Choosing the Better Part
Sometimes it seems there are not enough hours in the day to complete all the tasks expected of each one of us. We get up in the morning filled with hope that today will go as planned and expected. Then as we get started, something else pops up that demands attention, or someone calls who needs help. The entire day’s plan has to be set aside. Maybe tomorrow …
Yet sometimes, those disruptions lead to very special outcomes. I remember one afternoon many, many years ago when the front doorbell rang just as I was preparing to go out the other door with my very young daughter to buy groceries. A young man was at the door. He said he had come to meet with my husband. (As it turned out, he had a software program to present and my husband was expecting him. I didn’t know he was coming, but he was expected.) I called my husband, who came out of the office to welcome him, and I went on my way.
When I returned home, groceries in hand, my sons asked, “Mom, did you bring a chicken and an onion? John (not his real name) is going to fix dinner for us.” I responded, “Who is John? And yes, I brought a chicken and an onion.”
That evening’s dinner was wonderful and the start of a long, rich, sometimes hilarious, friendship with John.
The story of Abraham and his three visitors (Gen 18:1-10a) which we hear in the readings for the Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time is similar in some respects. Abraham is sitting in the shade, near the door of his tent, on a very hot day. The location is described as “by the terebinth of Mamre.” For those hearing the story centuries ago, this was an important detail, telling quite precisely where the events about to unfold occurred.
For the rest of us, a bit of background. A terebinth is a type of tree that grows to be quite large – almost like a very large shrub, with many stalks growing from the same root, but like a tree because of its final height. The name Mamre is a reference to a specific area of land in southern Israel, west of the Jordan River. An ancient Amorite chief named Mamre lived in the area and helped Abraham when Abraham’s brother Lot was in danger. Travelers frequently passed through the area and eventually it became a pilgrimage site for peoples of many belief systems.
Three men suddenly appeared nearby. Abraham wasn’t frightened by their sudden appearance. Instead, he ran to greet them, bowing before them in welcome and asking them to stop for a while, wash their hot, tired feet, and have a bite to eat before going on their way. The men agreed to stop.
Abraham hurried to the door of the tent and asked his wife Sarah to prepare rolls for the meal, using their best flour. He chose a tender young steer from the herd to be butchered and prepared for the meal. Then he got out curds and milk to serve with it all. It was a feast, not just a quick sandwich and glass of water!
Abraham served his guests and waited under the tree as they ate. When they finished, they asked Abraham where Sarah was. They knew her name, though it would not ordinarily have been part of the conversation at that time. Sarah was in the tent – women did not come out to welcome strange men who were passing by their homes. One of the visitors promised Abraham that within a year, Sarah would have a son.
The reading for this day ends on this note. It doesn’t tell the rest of the story. Here’s some of the rest of it. Sarah laughed when she heard such a crazy thing. She and Abraham were both old. She was well past child-bearing age. She had been unable to have children. Such a thing was impossible. But such a thing came to pass. And when it did, she and Abraham named the child Isaac, a name meaning “I laughed.”
Abraham realized only later that afternoon, as he walked on towards Sodom while visiting with his guests, that the visitors were the Lord and two of his messengers. But that is another story for another day.
For Abraham and Sarah, that day’s time spent in service to unexpected visitors was blessed and rewarded bountifully. They chose the better part in welcoming their guests.
The Psalmist reminds us, those who do justice “will live in the presence of the Lord.” (Ps 15) Where do we find the presence of the Lord? In acts of kindness and justice, in speaking truthfully about others, in refusing to hurt a neighbor or innocent ones, in lending resources freely without demanding payment of interest. These are the ones who do justice. This is where we find the presence of the Lord. Choosing the better part…
St. Paul points out to the Colossians (1:24-28) that in the hardships he has endured, the body of Christ is being built-up. As his words and his very presence have been rejected by his own Jewish community, the door has opened for Gentiles, non-Jews, to become believers in Christ and part of his body, the church. All peoples of the world can now become perfect in Christ. Again, the better part…
Finally, we hear the story of Martha and her sister Mary on that fateful day when Jesus and his friends arrived for dinner. (Lk 10:38-42) It is a story that has long troubled me and many others. Why, oh why, would Jesus have told Martha that Mary had chosen the better part? Who was going to make sure all of those people got something to eat if the women of the family didn’t get busy and prepare the meal? Why should one of them alone get to sit with the guests, when she herself (Martha) would love to have been sitting there too if it were not necessary for someone to behave responsibly and prepare the meal?
Yet Jesus said, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part…”
How do we choose the better part? Where does the time appear? Will everyone get a meal? Will the bills get paid?
As I move through the years, I’m beginning to be a bit more reconciled to the idea that taking time out to be with the Lord and listen is not necessarily a bad or foolish thing! (Now, please don’t laugh too loudly here! Some of us learn more slowly than others.)
I’ve come to believe that it’s actually possible to do some of both, maybe all of both – be with the Lord and have time to care for home, family, and those around us. A prayer when waking up and greeting the day, Morning Prayer (at some time before noon on really busy days), the Angelus at lunch time or when fixing dinner, a smile and thanks to God for the sunshine or a child’s remark or a meal shared, a call for help before speaking with a troubled friend, a recognition that God is present there in the kitchen as meals are being prepared and the dishes are being washed, a word of gratitude while falling asleep. All are times and places that God is found to be present. When we keep our eyes and ears open, we can hear God’s voice in the daily round of activities.
If we are able to slip away during the day or go away for a day or two on retreat, that’s a great gift. It can help refresh and renew us. But we mustn’t wait for those times. Find them during the day. Be open to the surprise visits the Lord will make during ordinary days. Visit with a friend who calls. Welcome and spend time with guests, expected or unexpected. Share a smile with a person at the grocery store. Wait patiently for the adult who is dealing with a tired, hungry, angry child. Use the time in the line at the store to pray for those around you and be grateful that you can be there yourself.
Choose the better part!
P.S. If you’ve got time for another story, here’s one from my life in 2009. https://blog.theologika.net/having-a-martha-like-day-on-the-feast-of-st-martha-july-29/