By Rev. J.C. Austin – June 2, 2019
Perhaps the most dreaded phrase you can hear from your teacher when you’re a kid in school is, “I’m assigning a group project.” Looking back on it, I assume that teachers assigned group projects as a means of not simply teaching the course material, but teaching a collaborative way of learning and being productive that would be useful not only in school, but in life in general.
And that’s a laudable goal and a compelling vision. But, as far as anyone has been able to find, group projects in school accomplished those things about zero percent of the time. Instead, people in the group generally fell into several particular archetypes. There’s the kid that tried lead the group, whether the group wanted that kind of leadership or not. There’s the kid who shows up for the organizing meeting and then again when you turn the project in, but completely disappears in between. There’s the kid who promises to do a fair portion of the work but never follows through. And there’s the kid who actually does all the work because the work has to get done and he or she is not going down with this boat of clowns that can’t or won’t get anything done. It’s so universal that there are actually internet memes using those categories to make fun of politicians, movie characters, and so on, because everyone has had that experience.
I remember my first real group project, meaning one that really impacted your grade once grades had started to matter, was an eighth grade social studies project. I can’t remember what the project topic was, but I remember I got lumped in with two guys, one who was “the promise but never follow through guy,” and one who was “the disappear until the end guy.” I was a combination of the guy who tries to lead the group regardless of whether they want it and the guy who does all of the work, except my finely honed sense of justice wouldn’t allow me to do other people’s work for them, so I turned in my one-third portion and rode that clown-boat down to the bottom of the class.
“Where’s the rest of it?” the teacher asked our group. The other two guys mumbled some excuses and extenuating circumstances, while I just stayed quiet; I wasn’t going to snitch on them, but I wasn’t going to help them out, either. As a naïve young lad, I thought the teacher would figure out what had happened and pass me while failing the other two. But to my surprise, the teacher gave us all a 33, and I got one of the worst semester grades I ever received in my entire academic career, and I seethed at the injustice of it all.
I was, after all, a “Martha.” I’ve always thought that Martha gets the rough end of the stick in the traditional reading of this passage. Despite being only five verses long and only appearing in Luke’s gospel, this story of Mary and Martha hosting Jesus in their home is one of the more famous passages in the New Testament, and a favorite of preachers throughout the ages. It’s usually read along these lines: Jesus comes for a visit to Martha and Mary’s house, who welcome him into their home; but while Martha gets distracted running around the house and worrying about all the minutiae of preparations for a guest, Mary immediately sits down at Jesus’ feet like a disciple and listens to what he says. And when Martha has the gall to ask Jesus to make Mary get up and help, Jesus takes Mary’s side, because Mary has realized that the contemplative life at the feet of Jesus is more important than Martha’s petty household chores.
But I don’t think that’s what’s actually going on in this passage. I think this is a typical group project, and Mary is the kid who promises to help but doesn’t follow through, while Martha’s like me in my group project: a combination of the one who tries to lead and the one who does all the work. And the project is quite important. Martha is focused on ensuring that the duties of hospitality are fulfilled, and generous hospitality has been one of the most important virtues in Middle East culture for thousands of years, right up to the present day.
In my previous work at a seminary, one of my programs for years was to take Christian seminary students and Jewish rabbinic students together to Israel/Palestine, to experience both the spiritual history and the contemporary conflict through each other’s eyes. When we were in the West Bank, we split up to stay in local Palestinian Christian homes, which made the father of one of our Orthodox rabbinic students extremely nervous, because of how he understood both Palestinians and Christians as dangerous people to Jews.
The rabbinic student actually admitted this to his host that evening, and told us what happened the next day. “‘He asked, what is your father’s phone number? Let’s call him.’ So we did, with an internet phone call on Skype. And he said to my father, ‘I understand you are nervous about your son tonight, yes?’ My father admitted that he was. And then my host said, ‘Do not worry. Tonight, your son is also my son. And I swear to you, nothing will happen to our son as long as I am alive and with him.’” The host was literally saying he would treat this man’s son as his own, and protect him with his life if it proved necessary; that’s how seriously he took his duties of hospitality.
This is actually really important, because it makes clear that Jesus is not criticizing Martha because she’s worried and distracted by the things she’s doing, as if it was the things themselves that are the problem, and Martha doesn’t have the spiritual maturity to let go of them. Rather, she is worried and distracted by the way she’s doing those things; they are actually putting distance between her and Jesus, the guest she’s trying to welcome, first by her distraction and then by her complaints to and demands of Jesus, which are themselves a rather serious breach of traditional hospitality. But even so, Jesus doesn’t actually criticize Martha; he sympathizes with her and invites her to change her focus.
“Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things,” he says; “there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part.” It’s actually a simple truth, one that so many of us find so easy to lose sight of: when our focus shifts away from the people we are doing things for, to the things themselves, we tend to spiral into anxiety, exhaustion, frustration, resentment. The plan for the perfect family Christmas, the perfect vacation, the perfect date, the perfect weekend getaway, the perfect birthday celebration, the perfect meal; you’ve probably seen or experienced yourself at least one of those where you’ve realized that when things went off the rails because people weren’t doing them right or appreciating them enough or responding the way they were supposed to or doing the part that they were assigned, it was because you or somebody else lost focus on who you were doing it for and why you were doing it to the act of getting it done. It’s so easy to do that because there is so much emphasis in our world on doing and performing and producing and achieving as if they are ends to themselves. And we are far from immune to that in the church, as well, sometimes especially when we are doing all the right things.
We are not called to a life or a faith that gets lost in the unending pile of good and important things that have to be done. But neither are we called to a life or a faith that withdraws from the world and our ministry in and to it to be apart and alone with Jesus. Jesus said that Mary had chosen the better part when she sat at his feet and listened to him, not the only part. The truth is that the Christian faith is a kind of group project in the end, one in which we don’t play those school-aged archetypes but rather the roles of Martha and Mary, action and contemplation, service and devotion, both brought together into a greater whole.
When we say we are a “Christ-centered church” or that we live out a “Christ-centered faith,” it doesn’t mean that we only pay attention to Jesus and shut everything else out. It means that everything we do is rooted in our devotion to Christ and springs out of our attention to his teachings, whether that is welcoming others through radical hospitality, or serving others through active ministry, or seeking after God’s will through faithful inquiry into the Scriptures and our theological traditions and the deepest questions of our hearts and souls. That is what it means to take the better part.
So, come here to the table that has been prepared. Enter into the presence of Christ and be centered in him once more; listen to his teachings, breathe in his peace, taste and see that the Lord is good. And then go out into the church and the world to serve him, knowing that there is more to do than we can possibly get done and simply doing our part, trusting in Christ to bring it all to completion in the end.