There is a short story in the Bible about two sisters that is very interesting to think about in connection with the holidays. It’s the story at the end of Luke 10 (read it here) where Jesus visits Mary and Martha, and Martha gets upset because Mary is not helping her in the kitchen. Mary, who had decided to sit and listen to Jesus as he was teaching, is portrayed in stark contrast to Martha, who is described as being “distracted with much serving.” When Martha complains to Jesus about what she perceives as her sister’s negligence, Jesus commends Mary for choosing “the good portion” or “the best part.”
There are different views on exactly what “the best part” is that Jesus is referring to here. But I think we can say at the very least that it is relational in nature. Mary was in Jesus’ presence, sitting at his feet and listening to what he had to say. She was with Jesus—experiencing fellowship with him.
It would seem from this story that relationship with Jesus was the thing Martha was being distracted from. Another version says that Martha was “worried and bothered about providing so many things.” She was so much into the food preparation part of Jesus’ visit that, ironically, she was missing “the main course”—Jesus himself.
Those of us with perfectionist tendencies can relate to Martha very well. We know all about wanting to have things “just right” over the holidays for our family and friends who come to visit. We put an awful lot of time, energy and money into “providing so many things.” But are we, in all our fussing to have things perfect, really missing out on the more important aspect of being fully present to people? Of listening to them and offering relationship to them through loving conversations?
I don’t think this story about Mary and Martha and Jesus is saying that there is no place for well-prepared meals and festive foods for guests. But how many times have we made all the preparation the point and totally missed enjoying and "being with" the people we did all the work for?
Mary was told that the “good portion” that she chose would “not be taken away from her.” Perhaps what Jesus meant was that neither would she be forced to go and help Martha in the moment nor would she ever lose her investment of that time with him. What she had received in spending time with Jesus would always be a part of her.
I wonder if we view our time with others that way. I wonder how aware we are that all our preoccupation with cookies and decorations and gifts and toys—things that will eventually pass away—is not central. Do we need to get more in touch with the relational parts of ourselves—the parts that long to pour love and goodness into the lives of others? Maybe the holidays would be different for us if we spent less time being “distracted with much serving” and more time cherishing the "main course” with each other.
Note: I have quoted from various Bible translations in this post and rather than interrupt the flow for the reader, I have listed them here: “Distracted with much serving", “the good portion” and “not be taken away from her”—Revised Standard Version; “main course”—The Message; “the best part” and “worried and bothered about providing so many things”—Phillips. The Bible passage is Luke 10:38-42.