17 July 2016
Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
One Thing is Needful
“Mary has chosen the better part.” (Luke 10)
In the wake of three acts of violence the previous week, last Sunday’s sermon was a rather lengthy and demanding reflection on the dignity and integrity of the human individual. Violence is blasphemy, I said, because it attacks the very image and likeness of God in which we were created, and so we as people of faith must reassert in clear and unambiguous terms the inherent value of the individual.
After yet another bloody week, I can only reaffirm what I said then.
But perhaps today we need a quieter, and briefer sermon. We have before us the well-known gospel account of Mary and Martha—two sisters who together host Jesus in their home. You know the story: Martha busies herself in the kitchen, while Mary sits listening to their guest at his feet. And when Martha complains to Jesus that Mary is not helping her, he responds by saying that it is in fact Mary who has chosen the better part.
Now, the usual interpretations of this episode run along the lines of endorsing the spiritual inclinations of Mary over and against the materiality and anxiety of her sister Martha. And that seems like a fairly obvious reading, I suppose, but its very obviousness has always left me a bit dissatisfied with it. Mightn’t there be something deeper going on in what Jesus has to say to Martha?
One sign that that might be the case is Mary’s silence throughout. The story focuses on Martha, and her interaction with Jesus, more so than on Mary.
Interesting too is that Jesus’ response to Martha is given in such a gentle, even affectionate manner. Calling her by name twice, “Martha, Martha,” he sympathetically comments first on her level of anxiety and worry, and only then points toward Mary’s contrasting attentiveness and calm.
Perhaps what Jesus is trying to do, is to help Martha see that Mary’s choice is not just somehow better, but rather that Martha has failed to find in her own choice any joy or satisfaction. She seems only to feel obligated, and therefore resentful.
What Jesus perceives as lacking in Martha’s determined hospitality, is any sense that through it, she is giving something of who she is, and that therefore it is an activity that she can embrace freely and willingly, rather than grudgingly and unhappily.
What she lacks, if you will, is a sense of vocation. Mary’s choice is the better part, not because her contemplation is privileged over Martha’s activity, but because she has made a deliberate choice that responds in a deep way to her own individual nature. She has chosen to accept a calling to be who she uniquely is, and finds contentment in that. She has found her vocation, while Martha struggles with the social expectations of others.
In a meditation on the theme of vocation he once delivered to a group of new ordinands, Archbishop Rowan Williams pointed out that too often, our idea of vocation is shaped by a the unexamined notion that we are somehow cast into a sort of stage role by a divine playwright: God has a part in mind for us to play, and so it is up to us to fit into it.[*] That is Martha’s view: she has been cast as the dutiful hostess, and is obliged to fulfill the requirements of hospitality that such a role brings with it. For her, vocation becomes a kind of inevitable and inescapable fate.
Williams pushes back against that idea of vocation, however, suggesting instead that an authentic vocation is a discovery of our freedom to become who God has uniquely created us to as individuals: it is a process of interior creativity, rather than the acceptance of a predetermined role.
Speaking to that group of future priests, Williams encouraged them to be less focused upon whatever part they imagined that they would be expected to play, and to think instead about how what they brought to their vocation as individuals would shape it. So, for instance, how might someone who is a musician, live out that gift as a priest? Or a writer, or a mother, or a teacher? Our vocation in other words is not contrary to, but inclusive of everything that we are.
And so by extension, those kinds of questions are ones which each of us must answer as we create the vocation that is uniquely ours. Discovering our vocation becomes an act of freedom, a process of exploring who we are and what we aspire to do and to accomplish in light of the specific giftedness with which God has created us.
Williams thinks of it as our response to the creative Word of God, through which God is always speaking to us, calling us to be ourselves. Our life then becomes a mirroring of God, a playing back to God, of God’s own self-sharing, self-losing care and compassion. But to do that, we have to ask ourselves some pretty probing questions, that will help us to shed whatever blocks our true sense of self: “What am I denying, what am I refusing in myself that stands in the way of this interactive call and response with God? What am I trying to avoid?”
Like Martha, we too can fall into the trap of letting an external set of expectations drain the joy out of life, because they inhibit our true understanding of ourselves. The challenge is to learn to shed such unrealities for the way that they simply suffocate the soul, only to re-emerge in such angry forms as Martha’s irritable rebuke of her sister.
But Jesus encourages us, like Mary, to choose the better part: to be attentive to who we really are, and to live out our particular giftedness in ways that allow us to realize fully and perhaps for the first time who we really are. As Williams provocatively puts it, we are encouraged to find the vocation that is the residue when all the games of self-deception have ceased.
So discovering our vocation means more than just learning or accepting that there are a certain number of things we are to do: it means becoming a certain kind of person, as we become more fully ourselves. And that can be frustrating, because there is a certain reassurance in being able to simply tick off the boxes of what we imagine other people think we should do. Martha herself was busy ticking off the boxes of the social norms of accepted hospitality—cleaning, cooking, serving, hosting—and no doubt there was some reassurance for her in that of her value as a person.
Yet there is also something liberating about going deeper into the reality of who we authentically are. The second-century St. Irenaeus famously said, “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.” That is, the wonder of God’s creative love is most fully shown in the way that each of us claims our full potential as it is has been given to us. Our calling therefore (our vocation) is paradoxically also our freedom: the freedom to be who we are. It is not a role into which we must reluctantly fit, but a creative and responsive life that we can joyfully inhabit.
Perhaps that freedom is what Mary had discovered for herself, and that freedom also that toward which Jesus encouraged Martha, as “the one thing that is needful.”
© Joseph Britton, 2016
[*] Rowan Williams, “Vocation (1)” and “Vocation (2)” in Open to Judgement: Sermons and Addresses (Darton, Longmand and Todd, 1994).