When I was a school chaplain I came to prepare an address about that too-familiar parable, the Good Samaritan.
I found it lay in the Gospel of Luke side by side with the story of Mary and Martha. This astonished me, for in my mind the two stories were almost contradictory.
When I was a child the Good Samaritan was a story about robbers beating a man and a hero bandaging him after snobs had walked past. The take-home message was about being a helper, not walking past stuff but lending a hand.
My parents were loyal church-goers who took the biblical texts with great seriousness. But when I was 10 I overheard my careful mother say of Mary and Martha, ‘‘I hate that story, it makes me feels so useless.’’
I can still hear the hiss.
Church that day had been all about how wrong Martha was with her efforts at hosting. To my childhood ears the story was about who should have to help in the kitchen; always a hot topic – we did a lot of hosting at our place.
Jesus had come to the home of his friends. One of the sisters, Mary, sat at his feet listening. Martha, fed up that her sister wasn’t helping, asked Jesus to send Mary back to the kitchen. But Jesus affirmed that Mary had "chosen the better part".
The preacher told it as a rebuke to Martha and my mother felt likewise stung. Weirdly, having learnt from the Good Samaritan that you should always stop to help, now Jesus was saying you didn’t always have to help, that sometimes listening mattered more.
I later recognised in these stories the contrasting energies of action and contemplation. Hidden in the kitchen story was an invitation to rest.
Discovering the stories immediately followed each other, I wondered whether they might be deliberately told together to teach two truths in a kind of counterpoint.
Some research in the commentaries confirmed this. It had taken a few decades for this to sink in but here it was: You can’t go on loving your neighbour if you are not also fed by the love of God, and given the permission to rest in that.
When I started work in a new and challenging role, I received a postcard from a friend of mine. The postcard read: “The love of God will sustain you, but only if you bask in it.”
Sometimes I wondered how you could possibly bask and serve at the same time. I have learnt, sometimes painfully, that you can’t serve if you can’t bask.
Julie Perrin is a Melbourne writer.
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