Choosing the better part

Jul 17th, 2006 | By | Category: Personal Columns

Every July I promise myself that, when the parish is quiet, I will have time for thought and reflection – of course, it never happens! Perhaps it’s just my upbringing.

Growing up in a small rural community in the west of England, there wasn’t much regard for book learning, nor were university graduates accorded much respect. The main concern always was the constant work necessary to try to make a living form the small farms. People were always very wary of anyone they regarded as having learned more than was necessary.

My mother would regularly warn me about a man who had gone to university but had none of what she described as ‘common sense’. In fact, this man was so far removed from knowing the things that were considered important that, when he got a puncture in his bicycle tyre, he didn’t know how to fix it. When I went off to London to university at the age of 18, it was expected that I would return not knowing how to do the most basic things. For the people in our village, there were doers and thinkers and you couldn’t be both.

They were not people who went to church, but if they had and they had heard the story of Mary and Martha, there is no doubt they would have taken Martha’s part. Martha was a doer, a worker, someone who achieved things. They would not have understood why Jesus says that Mary has taken the better part. Mary would not have got the hay cut; she would not have fed the cattle; she would not have saved the crop in the wet summers we had year upon year.

Jesus does not suggest that doing things is not important – what he’s concerned with is that Martha seems only concerned with doing things. There are always more household chores that could be done if you look for them. Martha seems as though she has decided to do her entire spring clean just as Jesus has arrived.

Saint Luke tells us that she was distracted by her many tasks. Now either she is doing things she does not be to be doing at that moment, or she is letting the things she has to do get blown out of their right proportions. This is a modest household in First Century Palestine, Martha could not have had so much to do that there was not five minutes to sit down and be quiet.

If you had asked the farmers at home whether they had to work for every waking moment, they would have had to admit that there were moments in most days when even they sat down and thought. My grandfather always lingered at the table after the end of meal, after everyone else had gone, drinking his tea in silence and thinking about who knew what?

The question is one of priorities. Jesus’ challenge to Mary and Martha is whether the things of God are a priority over all the other daily concerns. Mary believes they are, Martha has not stopped to think about it.

Maybe next July there will be time to think.

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