During the summer, I am preaching without notes or a text; as such, what follows is the unraveling of my thought processes for a sermon, not the actual words I spoke.
I was riding the T on my way to Mass General when I noticed a young fellow across from me pick up a pair of sunglasses that had fallen out of the pocket of the man sitting next to him. The man was reading a crumpled edition of the free newspaper that seems to germinate in subway stations and hadn’t noticed his glasses fall. The fellow looked at the sunglasses for half a minute and then spent the rest of the minute attempting to get the attention of the man with the free paper. Finally, he poked the man in the knee with the glasses, and the man pocketed them with a grateful smile to the young fellow.
The fellow could have easily put the sunglasses into his own pocket, the complimentary bounty of the inattentive man. Rather, he confirmed my sometimes flagging faith in the human race and handed the glasses back. Of course, there is a clear right and clear wrong in this situation, and to his credit, the fellow chose the right.
Now (and this is for posterity, so be honest) how many of you would have taken the glasses for yourself? How many of you would have seen the (perhaps expensive) shades and decided that the man with the paper didn’t really need them anymore? Finders Keepers, right?
Owing to what were (I am sure) fine upbringings, I hope none of you raised your hands. We spend a goodly amount of time teaching our children the difference between right and wrong. “Emily, I’m glad you’re sharing your jelly beans with your brother. That’s the right thing to do.” “Jimmy, stop hitting your sister. That’s wrong!” Distinguishing between right and wrong is easy. If you have to keep your action a secret – say, for example, you cut the hair off all of your sister’s Barbie dolls – then you’ve probably chosen the wrong thing to do. From an early age, we learn right from wrong, and we hopefully also learn to choose the right, although the actions of recent Wall Street executives disprove the unanimity of this childhood lesson.
While we spend a good deal of time on this lesson, we spend much less time teaching our children the much trickier ability of choosing between right and right. How do we decide when the choice is not between a good and a bad, but between a good and another good?
Let’s look at an example. At 1:30 in the morning, you are driving down the street and you see the light ahead turn red. You roll to a stop and look both ways. No one is coming. Do you wait for green or do you run the light? Convenience may tell you to put the car in gear and keep on going. But, respect for the law keeps you waiting for the light to change. It’s only 35 seconds after all. So, what do you do? In this case, the good of respecting the law should override the good of you arriving at your destination a few seconds sooner.
Now let’s add a few more variables. At 1:30 in the morning, you are driving down the street and you see the light ahead turn red. Your wife is in the backseat; her contractions are only a few minutes apart. The baby is coming any minute now! You roll to a stop and look both ways. No one is coming. Do you wait for green or do you run the light? Respect for the law tells you to wait, but the biological instinct to protect your wife and unborn child by getting to the hospital as soon as humanly possible tells you to go Go GO. So, what do you do? In this case, the good of respecting the law falls short of the good of getting your wife to a medical professional.
Choosing between right and right is a tricky business because both choices are good. So, how do we followers of Jesus make these choices? This past Sunday’s Gospel lesson provides some clarity. Martha welcomes Jesus into her home and then goes about her tasks. Her sister Mary sits at Jesus’ feet and listens to him speak. When Martha asks Jesus to tell her sister to help her, Jesus says that Mary has chosen the better part.
Does this mean that Martha has chosen the wrong thing? Has she done something bad? Of course she hasn’t. This isn’t a zero-sum game with a winner and a loser. Martha has done the same thing that Abraham does in the accompanying reading from Genesis. Abraham bustled around preparing a meal for the three men, who tell him that he and Sarah are finally going to have a child of their own. This bustling isn’t right in the Hebrew scripture and wrong in the Gospel. Martha does the right thing: she provides hospitality for the gathering, which is arguably the highest good in the Hebrew law.
But Jesus says that Mary does a better right thing. She listens to Jesus when she is in his presence. She is not distracted or worried, but attentive to his words. This is the better good, which does not erase Martha’s attempt to do the right thing. Rather, Mary displays the fundamental action, of which Martha’s welcome and hospitality are secondary outcomes.
When I am worried and distracted by many things, how often do I actually stop, take a deep breath, and listen? Not often enough, I’ll tell you. Even when I am engaged in good things, my busyness often drowns out that voice, for which I should be listening. Choosing between right and wrong is easy, but choosing between right and right is difficult. When I have so many good things clamoring for my attention, I first must sit down at the feet of Jesus Christ and listen.