In the Christian “New Testament” of The Bible, there is the oft retold story about two sisters, Martha and Mary (Luke 10: 38-42), where Martha receives Jesus into her home as a guest. And, as Martha busies herself with hosting duties, she notices that her sister is seated at Jesus’ feet “to hear his words.”*
Martha attempts to enlist Jesus’ aid in steering her sister toward helping her with the hosting duties (envision a large dinner party or multiple trays of prepared food). Yet, Jesus tells Martha that she is being “worried” and “excited,” as well as admonishing Martha for not paying attention to that which is more important—the so-called “good portion” which the seated Mary has received and which “shall not be taken away from her [Mary].”
In most homily treatments of this story, we are taught that the “good portion” is, perhaps, a golden nugget from one of Jesus’ teachings. Or, in other treatments, the story may be read as a reminder to shift our focus away from the physical/material aspects of life in order to refocus on the more important spiritual aspects of living.
And both of these readings are among a number of perfectly valid interpretations, which I have heard.
Yet, having sat down to tea with people from the modern Middle East and having witnessed the amount of time taken in actually listening and being with another person and her concerns, I am reminded of the fact that the guest-host relationship in the Middle East is sacred. In that cultural context, one person honors another person’s presence and Light by taking time to sit and be with one another. Thus, the Aramaic Jesus may be reminding us that the good portion may be had by taking the time to slow down and cherish each other’s company.
This culturally contextualized reading also takes into consideration the fact that, in the big picture, we are all guests here and for such a brief time. We all need to slow down to focus on honoring and cherishing one another’s company, as if we were receiving Jesus himself into our homes.
*George M. Lamsa’s translation from the Peshitta was used for quoted material.