Beyond the Ordinary
Mary was sitting at the Lord’s feet hearing his word.
Martha was busy with serving.
Mary has chosen the best part.
Luke 10:39, 40, 42
The short verses of Luke 10:38–42 are among the best-known in Sacred Scripture, describing as they do the encounter that took place between Jesus and the two sisters, Martha and Mary, in Martha’s house in what Luke describes as “a certain city” but which we know from the Gospel of John was Bethany, a village near Jerusalem. While Mary sat near Jesus to hear his words, Martha was busy serving up supper, and when Mary did not rise to help, Martha asked Jesus to remind her sister that shewas needed in the kitchen. Jesus replied, Martha, you are careful and troubled about many things, but only one thing is necessary, and Mary has chosen the better part. Martha had at that time thought it her duty to prefer the ordinary stuff of life to the words of the Jesus.
If we ask what the words of this story mean, there will, as will always be the case with understanding the Bible, be more than one answer. In an ontological sense, that is, to use a long word, in the order of reality, it clearly means that it is better to listen to the words of God than to be busy with the tasks of life because the first is the stuff of eternity. What Mary has chosen will not be taken from her. In our lives there will be time to serve the table and a time to listen to God, and it is important to know when to do each. When God is speaking, listen.
And in another sense Jesus’ words are a charter of freedom from the persistent claims of the ordinary on behalf of the supernatural. One thinks of that other story, of the day when the woman poured expensive perfume over Jesus’ feet against the objection of Judas that there was a better use; the perfume could be sold and the money given to the poor (Matthew 26:6–12). Our Lord replied in words that assure us that in this fallen world, while the poor would be with us always and our duty to them would be constant, this singular act of love took its place in the economy of God as an anticipation of His burial. Jesus reminded the apostles that what she had done would be told in memory of her wherever the Gospel would be preached throughout the world; it would forever be part of the story of the great apostolic mission until the end of time.
John the Evangelist remembers the same event, and in his account it is that Mary, who had listened to Jesus’ word in Luke, who anoints the feet of Jesus and wipes them with her hair (12:1–8). John adds the detail that it is Judas who makes the utilitarian case, urging that the spikenard of great price be sold and the money given to the poor. But, says John, “He did this not because he cared for the poor but because he had the purse, and carried the things that were in it” (6). This is puzzling language, suggesting that Judas the thief had an interest in increasing the purse, which in some sense he thought of as his, and this takes imagination to the reiterated teaching of the Gospel that an overweening interest in money is a bar to the kingdom, from the rich man who built barns (Luke 12:15–21), to the young man who went away because he had many possessions (19:22), to the merchants of the apocalypse who cast ashes on their heads as they see the city whose inhabitants neglected God in favor of buying and selling fall to dust (Revelation 18:19).
And consider as well the beautiful and complicated image of Luke 7:36–50. in which the repentant woman like Mary of Bethany anointed Jesus’ feet, this time with tears as well as perfume, and which action Jesus uses as an opportunity to instruct His host, a Pharisee, to explain the meaning of sin and forgiveness, and to justify to Peter the unguarded extravagance of love that follows upon the great gift of forgiveness. Jesus’ host sits saying within himself, “If he is a prophet, surely the teacher knows that this woman is a sinner.” Jesus does not address His host directly but turns to Peter with the stiff words “I have something to say to you.” And Jesus then offers the figure of two debtors, one forgiven a small debt the other a great sum. And which, Jesus asks Peter, will love their generous creditor more? And this is the explanation for her dramatic expression of love. Many sins are forgiven her because she has loved much, that is, because she has loved Jesus much. And forever the road to forgiveness will be the outpouring of the open, unguarded heart to Him “whom I ought to love above all else.” And the community in which love can be expressed beyond the bounds of the ordinary will be the community of those to whom much has been forgiven.
“But those to whom less is forgiven, he loveth less.” He who loveth less might say, “True, I have some imperfections, perhaps I need forgiveness for small and insignificant sins.” But to reason in one’s heart in this way is to forget that this way of thinking is itself no small sin, for the point of the good life is not avoiding scandal or even avoiding eternal desolation but opening our hearts to Jesus’ sacred heart. And to realize that we have often sought to do less makes us companions of the woman who, having many sins, yet being forgiven, loved much.
In this very subtle account Jesus is not condemning Peter but is using Peter’s ordinary behavior—you did not kiss me and wipe my feet with tears—as a foil for the behavior of the woman who had not ceased kissing Jesus’ feet. And in that way this account is linked to the familiar story of Mary who listened to Jesus while Martha served. For is the fruition of the Gospel to take us beyond the realm of the ordinary and into the realm of supernatural love and justice, and analogously out of the regime in which faith and imagination is chained to the ordinary. In Screwtape Letters C. S. Lewis tells the story of the scholar, patiently working in the library, when the inspiration that he should consider his life in the light of God’s claim upon it comes to him. But in response the demon dedicated to his destruction reminded the scholar that it is time for lunch and that such weighty matters can wait. So, quickly, out into the street, where he will see the passing crowd, the number eleven bus, and the sea of ordinary life, where such disturbing foolishness as repentance will be forgotten .
Whether philosophy, the thought of the age, reflects or shapes the mind of the world is not resolvable, for the mind that philosophy raises to the level of reflection is the mind of the world philosophers know. What is clear is that after Voltaire and David Hume, after the triumph of that texture of philosophical mistakes the world calls enlightenment, it has been the project of the most fashionable philosophers to insist that any sentence that refers to the world that lies beyond ordinary experience is nothing more than opinion, indeed probably illusion. The result is a flattened world in which the only principle is a lack of discrimintiton, of imagination, and ultimately of hope, because every intimation that there may be more to all this than cooking dinner is out of court. All is opinon, none is true. The damage this has done is incalculable, for by this rule the Bible, art, music, poetry, even philosophers who inhabited the pre-flattened world, can teach us nothing, and we are left in the prison of our own subjectivity, goaded onward by those ever-available witnesses, those permanent inhabitants of the basement of our souls, our passions.
Christ was not a philosopher; let this never be thought. But in the story of Mary and Martha, His word represented the supernatural foundations of life as well as the order that makes natural insight fruitful when He reminded Martha, and every reader of Luke’s Gospel, that if God speaks, listening to Him is more important than dinner, indeed more important than anything that belongs to the world that is passing away, passing away not because it is evil or pointless but because something better, something beyond the ordinary, that will not be taken from us, is coming. In that way Christ freed the world for faith in Him on behalf of the great adventure that elevates the ordinary into a sacrament and leads holy hope into the world of beauty and truth that even as it explains our ordinary existence in the world in its relation to the extraordinary makes that existence a blessing.
And by the way, the substitution of “Ordinary Time” for “Sundays after Pentecost” is a minor example of those flattening, tone-deaf expedients now often encouraged by experts who forget that Mary really had chosen the better part. There is no ordinary time.