The one precious thing 

Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.’ —Luke 15:31

“Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” —Luke 10:41-42

I read an essay by a friend of mine the other night. They remarked on how startled they were to find themself, a rule-following, hard-working Good Kid, within the story of the wasteful son (“Ministry of Cake,” Assimilate or Go Home, D. L. Mayfield).

I come from a different Christian tradition, so I’d discovered the prodigal’s older brother a long time ago.

Do you remember the set-up? The younger sibling, called prodigal —lavish, wasteful—returning after burning all his bridges, with pyrotechnics. The parent, celebrating his return as if the hurt had never happened. And then the older one, who all along had stayed and worked in the family business, refusing to come in to the party: “Why didn’t you ever throw a party for me?!” After which comes the line in Luke 15:31.”Son, you are always with me…”

I often think of him as a cautionary tale of how resentment can creep up if one takes relationships for granted. After all, why didn’t big brother already throw parties? Because he decided that if the father really loved him, the party would just get thrown, that the father would read his mind? Because he didn’t think to ask? Because he was so busy dealing with each day in its turn he forgot he’d like a party? If it was me, it’d be somewhere in between the last two—I had that “read my mind!” trap drummed out of me during my late teens—because I forget to pause long enough to remember the sweet things I’d enjoy.

My friend sees something slightly different.

[The father] doesn’t need to add what by now I knew: it was always available to him, all along. Being near the Father is a constant party-in-progress, a constant chance to experience the benefits of being in community. But we can choose to opt out of it, to work tirelessly for an idea of what our Father wants, instead of spending time with him. p198

“We can choose… to work tirelessly for an idea of what our Father wants.”

In July, I went to a retreat where the keynote texts included the story of Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42). The speaker, blessedly, reclaimed Martha from the common interpretation, where Mary wins and Martha loses because Martha’s taking care of hospitality. (I have many friends who, when this text comes up, start glaring: What do you MEAN hospitality’s not important?!) The speaker called our attention back to what Martha actually says. Listening with my therapy-heightened ears, I heard the whine of triangulation—she’s not; make her; don’t you care?—and considered whether Jesus was focused on Martha owning her choices, to use modern terms.

Layering my friend’s words over Martha’s story, I see something even deeper.

I believe it is good and appropriate, when standing in Martha’s hallway, to search my heart and ask: I’m torn between caring for these people I treasure by feeding them, and making a welcoming space for them—and sitting next to the Lord I love, absorbing every sound. Since I can’t do both at once, which pull is stronger in this moment? Can I answer that pull and be calm with the consequences? Aligning one’s heart with itself is a first step, I think, to aligning one’s heart with God’s.

But my friend obliquely points out that this question I ask is still about me—what do I want? What action will make me most happy? Because I’m operating out of an idea of what my Father wants…of course I know Jesus would want option A or option B, each in equal measure!

Would he?
What if we spent time with Jesus? What if we sat nearby, and listened for what the Lord desires?

Mary is sitting at the feet of Jesus, in the middle of the party-in-progress. The better part, and none shall take it from her.

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