Which Better Part?

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.’

Luke 10:38-42

This is such a familiar passage of scripture that we might think we have nothing new to learn from it.  Seemingly, this story preferences the devout attention of Mary to the many tasks of Martha.  For the Martha’s in this world, there is a sense of injustice.  Isn’t service and care as important as devotional attention?  Aren’t we called to be doers of the Word and not hearers only?  Shouldn’t Mary bear part of the load in order to free Martha to sit devoutly at the Lord’s feet?

This is a classic example of meaning and message getting lost in translation.  Latin, Greek, and Coptic translations offer subtle, but significant differences to this passage that I believe are important for us today.  In a basic and fundamental way, this is not an “either/or” story (being like Mary – good; being like Martha – bad), but a “both/and” story (two ways to relate to the Lord).  You see, the problem is not that Martha is doing anything wrong, and that Mary is in the right, but the key relates to another teaching of Jesus; that of Matthew 7:1-3, ‘Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. 2For with the judgement you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. 3Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?’  Mary is perfectly happy and at ease with the choice she made.  But Martha is judging that Mary should choose differently.  Martha tries to impose a Martha standard on Mary.  Jesus in effect is saying to Martha, “Mary has chosen what is right for Mary, you Martha have chosen what is right for Martha.  Stop trying to make Mary into a Martha.  Be at peace with your own choice for yourself.”

What a necessary message for our day and for our church!  We are spending so much time trying to impose a “one size fits all” morality and ethics on a widely diverse, richly textured, and radically unique tapestry of people and perspectives.  Let those of us of one mind be at peace with our own mind and let us offer grace and space to those who relate to God and their own faith in uniquely different ways.  This is the heart of our gospel.

This nuance celebrates Marthas as Marthas.  Hospitality is a cornerstone gift of Hebrew and Christian culture.  Those who “live to serve” are beloved children of God.  But when we resent those who do not serve (or who do not serve like we do, or think like we do, or behave like we do) the grace-light goes out of our hearts and spirits and we are left feeling burdened by our faith.

What a gift, joy, and liberation it is to be able to celebrate everyone, no matter how different their approach and perspective might be.  To love all the Marys for being Marys, and loving all the Marthas for being Marthas (and the yous for being you, and the mes for being me) is a grand and glorious revel in the unconditional love of God.

Judging others robs us of the precious time to get to know them as beloved and valued children of God.  Finding fault denies us the opportunity to discover gifts, talents, and blessings.  Resentment undermines the joy that God intends.  Let us seek not to judge or condemn, but instead let us covenant together to seek, and to find, the Christ in each other.

Grace and Peace, 

Bishop Hee-Soo Jung


Hee-Soo Jung

Bishop Hee-Soo Jung has served as resident bishop of the Wisconsin Annual Conference since September of 2012. Prior to leading the Wisconsin Conference UMC, Bishop Jung served eight years as bishop of the Northern Illinois Conference (Chicago area).