MARY HAS CHOSEN THE BETTER WAY
Luke 10: 38 – 42
Mary and Martha owed Jesus a great deal. He saved their brother Lazarus from death. Not only did they owe Jesus their brother”s life, but also they owed him their dignity. According to John”s Gospel, Mary was reportedly a person of ill repute. The Bible does not give the details of her problem. But it is clear that she was not accceptable in a circle of so-called decent people.
John tells us that Mary came uninvited into a large dinner party one day. She was crying. She went straight to the honoured guest – Jesus. She broke a jar of very expensive perfumed ointment and poured it onto Jesus” feet, and wiped them with her hair. People were so shocked that nobody moved to stop her. The disciples were outraged. "How dare she? This is no place for a base woman. Besides what stupidity! Wasting so much money in such an emotional and meaningless act. We could have spent that kind of money in a much better way." But Jesus praised Mary”s action and restored her dignity in the eyes of the public.
Mary must have had a knack of doing things in the wrong way. She did irrational things. She irritated people. Today”s Gospel gives another example. When an important guest comes to your house, there are a thousand things to do. Where was Mary in the midst of all this busy-ness around Jesus” visit? Sitting by the guest without helping Martha in the kitchen. So obviously for Martha, Mary did the wrong thing. "Sitting and talking, monopolizing the guest”s attention, when there are thousand things to do! How dare she?" Mary always did the wrong thing.
However, there is an evocative word used to describe Martha”s behaviour that hints that something was amiss. "Martha was distracted by her many tasks." Distracted by chores? Is cleaning the house distraction? Is setting the table distraction? The word used here means not only distraction, but also anxiety or a troubling thing. There are so many things to be done for the guest. And there is so little time. Chores no longer were a joyful labour of love, but a source of anxiety.
At any rate, Jesus” response was a surprise. "Mary chose the better way." Poor Martha! I don”t think, however, that Jesus put down Martha by saying that. I am sure Jesus meant, "I am grateful for what you are doing. But some things can wait. Come, sit down. I want you to hear what I have to say." I think that he was simply pointing out to Martha that there are different ways to look after a guest. On this occasion Mary chose the better one – listening. If you look at your life in perspective, there are tasks that can wait for the sake of one timely thing which is more appropariate at that moment. There is no point being anxious about other things. You can attend to them later.
I think it is especially significant that Mary took the time to listen. Listening is a form of ministry often overlooked in the church. When you sit in the pews and listen to the message of the Bible on Sunday, you call it service. That was what Mary did. She was serving the Lord by listening. Listening is an act of giving oneself. Likewise, we can also serve each other in the community by listening. We are often too busy to listen, because we have too much to do and too many things to say. After saying what we think needs to be said, we run out of time to listen. So we cut out the listening part from our life. I believe that our society is partly in trouble, because we are forgetting the art of listening.
Just think about how little listening we really do at a party for example. One man went through the reception line at a wedding and said to the mother of the bride just for fun, "My mother died yesterday." The bride”s mother responded, her smile undiminished, "How charming, thank you very much." Obviously he was rather unfair to pull such a prank. But it does say something about the way we listen to each other. Unconsciously we think that most of the people say things that are not worth paying too much attention to.
We must realize that listening to others is an important act to show affection and respect. We are always pleased and happy if others listen to us. I don”t think we are as happy, when others talk at us all the time. You see, when someone listens to you even if you are not saying anything interesting, you feel that someone paid attention to you. We are happy when we are listened to, because we are taken seriously. Notice how your young children fight over their turn to talk to you. "No, it”s my turn." When one child at last gets the turn, does he have anything to say? Not necessarily. But that doesn”t matter. If you listen to him, he feels that he is taken seriously. He feels loved. That”s the point. It is quite possible that what your loved one wants is neither food nor fuss, but you. Listening proves that your loved one has the whole of you, not just a piece of you, such as your money, food, or a present, or even the legacy you leave behind. It”s you that they want, the whole of you.
In 1984, during the height of famine in Ethiopia when thousands were dying everyday, the Ethiopian church invited many churches from other countries to see the situation and organize a massive relief operation. I was recruited as Coordinator of Famine relief. One man from a small church from Iceland who attended apologized and said, "We are a small church. We can give some dried fish, but not much money." But the Patriarch of the Ethiopian church said, "But you came. You care. That is most important for us to know. Your presence gives us courage to carry on this daunting task of feeding hundreds of thousands of people."
I visited once a person who had suffered a long and painful process of dying. One day as I went into his room he told me, "Tad, I will die soon." The doctor must have told him. What would you say to him? I had a few ready made words of comfort in my sleeves like any minister should. But I did not have time to say anything. He continued, "I”m darn glad that I can get the hell outa here." It was obvious that he was genuinely glad to get out of pain; he was tired of suffering. So we prayed together thanking God for sparing him from any further indignity. In the end, I didn”t need those words of comfort. All I had to do was to listen. And in the listening, I discovered the most appropriate response to this man”s situation. Letting him express his feelings to me and to God was all that was really neccessary. You see, if you listen, the appropriate action that should follow can be quite an unforeseen surprise.
Jesus had only several days to live when he was visiting Mary and Martha. At the time like that, it was most appropriate labour of love to listen to him. When there is good listening, the action which follows can be most appropriate. And if you don”t listen, your kindness can be quite wasted. In sitting by Jesus, Mary chose the better way to serve him.