question is not to ask whether this passage advises us as to whether it is better to listen than to serve, to be contemplative or to be active but rather the question is: in the larger kingdom scheme of things, what do we learn about life under the reign of God from this passage?

This much is clear: service is important.  Jesus deserved to be served and have a meal served for him. He spent a lot of time at the tables of all sorts, even those that culture or the religious establishment rejected, and didn’t push away too early.  In fact, earlier in this very chapter Jesus told his followers to eat whatever was set before them, be it lavish or simple. I suspect that for Jesus, even the humblest meal of bread and wine can be enough.  Presumably on this evening, Jesus follows his own advice: he gratefully ate what Martha set down on the table before him.  She worked hard to bring it to him.

Service is lovely, in fact, and is in its own way a needful thing. Jesus says nothing here to undercut the idea that hospitality and service are noble endeavors and the right thing for disciples to do. But it is possible to sell out to busy-ness and set aside hearing and pondering the Word of God. When we do this, we’ve lost our way.  It is so easy to substitute our actions for cultivating the deeper relationship to God in Jesus.  We can become so consumed with the “what” we’re doing and lose the sense of the “why.” And it seems that the “why” makes all the difference.

Consider how they meet up in the powerful story of Grace Thomas. Grace was born in the early 1900s as the second of five children. Her father was a streetcar conductor in Birmingham, Alabama, and so Grace grew up in modest circumstances. Later in life, she married and moved to Georgia. There, Grace took a clerking job in Atlanta, where she developed a fondness for politics and the law. Already a full-time mother and a full-time clerk, Grace then enrolled in night school to study law.

In 1954, Grace shocked her family by announcing that she wanted to run for public office. In fact, she ran for governor of the state of Georgia. There was a total of nine candidates that year—and one issue: Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka Kansas, the landmark decision that pointed to the desegregation of public schools. Grace Thomas was alone among the candidates to say she thought this was a just decision. Her campaign slogan was “Say Grace at the Polls!”  Hardly anyone did. She ran in last place.

Grace decided to run for governor again in 1962. By then, the tensions were even higher than they had been eight years earlier. Grace’s platform on questions of race and society earned her a number of death threats. One day she held a rally in a small Georgia town and chose as her venue the old slave market in the town square. As she stood there, Grace motioned to the platform where human beings had once been bought and sold like a product and she said, “The old has passed away, the new has come. A new day has come when all Georgians, white and black, can join hands and work together.” At that point a red-faced man in the crowd interrupted Grace’s speech to blurt out, “Are you a communist!?” “Why, no,” Grace replied quietly. “Well then, where’d you get all those ideas!?” Grace pointed to the steeple of a nearby Baptist church. “I learned them over there, in Sunday school.” Grace had spent time listening intently to her Lord. What she heard changed her life and launched her on a very specific, very active, mission in life.

Ultimately, I don’t think Jesus is calling us to choose between contemplation or service—between what works in our hearts and the work of our hands.  As Fred Craddock noted, if we asked Jesus which example, Mary’s or Martha’s, we are to follow in life, Jesus would probably say “Yes.” Life with Jesus is about learning to listen and learning to respond. May we welcome his yes to us with a yes of our own.  That is, in my mind, the better part.

Grace & Peace,

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