July 21, 2019: Good vs. Better
July 21, 2019 Rev. Rhonda Blevins, DMIN
Good vs. Better
Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “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.”
That little conversation between Jesus and Martha must have been pretty uncomfortable.
I certainly would not want to be Martha in that moment. But let’s give ole’ Martha the benefit of the doubt for a moment. This story has given Martha a bad rap across the centuries, but think about it. This story takes place before the advent of cell phones and text messages—it appears Jesus gives no advance warning to Martha that he and his friends will be stopping by for dinner. But when they arrive, Martha gets to work. No lean cuisine tonight. Jesus is here! It’s filet mignon tonight, baby!
So Martha gets busy making the preparations—playing the good hostess—trying to make sure that everyone is comfortable and well fed.
Some people are naturally gifted at hospitality, right? I’d like to think I’m one of those people, but to be perfectly honest, few things stress me out more than hosting a party.
A few years ago, I decided I’d throw a big graduation party for my husband. He had gone back to school at the age of 40, and he graduated Magna Cum Laude while raising our young son and working part-time. His graduation was an important occasion—it was kind of a big deal—so I really wanted to celebrate that. I wanted to celebrate him. I wanted him to feel special and loved at the end of his long, tenacious journey.
So together we decided we’d have about 30 good friends over and have a dessert party with live music. Simple enough, right? Not so much. The closer the party date came the more stressed out I became. And the more stressed out I got, the more irritated I became with my husband. And the more irritated I became with my husband, the snippier my words—the quicker my accusations. It’s a wonder our marriage survived the party I threw him to show how much I loved him! We made it through the party and our friends seemed to have a good time—and we learned a valuable lesson. Some people are gifted at hospitality. I’m not one of them.
Back to our friend, Martha. She found herself hosting a party she hadn’t planned. And the more stressed out Martha got, the more irritated she became with her sister. And the more irritated she became with her sister, the snippier her words—the quicker her accusations . . . until finally she’d had enough:
“Jesus, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? I’m just sayin.”
So that’s Martha’s two cents. But let’s stop here and see if we can get into the mind of Martha’s sister, Mary. What in the world would prompt Mary to sit with the men and listen to Jesus when every cultural instinct would have her in the kitchen with Martha? Was she lazy? Inconsiderate? Was she so enamored with Jesus that duty and responsibility flew out the window the moment he walked in? Or perhaps, as the likely little sister of Martha, maybe she just couldn’t do anything right in Martha’s eyes—so her response was to not do anything at all. We don’t know, and Mary never speaks in this passage.
The only other person who speaks in this passage is Jesus. Now, Jesus is on the hot seat just as much as Mary. “Lord, do you not care?” Martha stands accusing. Apparently in Martha’s eyes, Jesus was a co-conspirator in the crime being committed right there in her living room. And to the accusation he offers a rebuttal: “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.”
The better part? What did he mean by “the better part?”
· What Martha was doing, in and of itself, was GOOD.
· What Mary was doing, in that moment, was BETTER.
And there’s the rub. Most of us spend our lives doing good things. We lead good lives. We make good choices.
But sometimes, these good things—these good choices consume us. We become worried and distracted. We become preoccupied. We get locked into our good thinking and we become ideologues. And before we know it, all of the good stuff in our lives drowns out the better that lies just beyond.
The bestselling 2001 leadership book by Jim Collins entitled Good to Great begins with these words: “Good is the enemy of great.” The author explains: “Good is the enemy of great. And that is one of the key reasons why we have so little that becomes great. We don’t have great schools, principally because we have good schools. We don’t have great government, principally because we have good government. Few people attain great lives, in large part because it is just so easy to settle for a good life.”
What Martha did that day in Bethany was good—but there was a greater choice.
Before we go any further, let’s pause and think about what this story doesn’t say. It doesn’t say that sitting down and listening is ALWAYS the better way. But in that moment, it was. For those of us Type A personalities often take this passage the wrong way—we sometimes take it to mean that the active, get-er-done personality is less preferable than the still, contemplative life. I don’t necessarily think that’s what Jesus is saying in this passage.
I believe this passage calls out the detrimental nature of worry and preoccupation with things that have little eternal value. So what if the dinner isn’t “just so?” Who cares if the cheesecake is homemade or straight from the frozen section at Sam’s? I can tell you one thing—Jesus certainly doesn’t care. To Jesus, relationship trumps perfection every time.
Mary chose relationship. Mary chose the better part.
Why do we settle for a “good” life when a better life may be just around the bend? Our choices from day-to-day typically aren’t between good and bad. Our choices aren’t usually between right and wrong. For the most part, our choices are between good and better. And have you ever thought about how many choices you make every day? Some estimates suggest the average adult makes 35,000 choices every single day. Some choices are so ingrained and habitual we don’t even recognize them as choices anymore. Shall I brush my teeth this morning or not? Will I drink coffee this morning or tea? Should I be nice or mean today? Today will I watch Fox News or MSNBC?
35,000 choices each day. Most of us don’t spend a lot of time reflecting on the choices we make on a daily basis. But this harsh teaching from Jesus to Martha is all about choices. Choosing what is good versus choosing what is better. What good choice in your life is waiting to become a better choice?
How do we get to the better life that awaits us all? The pathways are innumerable, but I want to highlight one pathway this morning. A few years ago I led a study at the church I was serving called “40 Days of Thanks.” It was my doctoral project—a simple project, really. The invitation was for participants in the study to write down three things they felt thankful for each day over a 40-day period. I tested participants for levels of well-being at the beginning and at the end of the project. I was so thrilled to have nearly 200 people participate.
And you know what I discovered from this research? Like others who have performed similar studies in the past, I found that a significant majority of participants increased in their sense of well-being across the 40-day span—simply from writing down three thankful thoughts per day. Positive emotions increased; negative emotions decreased. Life satisfaction grew. By choosing to perform this simple task—writing down three thankful thoughts per day—they made their good lives even better.
This illustrates an important point: it doesn’t take drastic changes in our lives to move along the continuum from good to better.
I wonder—what choice—what routine needs your serious reflection? Maybe it’s how you spend your mornings or your bedtime routine. Maybe it’s how you shop—most of us could be a little more environmentally conscious. Maybe it’s a diet or exercise routine that needs some consideration. Maybe it’s what we do in our downtime—are we watching too much cable news or scrolling too much social media?
The challenge this week: take stock of your routines. Are there small changes you can make so that Jesus can say of you, “He chose the better part/She chose the better part?”
Choices. They’re not just for kids or young adults. We make thousands of choices each and every day. Each thought, each movement, each word—they’re all choices.
Mary chose the better part. Will you?