The better part...
Yesterday I made meatballs for my family. (Their request.) It is a recipe I learned from my mom (and Betty Crocker) but don't make very often because it takes more prep time than I sometimes have. But last night was an exception, so I mixed up the ingredients and set about browning them on the stove. As I worked, my thoughts moved in various directions, finally settling on Martha of Bethany. If you've read the gospels, you know that Mary, Martha, and Lazarus were among Jesus' closest friends, and that he and his disciples often spent time in their home. Martha (probably a lot like my grandma) loved to cook and prepare things "just so." Mary enjoyed helping, but she found more joy in spending time with her guests, especially when she could listen to Jesus teach. Martha liked to hear Jesus teach too, but someone had to prepare the food!
On one particular visit, Martha was at her practical best, tired and sweaty from standing in the kitchen, chopping, peeling, slicing, measuring to prepare a fine meal - all for the pleasure of our guests. Mary was listening to Jesus teach, and Martha grew exasperated with her for not helping. In a burst of impatience, she finally complained to Jesus to make Mary help her. Jesus wouldn't expect Martha to do all the work on her own, would he? Yet rather than do as she asked him to do, Jesus gently rebuked Martha for being "worried and troubled about many things." Mary had chosen the "better part" and it would not be taken from her.
I don't think Jesus rebuked Martha for her gift of hospitality or for her love of serving. He didn't correct her desire to prepare a fine meal or care about the needs of her guests. He didn't even say that she was wrong to ask for help. What he said was that she was "worried and troubled about many things." And as I pondered this, I wondered if the issue for Martha was one of control.
Was she worried and troubled about how her meal would turn out? Was she angry with Mary for leaving her all the work because without Mary's help they might not eat when Martha wanted them to eat? Had she started preparation before she needed to because she wanted to do something more elaborate than was needed, neglecting time with her guests? Did she bury herself in work to avoid relationships?
I don't think Jesus was condemning Martha's desire to serve because he clearly taught his disciples to serve one another. And I don't think Jesus was suggesting that a meal not be prepared, though in truth, he could have turned stones into bread if the need had arisen (or multiplied the loaves and fishes if it had been to God's glory.) Clearly, when he fed the 5000, it was his idea to do so, telling us that he understood the need for food.
What he was correcting in Martha was her attitude about these things. Whether Martha was controlling or neglecting relationships or simply distracted, we don't know for sure. But she was worried and troubled about many things and allowing these things to come between her and the Lord.
Whereas Mary had chosen the better part...not that she was neglecting Martha, but that she was putting Jesus first, above the other things that she knew would get done, and probably fully intended to help with, when it was truly needed. Perhaps supper would have been late, but they would not have gone hungry. And Mary had learned that some things are more important than food. Listening to her Lord, outranked Martha's requests.
Interestingly, months later when Mary anointed Jesus with oil in a pre-burial offering, it became evident that she was one of the few who had actually been paying attention when Jesus said he was going to die. (John 12:1-7) (His disciples were clueless, thinking that Jesus was about to set up his kingdom.) Mary had chosen the better part of cultivating a relationship with Jesus that is recorded for all time in Scripture.
May we do the same.