Is it This or is it That?

This... or That?

By Rev. Phil Dieke

I have really enjoyed Chapter 9 of our Unfold series. Throughout this chapter we have been exploring this idea of “together” through the lens of some well known, and some not so well known, partners in the Bible. Each week the characters of these stories have revealed to me the complexities of human nature. I have been reminded of both the gift it is to be human, and the struggle that comes with this gift as well. Typically I have found bits of myself in each of the main characters, and that is where I find myself this week as we turn to the story of Mary and Martha in Luke chapter 10.

The basic premise of this story is that Jesus, on his journey toward Jerusalem, stops at the house of Martha. Martha, being the good hostess and continuing the traditional values of hospitality, readied the meal for Jesus and her guests. Meanwhile, Mary, her sister, sat at the feet of Jesus in order to listen to his teachings.

Martha served, Mary didn’t.
Martha kept with traditional norms, Mary didn’t.

In many ways the story of Martha and Mary is a typical “this vs that.” Throughout history the actions of these sisters have been set against each other. Books have been sold about embracing the counter-cultural role of Mary in a society filled with busy Marthas. Some argue that “sitting at the feet of Jesus” is more important than preparing a meal for Jesus. Thus, this story is then extrapolated and the argument of "this is more important than that" plays out in how we are supposed to respond as disciples. Often setting one against the other and leaving us to question: Is true hospitality about serving or being present? Is our calling to worship and study or to serve?

While it would be easy to answer this question with a simple and resounding, “YES!” I’ll refrain from my go to “both/and” response and dive a little deeper (though I really do love a good both/and).

Once again I find myself resonating with both characters. Like Mary I love to learn. I value the opportunity to “sit at the feet” of wise teachers, to be fully present to those who bring a message of Good News. Sometimes this is quite literal, and other times it is more figurative as I read their books, listen to their podcasts, or sit at their virtual feet. It turns out I love to learn, thus if I’m not careful I will spend countless hours listening, reading, consuming. So much so I will fail to act. Fail to do. Fail to serve. I become an expert at gathering information and knowledge, but lack the wisdom piece that leads to the application of that knowledge.

Conversely, by nature, I am a doer. I’m constantly doing something. The question is what am I doing? Like Martha, I have a tendency to busy myself with things so much that I’ll forget to be present to those around me. And the more I study this passage, the more I am convinced that Jesus is not setting Martha’s meal preparation against Mary’s feet sitting, rather he is addressing that she was “Worried and distracted by many things.” This is a vague phrase Jesus uses, and yet I can very much relate. Turns out, I too am worried and distracted by many things:

Whether or not my kids get enough nutrients because they fight eating,
The online worship experience,
Lack of affordable housing in our city and nation,
If my family is sleeping enough,
The pastoral care needs of our community,
The lack of access to affordable healthcare in Texas,
Do we see our extended family enough,
Why is there not a church database system that does the things we need it to,
Racism, militarization, sexism, violence, ageism, homophobia, fascism, transphobia, capitalism, xenophobia, mis- and dis-information, reproductive health care, immigration, drone warfare and the dehumanization of “legitimate targets,” the future of the United Methodist Church, the future of organized religion…

I mean you get it right. It’s not just me and Martha who are “worried and distracted by many things”... Right?


Sure, we can make an argument for balance. That sometimes in life we are called to sit, to listen, to learn, and be present. And other times we are called to serve. There’s a valid argument for that interpretation. Interestingly, after telling Martha that she is “worried and distracted by many things,” this brief story ends with Jesus saying, “One thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the better part. It won’t be taken away from her,” (Luke 10:42).

What I love so much about scripture is it rarely resolves the issue. Many have read this story assuming that Mary has chosen the “better part” between the choice she has made and the choice Martha has made. But it could just as easily be interpreted that Mary has chosen the better part for herself, in that given moment. That she is doing exactly what she needs to be doing at the moment. Martha preparing a meal may also be the right thing for her at that moment, and yet while preparing the meal she is also “worried and distracted by many things,” (see my laundry list above).

What better week to be studying this text than the week of the midterm elections. An election that has been so rooted in “this vs. that” mentalities. Though the story of Mary and Martha is not about Red vs Blue politics, there is a deeper reality present here. This need… this comfort we find in our feeble minds when life can be separated into clean and clear “this vs that.” And yet, that’s just not how life is. That’s not our lived experience.

Sure politics may seem very “this vs that,” but it’s not. Within each party there is a spectrum of belief. We may feel like it is “this vs. that” because on election day we have to choose between two parties (I know there are more than two parties, but we’re painting with broad strokes here, stick with me). But to reduce politics and our civic engagement to a choice made on election day is as much missing the point as reading the story of Mary and Martha and choosing between “sitting at the feet” of Jesus or preparing him a meal. Beyond a decision being made on one specific day, there is a lifetime of lived experiences.

And that lifetime of lived experiences has led to a moment when Martha is holding a lot. She is not just a host, she’s also a sister. Chances are she’s also a widow as there is no mention of her husband. The same is true for you and I. We are never just one thing, rather we exist on a spectrum as well. You have your work self, your family self (be that parent, sibling, child), your friend self, your political self, your religious self, and yourself self. The list goes on and on. And all those selves are also interacting and engaging with all those around you. Together. For good and for bad. As comfort and as conflict. In support and opposition. Building up and tearing down.

See, this story gives us a mere snapshot of two individuals. The snapshot may be glimpses into their overall personalities, or it may simply be how they responded to a specific situation on a specific day. It may represent their freedom of choice, or it may represent the choices they made due to external pressures. Regardless, that snapshot doesn’t define them. Nor does how you vote in one election define you, or your politics. This story invites us to analyze and question how we respond to things in a given scenario. To analyze our “many things.” And to ask, what will I do the day after the election? The day after I sit at his feet… after I prepare a meal?  Will this be a life defining moment, or simply a mere glimpse? How will I spend my time, how will I make the most of this gift?

Amidst all the busyness.
Amidst all the chaos.
With deadlines and checklists,
And emails and calls.
The need to slow down
And the need to speed up,
The desire to sit and listen,
And pressure to prepare a meal.
The expectation to uphold the cultural norm,
And the calling to disrupt the status quo.
Breaking tradition.
In the midst of all that Jesus says, “One thing is necessary.”
One thing?
One thing.

How do you interpret that, today?
What is yours to do, today?
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