Proper 11 (July 17-23)
Texts: Luke 10:38-42;
Gen 18:1-10; Col 1:15-28
THE ‘BETTER PART’
I’m pretty sure that today’s Gospel is one of those stories which isn’t meant to stand alone, as it does in our reading of it this morning. It is definitely made to go with the story before it that we read last week, the familiar Parable of the Good Samaritan. Otherwise, it could be abused by people like me. For you see I’m one of those people who’s like Mary to the extent that I absolutely love to do what Mary was doing, to sit and absorb the Word of God. I love that! I could do it all day! And, of course, the Marthas in my life would be right in reproaching me if that’s all I did. Nothing would get done.
And, even more important than nothing getting done, the Parable of the Good Samaritan teaches us that God’s Word doesn’t issue forth for someone to simply sit there all day and everyday doing nothing but absorbing it. No, the Word of God is made to bear fruit, to issue in good deeds of serving one’s neighbor. God’s Word is made to have us get up and leap for joy for the merciful love shown to us, so that we want to go out and share that love with others, especially with our neighbor in need. Just like the Good Samaritan. That’s why we need both these stories this morning.
We especially need the first part of last week’s lesson, so let me read it for us again real quick. Jesus is speaking to a large crowd and we read:
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
He got it right, the lawyer got the right answer! What did he get right? His answer is what we now call the Great Commandment. Actually, it is two commandments, or at least one Great Commandment with two parts. The first part is to love God with all of our being, heart, soul, mind, and strength. The second part is to love our neighbor as ourselves. Love God and love neighbor. Love. That’s the Great Commandment.
Now, do you see why we need both stories today? Because the Great Commandment has two parts. In last week’s story the lawyer skips right to second part, love your neighbor. “Who is my neighbor?” he asks. And Jesus tells him, through the Parable of the Good Samaritan, not only who is neighbor is, but also how to act as a neighbor, that is, by showing mercy. Go and do it, says Jesus.
In this week’s story, though, it is made clear to us that the Great Commandment has two parts. It’s not enough just to act with mercy to the neighbor, we must also love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. In today’s story, Mary is the example of the one acting in accordance with the Great Commandment. She is learning to love God by sitting at the feet of Jesus, the Word of God Incarnate, in the flesh.
So does this mean that we simply need to balance the two stories? We have to be both the Good Samaritan and Mary? We have to both love the neighbor as the Good Samaritan and love God like Mary? Is that right? Not quite. Or, at least, I don’t think so. We have to go a bit deeper. First of all, there is the moment in today’s reading when Jesus praises Mary’s as the “better part,” he says. The first part of the Great Commandment, to love God, is the better part, the first priority. Why? I would suggest this: because we can’t quite get the second part about loving our neighbor as we should, if we don’t first get the part about loving God.
But in order to see how this is true, we need to go even deeper into these two stories. We can see how loving God first is necessary, by seeing how the other two main characters in this story got things wrong. We need to see how the lawyer and Martha were loving their neighbor first, and God second. This is the absolutely crucial thing we need to see about the lawyer and about Martha: their behavior shows them to be loving their neighbors first. Let me warn you first. I’m not talking here about the lawyer and Martha loving their neighbor in terms of warm fuzzy positive feelings. No, I’m talking about Martha and lawyer loving their neighbor before God in the sense that they let other people, they let their neighbors, dictate their behavior more than God. When Martha and the lawyer act, they are letting other people influence them more than God. That’s how they are loving their neighbor first.
Here’s what I mean: Martha is hosting Jesus, whom she knows to at least be a great prophet, but who is her attention focused on, Jesus? No! Her attention is focused on her sister! She is caught up in a rivalry with her sister, a need to have her sister doing the same thing she does. Martha is correctly being a good host and serving. We must be clear that this is not a bad thing to do. But she is “distracted” from her serving because she is focused on what her sister is or isn’t doing. I call this “loving her neighbor first,” even though she obviously doesn’t have warm feelings for her sister at the moment. But Martha is giving the priority of her attention to her sister, even if it is negative attention. Do you see how her sister is coming first? If her attention was truly focused first on God and Jesus, she wouldn’t care what her sister was doing. But the moment she let’s what her sister is or isn’t doing get to her, then she is putting her sister first. And in that sense she is loving her neighbor before God. When we love God first and foremost, with all or heart, soul, mind, and strength, then we don’t do what Martha did. We don’t become distracted in our serving. We simply serve.
The same is true of the lawyer. He answers Jesus’ questions correctly, but Luke also shows us his motives. Luke tells us straight out that the lawyer was “seeking to justify himself.” That’s exactly what Martha was trying to do by contrasting herself with Mary. It’s the same with the lawyer: he steps out of the crowd and gets all the answers right, but he was doing so to look good in front of the others. Do you see? He was seeking to justify himself. He was putting what others thought of him before his love of God. He was loving his neighbor in this way, before loving God. If we truly love God first, then we no longer care so much about what others think. We simply serve. But justifying ourselves, looking good before others, is the game we all play.
Now, you might respond, “There you go again, Pastor, lumping us all in, and saying that we all do the same thing, play the same games. Jesus didn’t say that.” And I say, “Yes, he did. But we need to see one other aspect to these two stories that we have to work even harder to see because we are two thousand years and a entirely different culture removed from Jesus’ original audience.” We need to emphasize that, for the crowd of Jesus’ other disciples and followers there that day, they would have much more readily related to the lawyer and to Martha, the two characters who got it wrong. A lawyer was one of the upstanding citizens of Jesus’ society, someone to look up to. And this lawyer has a lot on the ball. Every time Jesus asks him a question, his answers are right on target. We can even take this further into the parable itself: the priest and the Levite who first came upon the half-dead man in the road are also pillars of Jesus’ society. They are folks normally looked up to. I think that Jesus chooses a Samaritan as the good guy precisely because he’s the one least likely for a crowd of Jewish people to relate to.
It’s perhaps a bit harder to see with Martha, but I think a similar thing is going on. Martha is the more likely person for the average person in the crowd to relate to. We can understand this better if we know what a premium was placed on good hospitality in Jesus’ day. The role of the host was extremely important, and everyone there that day could clearly see which sister was doing her job. Martha was, not Mary. So the crowd is also ready to relate to Martha much more readily.
When it comes down to it, in fact, taking the two stories together, we also have the two parts of the Great Commandment represented in the two characters who got it wrong, the lawyer and Martha. The lawyer, on the face of it, was like Mary in the second story. He spent a great deal of his time absorbing the Word of God, as shown by all his correct answers. And Martha, well, she was serving like the Good Samaritan, wasn’t she? She was loving her neighbor by being a gracious host. In the first story, the lawyer is an example of loving God and the Samaritan an example of loving neighbor, but Jesus picks the Samaritan. And in the second story, Martha is an example of loving neighbor, while Mary is an example of loving God, but Jesus seemingly prefers Mary. In both cases, Jesus has picked the one that the crowd would have been least likely to relate to, a Samaritan, one of their enemies as Jews, and Mary the very ungracious host, a definite “no, no” in Jesus’ time. What’s going on here?
This: Jesus picks out the least likely characters as the good examples so that he might help us to see ourselves in the lawyer and Martha. We can be like the Good Samaritan and Mary, but only when we first see the games we play like the Lawyer and Martha. We put our neighbors first by seeking their approval, by trying to justify ourselves ahead them. We have to admit this to ourselves. It works pretty much the same here at church, doesn’t it?
But the better part of Mary is to begin each and every day at the foot of our Lord, the one who went to the cross for us, the one who came to serve us first, so that we might learn to serve freely as he did, with God’s grace and mercy first in our hearts. We come here today, not to host a meal for others. This is not the “Disciples of Emmaus’ Supper.” This is the Lord’s Supper, and we need to be clear that he is present here in the breaking of bread and the sharing of the cup to host us, to serve us, to remind us once again that he gave his body and poured out his blood for us. We serve because he first served us. We love because he first loved us. We show mercy to our neighbors in need because he first showed mercy to us in forgiving us all those games we play in justifying ourselves. No, what we do right now in letting our Lord serve us at table is the better part. It’s the essential part. It’s the part that forgives us and breaks us of our bad habits, so that we can truly say when we leave, “Go in peace, serve the Lord.” We can go and serve others because our Lord has served us. Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Emmaus Lutheran,
Racine, WI, July 18-19, 1998