SERMON: ‘The better part’

A sermon preached by Andrew McKearney at St Mary’s Iffley.

The story of Mary and Martha seems straightforward. The characterisation is simple and clear, the story uncomplicated. It appears to be something of a family squabble between two sisters – not an unusual scenario!

So if the ingredients of the story seem familiar, what about the message?

‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted
by many things; there is need of only one thing.
Mary has chosen the better part,
which will not be taken away from her.’

are the words with which Jesus concludes the story.

Many women identify most readily with Martha and feel put down by the way she is treated – but really the whole point of the story is not so much to put Martha down as to honour Mary and what she is doing.

So what is she doing? What is ‘the better part’ that she has chosen?

The story tells us only two things about Mary – that she sits at the Lord’s feet and that she listens to what he is saying.

‘Sitting at the Lord’s feet’ – Saint Paul in the Acts of the Apostles speaks of himself as a Jew brought up in Jerusalem ‘at the feet of Gamaliel’; when the Gerasene demoniac is healed by Jesus, the people come and see the man, and what he’s doing is ‘sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind’; today we still talk of ‘sitting at someone’s feet’. Mary’s posture is that of a disciple – she sits at the Lord’s feet.

And what does she do there? She ‘listens to what he is saying’ – just a bit earlier on in Luke’s Gospel, the transfiguration has occurred. The three disciples Peter, James and John have gone up the mountain with Jesus to pray. When there they see Jesus transfigured and hear a voice from heaven which says:
‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’
Attentive listening is the ‘better part’ that Mary has chosen – and by doing so she has opted to be a disciple.

The whole context too makes it quite clear that the focus of this story is on Mary being a disciple of Jesus. The part of Luke’s Gospel where this story can be found, and it is only Luke who tells this story, is all about what it means to be a disciple.

Jesus has set his face to go to Jerusalem at the end of chapter 9. The teaching that has then followed has been about discipleship and we’ve been following it over the last few weeks at church.

The urgency of the call:
‘No one who puts a hand to the plough and turns back
is fit for the Kingdom of God.’
The vulnerability of those sent:
‘Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals;
and greet no one on the road.’
The priority of helping and being helped: in last week’s parable of the Good Samaritan.

Now, astonishingly, a woman makes clear the heart of what it means to be a disciple – sitting at the Lord’s feet and listening to what he is saying. Mary has not accepted the stereo-typical role for a woman which was to do the household tasks. Instead she has chosen to be a disciple. The contrast in the story with Martha is not so much to put Martha down as to honour Mary.

One further point to strengthen you if, when you hear this story, you have a tendency to identify with Martha and feel put down by the way she is treated!

Mary and Martha appear together with their brother Lazarus in John’s Gospel. Bethany is their village and Jesus comes to them because his friend Lazarus has died. Martha comes out to meet Jesus while Mary stays at home. When Martha and Jesus meet they have a theological discussion in which Jesus says those momentous words:
‘I am the resurrection and the life’,
at the end of which Jesus asks Martha:
‘Do you believe this?’

And Martha says to him:
‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah,
the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’

This confession of faith ranks in significance and depth alongside Peter’s at Caesarea Philippi and Thomas’ at the resurrection; and it’s Martha who makes it.

So Luke offers us this story of Mary and Martha to show us what the heart of being a disciple is – which is to sit at the Lord’s feet and listen to him.

The revolutionary part of the story is in having a woman, Mary, be the example to us of discipleship. Martha is being invited to follow her sister, step out of her socially accepted role and become one of Jesus’ disciples too.

That is ‘the better part’ – not just for Martha but for us all!