9 PENTECOST, PROPER XI - C- 16 LUKE 10. 38-42
Again St. Luke presents us with a well-known story. Jesus has been invited to dinner at the home of Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha in Bethany, a small village not far from Jerusalem.
Because we know the story so well there is no real need to go into every little detail. Rather, let’s take a look at it from the standpoint of two questions. First, who is “serving” the Lord here? Is it Martha? Or is it Mary? Or both? Next, Jesus says Mary has chosen the “better portion.” What does he mean?
Hospitality in the Middle East before and during the time of Jesus meant everything. Just look at today’s first lesson. Abraham receives three unexpected guests (The Holy Trinity) and goes out of his way to provide hospitality. He focuses his undivided attention on the visitors in order to meet their every need. Abraham, we might say, is present to them and his attentiveness is rewarded with the promise of a son.
It would seem from today’s gospel story that Martha is going all out to provide hospitality to Jesus. A simple meal consisting of a single dish would have been sufficient for the time. But it would appear that she is doing much more than what is socially required and or expected.
Her attention is focused on her “serving” Jesus’ physical needs, so much so, that she is distracted and becomes upset with her younger sister who is just sitting there listening to Jesus. “Can’t you tell Mary to help me?” She asks Jesus. To which Christ responds, “Martha, Martha, you are doing too much. One dish is plenty. Mary has chosen the better portion.” I love Jesus’ use of the word “portion” in this case. A portion is in itself a “serving.”
Martha is “serving” in her own way. Mary is “serving” Jesus in her own way and in doing so brings nourishment to Christ’s spirit. She has given him her undivided attention, making herself present to Him in a most real way much in the same manner as Abraham did with his three visitors in today’s first lesson.
Wouldn’t we all like to know what Jesus was telling Mary? Was He speaking of the kingdom of His Father, or simply telling her about the Father. Luke doesn’t say. Whatever it was Mary was captivated by it to the frustration of her sister Martha.
Martha thought she was doing what was needed by providing hospitality. She thought she was meeting Jesus’ needs in every way that was expected and then some. While Mary, at least in the eyes of Martha, was doing nothing. But in reality Martha was distracted with Mary and allowed her distraction to take her away from what was really important, making herself present to Jesus as Mary did.
How true is all of that today in terms of human relationships. By that, I mean how often we encounter another human being but never really make ourselves present to them. Oh we speak and sometimes engage in conversation, but are never really present. Blame it on distractions or the fact that we are simply too busy to give ourselves to another person. And then again most of us have been on the receiving end.
When I was a full-time rector of a large parish social events were frequent. There were baptismal parties, engagement parties, and wedding receptions to name a few. And because I was the rector I was most often invited to such events.
It was a common occurrence, at least for me, to have someone walk up and greet me, and I in turn attempt to strike up a conversation, only to realize that they were not really present to me. Their eyes were looking past me, checking out the room to see who else was there that they had rather speak to, and when they sighted that person would politely make their exit with a smile.
No interpersonal bond took place. Just a subtle nicety. Although you made yourself present to that person, they did not reciprocate. Presence was given but not received. Distraction took the other person away, leaving you standing there somewhat disappointed.
To answer our first question “who is serving Jesus?” The answer is of course Mary. Mary is “serving” Jesus by giving him her “real” presence in a way that exceeds Martha’s hospitality. Mary’s undivided attention has nourished Christ’ humanness in a way that physical food could never do. And, not to be overlooked is Jesus’ “serving” Mary as the “servant of God.”
Brother Lawrence, a 14th century monk, wrote a spiritual classic entitled “Practicing The Presence of God.” His little book is all about our learning to make ourselves present to God whatever the surroundings or humble the situation might be. We must learn to acknowledge that God is always present to us at all times and in all places and learn to be present to Him.
It is easier to do, for most of us, when we enter this sacred space and tougher out there in the market place of life where it is difficult to find Him with so many distractions. This is where we come to think about God, listen to His word and receive the Holy Sacrament. This, above all places should be where we give God our undivided attention. There is reason most churches are referred to as sanctuaries. Here we can escape from the world outside and “practice the presence of God.”
Church custom has always been to enter in silence, and acknowledge the altar before entering the pew and kneeling to say our prayers prior to the beginning of the service. Have we become so lax in our worship that we have forgotten where we are? In whose presence we come? The Real Presence of Jesus is here. The Sanctuary Lamb reminds us.
Are we so much like Martha that we allow ourselves to be distracted upon entering this Holy Space by bringing the outside world’s distractions with us? To do so is to fall into poor spiritual habits that carry over into worship and in our human relationships. This is a Holy place consecrated to the worship and glory of God.
It is, and should be unlike any other place we enter during the week. There should be sights, sounds, and on occasion even smells that are not encountered anywhere else. Our behavior, then, while in this Holy space, likewise should be different; our posture different; our responses different and our attention undivided as we make our presence “real” to God, by being attentive to the hearing of God’s Holy Word and humbled in receiving the Blessed Sacrament of the Body and Blood of His only Son, Jesus.
It is in learning to make ourselves truly present to God, first in worship, then, no matter the surroundings or the circumstances, that we in turn are able to make ourselves present to one another. Making ourselves present to God and neighbor is a means by which we “serve” both.
Our relationship to God is in a person, Jesus Christ, and through Him to God the Father. It is a community Jesus came to build, one relationship at a time; a community based on Love. To know Him as He knows us is to Love Him as He Loves us.
Mary had the better “portion” because she had come to know Him. In the giving of her “real” presence to Christ an interpersonal and everlasting bond was established; one based on Love. That relationship, that bond, and the Love that comes with it is “the better portion.”
And the promise of Jesus to Mary, and to all who give themselves to Him, is that “portion” will never be taken away. AMEN+