The better part

(I must apologize for my very limited sketching skills – but yesterday’s Gospel about Martha and Mary triggered an urge to draw.)

What is the “one thing”? What is the “better part”?

I want to be that Mary and choose “the better part” – but what am I choosing?

Please, share your thoughts.


7 thoughts on “The better part

  1. Carol

    Not about the one thing specifically, but about Mary and Martha.

    I am a complete Martha. whom I equate with the Corporal Works of Mercy. I show up when I said I would, I help you with what ever you need, quietly, efficiently, calmly, pleasantly and then, unless I can tell otherwise, I leave you be.

    I wish I could be a Mary, oh, how I wish it! But the gifts I was given to share in this life make me a Martha, and I try to accept that, with peace and without bitterness.

    I have a couple of friends IRL who are complete Marys – and I love to be around them and so does everyone else. One of my Marys one day told me that she wished she were more like me. Perhaps the grass is always greener. . .

  2. albert

    I used to think it meant prayer and contemplation. Now I think it means just being present, attending to the thing or person(s) during the time given. The reason I interpret the “better part” that way has to do with the context. Jesus was there, a guest. Mary wasn’t talking (which is what we often do in prayer) or even necessarily assessing and reflecting, as far as we can tell, (like in contemplation) so much as listening and looking. We don’t get to listen to Jesus now, although it’s likely that he speaks through events and through other persons, often–but not always, I believe– through persons who seem to have a special contact with God.

    But that’s just my interpretation. I haven’t asked others about it. I’m glad that you are.

    P.S. in many translations the word “better” is not there. They use “good” instead, which may be a more accurate translation. I like it because it doesn’t put down what Martha thinks is important.

  3. mary Post author

    Thank you both for your comments…perhaps there will be more. I’ll share a couple of thoughts in the meantime.

    I sense that Jesus is reprimanding Martha a bit, though in a loving way. I don’t get the sense that the reprimand is for what she is doing, i.e. serving, but because she is fretting and complaining about the role she has been given (or has taken on). “Make my sister help me!”

    One interpretation of Jesus’ words about the “better part” could be an acknowledgement that Martha’s role was more strenuous. “Yes, I know you are working very hard, Martha, and Mary is just sitting here, but don’t fret about that. She has her part to play and you have yours.”

    Carol, when you describe yourself as a “complete Martha”, you don’t describe yourself fretting that others’ aren’t helping you. You describe yourself giving from the heart and serving in a calm and gracious manner. How beautiful this is! The ability to do this is indeed a great gift.

    When I think of myself as a “Mary person”, I am indeed wanting to sit at the feet of the Lord – to be near Him, listen, feel His presence and be present to Him. But sometimes that makes me feel rather lazy. When someone from the church is going through a serious illness or has a loss, others are showing up with food they’ve prepared. And I am praying?

    I don’t mean to minimize the value of prayer – and certainly I pray for others, not just myself – but it seems so intangible. Yet I do recognize (and give thanks) that God often makes use of me in what are traditionally called the Spiritual Works of Mercy.

    Perhaps the “one thing” that is needed is love. Sounds kind of trite, I suppose, but it is at the heart of the Law and the prophets as well as the teachings of Jesus. Martha was perhaps lapsing a bit in being loving because she was irritated with (or envious of?) her sister.

    Al – regarding contemplation, sometimes the eastern and western Church seem to use the term a bit differently. Generally, in the western Church, the term “contemplation” means precisely listening and looking – with the heart.

    Recalling the writing of our Coptic friend, Fr. Matta (I’m cross-blogging again), “voluntary contemplation” is the work we do to bring ourselves into a state of quietude and openness. True contemplation is God’s gift, however, and not something we can ever achieve of our own effort.

    Envy or fretting about what others are doing (or not doing) likely interferes with the contemplative gift – much more so that does mere physical activity. One serving in the manner that Carol describes may well receive the gift of contemplation – or not – which is the same as for the person who is sitting in silent presence.

    As I ponder this further, I think this is very true. I have had it happen that a patient will ask me for a glass of water. I may unexpectedly call to mind the passage “And whoever gives only a cup of cold water to one of these little ones to drink…” (Matthew 10:42) and suddenly it becomes a sacred act. It is though I am handing it to Christ Himself. Other times, I can attempt to pray and not feel His presence at all.

    I suspect that we all need both to some degree: quiet readiness to listen as well as acts of service. However, having different gifts, challenges and personalities, we may express these in different ways. It is good for us to both accept who we are AND to allow God to help us grow in new areas. This may be the “better way” – better than fretting or being envious of others.

    Hmm…thanks for helping me reflect on this. Any other thoughts?

  4. Carol

    The reading about Mary and Martha seems to come up at least annually, so I’ve heard many homilies about it over the years. Martha’s anxious spirit is brought up regularly, and so I do understand that it’s more her attitude and less her actions that seems to inspire Jesus’ comments.

    I certainly do feel bitter and envious of the Marys I know at times, less because I mind making dinner, or taking people places, or serving at funeral lunches and more because I envy their ability to connect with other people. To me that seems like the way better part than being willing to scrub a toilet.

  5. mary Post author

    Hi Carol,

    Often what others do or experience appears better than our own experience. (Sometimes, I’m sure it is, other times it may not be – it only appears that way to us.)

    Acts of service certainly can be a way to connect with others. But that doesn’t mean they always leave us feeling connected, i.e. feeling an intimate bond. This is what perhaps seems so appealing to me about “the better part” that Mary has chosen. We get a sense that she has an intimate bond with Jesus.

    There are, I imagine, many things that can block us from feeling connected to other people: a shy temperament, fear of being hurt or rejected, childhood issues – to name just a few. Similarly, there may be many other things that interfere with us feeling an intimate bond with Christ. I wrote of some of these in the post, The sluggish prayer life.

    I appreciate your honest awareness of what you struggle with, Carol. Our lives in this world are not easy. I will pray that God helps you along the way – and helps each of us with our unique struggles and challenges.

  6. Christina Chase

    (My two cents)
    Marthas: Making dinners, scrubbing toilets, etc. all very necessary, Needed, things. Doesn’t one of the Epistle writers say something about It is all well and good to say “peace be with you” to a person who is hungry – But that’s not going to put food in his belly, is it? On this particular day, Martha wasn’t happy with her role – don’t we all have days like that? When Jesus says that there is need of only one thing, I believe that one thing is to be attentive to God’s presence in our lives and the role that God wants us to play. Martha just wasn’t “there” that day – and of course, St. Luke had to write about it. Sheesh. 🙂

    Marys: learning, contemplating, meditating, etc. all very necessary things – though not often seen as needed in our world. Every one of us, even those who can do the physically needed things, must take the time to listen to God. As you, Mary, so beautifully put when describing giving someone a glass of water, everyday tasks ARE sacred when we perform them for Christ. On the particular day of the Scripture passage, the other Mary was filled up with Jesus’s presence – what a wonderful gift. And so good to know that Christ will not let anyone take that from us.

    As someone who cannot do any everyday physical thing (not even free my baby nephew’s arm if it became stuck behind him and made him cry) I can see how good it is to be Martha. Other people make food for me, clean for me, etc. because of my physical disability. How I love and appreciate them! Let no one ever put down the Marthas of the world – but it is good to remind those Marthas that they can choose a better way of doing the things that they do: with true love of God and others in their hearts and true gratitude for being able to do what they do.

    Carol, If your good work ever goes unnoticed, I hope that you remember that God notices and sees that you are doing it for love of other people. Helping with a simple smile means so much. That is a beautiful way to connect – and I, for one, appreciate it more than you can know.

  7. mary Post author

    Your comment brought smiles to my face 🙂
    “…and of course, St. Luke had to write about it. Sheesh”

    You make some great points here – how the world under-appreciates both roles at times and how sometimes we may not be in the mood for our roles – whether active service or contemplative prayer. Thank you for so beautifully expressing appreciation for the varying ways people can live their love for Christ.

    (Your comment is worth more than 2 cents!)

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