At our family gathering last night we got talking about the need for a new, no-growth or selective-growth basis for our economy, one that can supply us with our needs without requiring the trashing of the planet, and we got talking about the Rev. Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping, and his movie What Would Jesus Buy? And that led to a discussion of the story of Judas and the woman with the oil.
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead, [and his sisters, Martha and Mary]. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot… said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?”… And Jesus said, “Leave her alone… You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
I woke up thinking about that story, and how similar the theme of that story is to Luke’s story of Mary and Martha. I was amazed when I looked up the two stories and saw that they appear to be the same core story told differently by different authors.
Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’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 Jesus answered her, “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 from her.”
Luke has Jesus staying with Martha and Mary, and Mary sits at Jesus’ feet listening to him teaching, and Martha gets bent out of shape because she is doing the socially correct thing of serving a big meal for this honored guest, and she resents Mary just sitting there at the feet of the teacher.
John also has Jesus staying with Martha and Mary, but this time Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with oil and rubs his feet with her hair (a lot sexier than just sitting at his feet receiving the teaching). And in this version it is Judas getting bent out of shape and complaining that Mary is not doing the socially correct thing. In both cases, Jesus defends Mary against Judas/Martha’s social correctness. Same story, only slightly different characters.
I was also reminded of the story of the return of the prodigal son. The “good” son complains bitterly that he has “worked hard and played by the rules” yet it is the returning spendthrift who gets the big party.
Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing… Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, ” Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came
back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” Then the father said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”
I love the line from the Martha and Mary story, “You are busy with many things, but only one thing is needful.”
And what is the one needful thing? In each case the one needful thing appears to be a shocking abdication of social norms and social rules and social obligations. The one needful thing is delighting in the divine presence, which is right here, this very moment. The one needful thing is to be alert to and in love with this sacred moment, right here, right now.
I see Martha and Judas and the “good” son trying to justify their existence through their adherence to the rules, through their fulfilling of established social roles. The one who enters into the divine presence, who isn’t “doing” anything to justify his or her existence displays a shocking alternative to the entire social/economic order (which is exactly what we need right now). And Jesus seems to be telling his followers, choose that one needful thing. Your existence needs no justification. You do not have to prove yourself. No one is keeping score. The kingdom of heaven is right here, within and among you. If you can not recognize its presence right here, right now, how can you ever enter it? As the “prodigal father” says, in essence, “The party is in progress, set aside your distress and come join the party.”