Some Cheese To Go With That Whine?
Whine, whine, whine, whine, whine … Jesus should have asked Martha if she wanted some cheese to go with that whine. I don’t think he meant Mary made a better choice by leaving her sister to attend to the details of hospitality all by her lonesome. And seriously, I think he just had to let Martha have it. “You are two grown women, for goodness’ sake. You make your choices, hopefully for the right reasons. Then you live with it. But since you just had to whine about it, let me tell you something. Your lovely sister made a choice for exactly the right reason. You … not so much.”
I hate when people whine. Yeah, I do it, too. So I understand Jesus’ response when Martha started whining about how her sister wasn’t lifting a finger to help her with the household chores. We can picture the scene. These are the same Martha and Mary whose brother was Lazarus, the man Jesus would raise from the dead some years later. Now we can’t tell for sure, because there is no mention of it, but perhaps he was there, too. We don’t hear about him in the story, but if he was there, no one would be surprised if Lazarus did the same thing Mary did, if he sat at Jesus’ feet and listened to him teach. In their culture, it would have been perfectly acceptable for men to sit and listen at the feet of a great teacher. But Martha was convinced her place was somewhere else. And somehow, she couldn’t understand why her sister didn’t get it. She probably was frustrated that her sister didn’t respond every time she tried to catch her eye with a little eyebrow-lift, some throat-clearing, some strategic and not so subtle clattering of dishes and visibly irritated body language. (I am a veteran of sibling psychological warfare. I know the truths of which I speak.) So in a snarky aside probably spoken within earshot of said sister, Martha lamented, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? Tell her to help me.” Do we detect some passive-aggressive undercurrents, probably some on-going family drama?
Now I am sure God hears a lot of whining from us. Day in and day out, we call on God with our burdens, our failures, our inadequacies, our challenges. I’m not saying we shouldn’t. Scripture is filled with whiny psalms, wailing prophets, and stories of people moaning and groaning about their miseries. We might not call it that officially. It’s a little undignified for something we regard as God’s Holy Word. But mind you, it is not God who is doing the whining. And I do encourage us to bring to God our burdens, our failures, our inadequacies, our challenges. But at some point, we need to listen for God’s response. Maybe God is telling us something similar to what Jesus told Martha. “You are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.”
Now for many generations, it was easy to conclude that this “better part” that Mary chose was the opposite of what Martha chose. For many Christians through the ages, this Gospel passage placed before us a choice between the active life and the contemplative life, a life of active pastoral ministry and a life of contemplative prayer and study, a life surrounded by worldly concerns and a hidden life sheltered in a cloister or monastery. If Mary chose the “better part,” it seems cloistered nuns and monks who devote their lives to quiet prayer and study must have chosen the better part, too. And since the rest of us have not, our choice must be of lesser value. But that makes no sense. We still need people like Martha to attend to the mundane and boring responsibilities of running a household, or the dishes pile in the sink, and dirty clothes need washing, and bills need to get paid, and the garbage needs to be taken out. Besides, communities of contemplative life do assign a member or two to do just those tasks, so the rest can attend to prayer and study. And busy people out in the world would do well to set aside some time for quiet prayer and study as well. It makes more sense to have both, and not have to choose one to the exclusion of the other.
So I propose that Mary chose the “better part” because she did so for the right reason. She sat at Jesus’ feet to listen to him teach because she truly wanted to hear the Good News and be drawn nearer to him. Martha, on the other hand, knew she had to attend to the responsibilities of running the household. Yes, what she chose was good and essential to the success of Jesus’ visit. But it seems she did so grudgingly. And if she chose instead to sit at Jesus’ feet with her sister, and everyone went without lunch that day, she probably would not have been able to live with herself. Did it perhaps slip her mind that Jesus fed the five thousand from five loaves and two fish? Let’s be honest. Can we tell whether or not our choices are consistent with who we claim to be? Last weekend, we heard the story of the Good Samaritan. When Jesus asked the scholar of the law who was a neighbor to the man who fell victim to the robbers, he responded, “the one who showed him mercy.” So the Good Samaritan acted consistently with who he was. His actions, not his heritage, spoke truly who he was. Our actions, as well, tell us who we truly are. If we show mercy, then we are merciful. If we forgive, then we are forgiving. If we are selfish, rude, ungrateful, and whiny … you can figure that out yourselves.
The book of Genesis recounts how Abraham welcomed God and his angels who came to him in visible form one hot summer day. Would he have done differently if it wasn’t God and his angels? It seems Abraham was always hospitable, because that was who he was. We here at St. John often claim to be warm, welcoming, and faith-filled. Are we really? Are you? Am I? If not, then we have work to do.
And what about the mind-numbing drudgery and spirit-draining monotony of our everyday work and household responsibilities? Yes, attention to them is necessary for our sanity and survival, as well as those we love. But choosing the “better part” as Mary did means doing it for the right reason, because we are truly who we claim to be—loving, compassionate, faithful disciples. And every once in a while, we will still need to sit quietly at Jesus’ feet, and do it for the right reason. And that includes coming to mass on Sunday, feeding the hungry, being kind, compassionate, and patient. And if it feels like a heavy cross to bear, if it feels like suffering, we could learn from St. Paul. “I rejoice in my sufferings …, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body the church.” If we unite our suffering with the suffering of Jesus, it is not pointless. Jesus embraced his cross so that sinners would be reconciled with God. If we unite our suffering with his, we can contribute to his work of reconciliation.
If we choose to whine instead, all we are looking for is sympathy, which benefits no one. So quit with the whining already. Or can I interest you in some cheese?
Rolo B Castillo © 2016