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Choose the better part

Mary Jo Tully
Chancellor, Archdiocese of Portland

Sunday, July 21, 2013
Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Genesis 18:1-10a
Colossians 1:24-28
Luke 10:38-42

Martha, Mary and Lazarus were close friends of Jesus. He probably stopped at Bethany many times during his life but this time was different. Our Lord was on the way to Jerusalem to die. Martha wanted to prepare a special dinner for Jesus and his friends. This was a special occasion. For Martha, this was not an evening for a simple casserole.

On his way to Jerusalem and his passion, Jesus more than likely wanted a quiet time. This was the sort of need that Mary understood. It is possible that Martha’s problem was not Mary’s attention to Jesus but Jesus’ attention to Mary. Martha was too busy to be with Jesus. Mary seemed to understand and Martha did not. The better part that Mary had chosen was a response to Jesus’ need for the meditative time.

Family dynamics at the time of Jesus seem not at all unlike those we see today. Jesus seemed particularly close to the three siblings who lived together in a little town on the way to Jerusalem. Martha, Mary and Lazarus also seem to have had a close relationship with one another. Like many siblings they were quite different from one another. We see one of those differences in the Gospel for today. Martha appears to be the mistress of the house and immediately began to provide hospitality for Jesus. She was the one who welcomed him to their home and prepared food for the guests; Mary sat and listened to Jesus.

In itself, Mary’s action was remarkable. She sat at the feet of Jesus and listened as he taught. She behaved like a disciple and Jesus allowed her to do that. At the time, women were not permitted to study the Scriptures with a rabbi. In light of the social custom, Jesus’ proclamation that she had chosen the better part is particularly significant. It was not the reaction that Martha expected or wanted.

The two sisters had different personalities. Martha organized and ran a fairly large household. Mary was a thinker, interested in ideas and probably dependent on her sister. Still, they were sisters and Martha was reluctant to confront Mary. So, she went to Jesus hoping that he would do it. We call that “triangulation”—a common ploy among siblings. Jesus would have none of it. He simply said that Mary had made the better choice. He ignored the traditional role of women, and encouraged Mary to continue to learn and not be limited to the tasks that society said should be hers. She knew that Jesus was a special guest and an opportunity to listen to him did not come every day.

The lesson of this Scripture is not about whether it is better to prepare dinner or chat with a guest. It is a proclamation that one thing is more important than all else to the follower of Jesus —listening to the word of God.

Related Links:
• Liturgical readings

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