My Sister’s Portion

photograph (c) Katherine Brown

Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village where a woman named Martha welcomed him. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at Jesus’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, but few things are needed—indeed only one. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

Luke 10:38-42 NRSVUE

Oh, God, it’s Luke’s version of Martha and Mary again. I like the sisters, truly I do, but I prefer John’s portrait of them to Luke’s. John presents them as a pair, friends to Jesus, loved by Jesus [John 11:5], whom they call ‘Lord’ and welcome to their home.

Luke’s depiction sets the sisters at odds with each other. Or so it seems. Or so it often is read. One is either ‘a Martha’ or ‘a Mary,’ and Mary’s heart takes the posture preferred. Sit at the Lord’s feet and listen to what he says. Mary utters not a word in Luke’s telling. Which suddenly makes me wonder whether the story is about her. Mary’s listening silence triggers Martha’s complaint. Does that make it the point of Jesus’ response?

So. Start again. Sit at the text’s feet and listen to what it is saying and wrestle with what it might mean.

Jesus has set his face to Jerusalem. And on the way, he is welcomed by Martha. Sister Mary sits at Jesus’ feet, but Martha is ‘distracted’ by ‘much serving.’ Not the plural ‘many tasks,’ as the English has it, but a singular ‘much.’ ‘Much,’ singular, ‘diakonia,’ service or ministry, singular. ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me alone to serve?’ Martha asks, and Jesus replies, ‘Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things.’ ‘Many.’ Jesus does not repeat the narrator’s singular ‘much’ but shifts to the plural form, ‘many.’ Is this an accident of idiom or might the number matter?

‘Mary has chosen the good part,’ Jesus tells Martha, ‘which will not be taken away from her.’ Is Mary’s portion ‘good’ or ‘better’? The Greek can be read either way. Why prefer ‘better’ if it’s not required by the grammar? What is there in us that measures the worth of Mary’s choice in relationship to Martha’s. Is ‘the good’ only good when and if it is ‘better’? Cannot the worth of both works be seen and known? Does the definite article (‘the good’) mean there is one good for all people at all times or is Jesus responding to Martha’s charge about Mary’s choice at this place in this time, when Jesus is paused to be welcomed on his way to Jerusalem.

Maybe had Martha’s effort stayed single — ‘much service’ — it would have been affirmed. She started well enough, receiving Jesus. But Martha herself, distracted, introduces the comparison in asking Jesus to re-instruct her sister. Maybe this is why the text shifts to plural: Martha is no longer set only to her singular service but has become anxious and troubled about something else as well, her own work in relationship to Mary’s. Jesus’ plural (‘many things’) draws attention to this. I listen to Jesus’ words. Does he say that Martha chose poorly or that Mary chose well? Is ‘Martha, Martha’ a caution about Martha’s own diakonia or about her judgment of Mary’s? Mary’s choice wasn’t about Martha; Martha’s choice should not be about Mary. ‘The good portion’ — the right diakonia — is about God.

What is my right diakonia? Or yours or ours? What is the single end — even comprising multiple smaller works, just as setting supper requires procurement and preparation and presentation, whether the meal is one pot or many small-plates — what is the single end, however much of a muchness, that calls? Resist worry over others’ portions, as if their worth lessens mine, as if worth is finite. God’s promise is not cut up into shares made smaller with each soul counted in. There is work for all, a work for each. Sometimes our tasks overlap in obviously mutual support; sometimes they seem so separate that their common end must be taken on trust. Sometimes the service is of long and steady sameness; sometimes it shifts in response to the spirit’s blowing.

Resist the comparison. My worth with another’s. Today’s work with yesterday’s, or last year’s, or next’s. Embrace, instead, the company. All of us aimed towards God’s common end, a grace that is greater than the sum of our varied works.

Here, you sit and listen to the talk. I will overhear the conversation as I move in and out of the kitchen, set the table to the sound of voices. I can set myself to my portion as you set yourself to yours. And when I am caught by a word or phrase suddenly rising to the surface of the talk, I will look across to you and see you looking across to me — sisters’ eyes catching — and together we will feel smiling love looking on us both. We will realize that in welcoming the kingdom-coming, we have been welcomed by its presence now.


I was glad when they said to me, "Let us go to the house of the LORD!"
Our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem.
Jerusalem built as a city that is bound firmly together.
To it the tribes go up, the tribes of the LORD, as was decreed for Israel,
to give thanks to the name of the LORD.
For there the thrones for judgment were set up, the thrones of the house of David.
Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: "May they prosper who love you.
Peace be within your walls, and security within your towers."
For the sake of my relatives and friends I will say, "Peace be within you."
For the sake of the house of the LORD our God, I will seek your good.

Psalm 122; lectionary text for Sunday December 1, 2019, Advent 1

The first Sunday of Advent.  Thanksgiving cooked and eaten and cleared away (and several packets of turkey in the freezer, hurrah).  The Advent wreath set round with fresh candles, bright cranberry red.  Not the liturgically correct purple or blue, but my husband found the box of tall, unburned candles in the thrift store, the price was right, and their color is festive and pleasing.  We lit the first candle last night.  Again, not liturgically correct, being the Saturday before rather than the first Sunday of Advent, but the girls (this the collective noun applied to the two young women who are our daughters) were home then, and not now, so we lit that first candle together.

‘I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the LORD!’

The girls were home by Tuesday dinner.  Tuesday night I lay in bed and rehearsed that verse in my mind — silently reciting each word in turn — and heard as I did the voices of the girls earlier in the evening.  It was a mental polyphony:  the voice of the text with the voices of my grown daughters together looking at a toy catalog which for some reason still arrives in our mail.  Why did those voices weave together?  Something about homecoming?  About being glad in it?  To whose gladness is the counterpoint keyed?  Is it the gladness of coming home (being welcomed and even, a little, cosseted)?  Is it the gladness of welcoming (me in the kitchen so enjoying the sound of their voices rising and falling in conversation that I delay calling them to do dinner chores)?  Or is it all these gladnesses themselves coming together as welcomed and welcomer sit down to eat together at the table?

‘I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the LORD!’

Psalm 122 is a ‘psalm of ascents’ according to the superscription.  It is a pilgrimage psalm, evoking the gathering of God’s people, all of them together going up to Jerusalem, ascending the city’s heights, entering the house of the LORD.  The first verb of the psalm is singular — I was glad, I rejoiced — but the trigger for this personal joy is plural — ‘when they said’ — and its experience is communal — ‘let us go.’  Was the psalmist’s gladness unique or did the whole ascending body share it?  Did the gladness rise with the group’s ascent or was it something that they claimed in rote until they reached their goal and stood there, within the gates of Jerusalem, and recognized that the complex of physical sensations — bodies tired, legs aching, feet firmly planted within the gates — included the wild, rising, unreasoning conviction of joy.  Pilgrims and city bound firmly together in this intention, in this arrival, in this jubilee.

‘I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the LORD!’ 

Whose gladness is evoked?  Whose welcome is anticipated?  

What has this psalm to do with Advent?  

The psalmic summons is closely paralleled in the prophetic text:  ‘Many peoples shall come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD’’ (Isa 2:3).  The suggestion of David’s ‘thrones’ (why plural?) and of judgment connects with the other texts assigned for this day (Isa 2:1-4; Matt 24:36-44), echoing the theme of God’s purpose for all God’s creation approaching its intended end of peace and security.  ‘I will seek your good,’ the psalmist promises — this promise the culmination of the earlier declaration, ‘Our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem.’  The city as a person, an other with whom speech may be had, an addressee not just an object.  The city as a conversation partner.  The city and the LORD?  God does not speak in this psalm; the psalmist prays but does not explicitly address the prayer to God.  Yet God is present throughout:  it is the prospect of going up to God’s own home, the singular, unique space in which the LORD condescended to dwell — where God’s name and eyes and heart are forever (1 Kings 9:3) — the occasions that opening profession of joy.   Can the psalmist’s delight be any less than the LORD’s?

Tuesday night I wondered at the possible connection of my gladness and God’s.  I imagined the LORD working in the kitchen to prepare a table for all the sons and daughters coming home, God’s own heart warmed by the presence and voices of God’s adult children in God’s own house.  Then I shied away from my own audacity — it cannot be that.  The psalmist sings joy at the anticipation of ascending to the LORD’s house, the joy of entering in, not the joy of inviting in.  Now, though, I wonder if the joys are not intertwined after all.  The gladness of being welcomed finds an equal measure in the gladness of the welcome given.  Hearts reunite in mutual affection, the desire for peace, the intention for each other’s well-being.  The Advent promise of arrival is expressed in this anticipation of mutual joy, this the ultimate aim of the judgment referenced in the texts:  God’s joy in God’s people; our joy in our LORD.

We extinguish the first Advent candle at the end of dinner.  ‘Now the light which was in one place at one time can be in all places and all times,’ one of the girls intones with joking seriousness.  The joke is that this is a line from the Godly Play** lessons, and neither girl has been in a Godly Play classroom for years and years, and this is our dinner table and not Sunday School.  The seriousness is that ritual embeds itself as deeply as that.  And that the words recited are true.  

‘I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the LORD!’

I was glad when I realized again that the LORD is coming to be born anew on this God’s own earth.  I was glad when I realized again the joy of inviting God to make a home in me and of me, and not just me alone.  And — when I feel it entire or when I recite it by rote — I am glad when I realize that through the climb in the company of others, there will come the wild, rising, unreasoning joy of God’s own welcome table, set for all places, and all times, until time ends, and begins again, in the house of the LORD.I was glad when I realized again that the LORD is coming to be born anew on this God’s own earth.  I was glad when I realized again the joy of inviting God to make a home of me and not me alone.

** Godly Play: An Imaginative Approach to Religious Education, by Jerome Berryman