THE GOOD PORTION
Sermon delivered on the 8th Sunday after Trinity, the 17th July 2016 by Bishop Nicholas J.G. Sykes in the congregation of St. Alban's Church of England, George Town, Cayman Islands.
Scriptures: Genesis 18: 1-10a Colossians 1: 15-28 S. Luke 10:38-end
S. Luke 10: 42b Jesus said, “Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her.”
The importance of good food is taken for granted by the Scripture readings today. It is true that apart from the occasional lunch out with someone, my lunches are normally of a rather rough and ready quality, except when my wife brings her lunch with me to share; they do not normally go beyond a box soup that you have to put water in and heat. It’s not the most gourmet concoction but it keeps you going until later. And when you are really hungry even one of these can be quite delicious. Certainly, well put together food is important, as nearly everyone in Cayman will tell you, and as Abraham in the Old Testament and Martha of the Gospel would definitely, I believe, have agreed.
In the Old Testament lesson, the association is made between a divine manifestation and a prepared meal. To prepare food for a guest was and is a basic sign of Middle Eastern hospitality, so it evidently can be inferred that Abraham was showing lavish hospitality to his exceptionally important three guests - guests in whom Abraham had from the beginning of their visit perceived the divine Presence. The scale of the meal belies the modesty with which Abraham had described what he was intending to do for his guests - to have, as he had said to them, a little water brought and a morsel of bread. Having obtained their assent to his intention of hospitality he does a great deal better than he had indicated and went on to kill a premium calf from his herd and prepare for them a full meal from it, and one can only surmise how long that would have taken. At last, having set the meal before them he stands near and waits, as a servant waiting upon his masters.
After they had eaten, the Lord, in the person of one of the three visitors, made to Abraham the promise that He would return in a year's time, and that by then Abraham's aged wife Sarah would have a son. This is one of the great promises that characterise the biblical account of Abraham, who was progressively and in stages told what he should do and what the Lord would make of him. We will recall that he was told to go to a land that he did not know, that he should have descendants, that the land to which he was to go should become the possession of these descendants, that the descendants would be the fruit of his body and not of his servant Eleazar, and finally that the descendants would be from Sarah his wife. Although great possessions and doubtless great feasting too were part of Abraham’s life, the significance of that life for which it is eternally remembered is that poverty of spirit, let us call it, which enabled him to believe the promises that seemed impossible of fulfilment, because it was the Lord who made them and could make the seemingly impossible actually happen.
We may remember also that the Old Testament in a number of passages refers to one’s “portion”. The literal meaning of this term would be a portion of food, but it was used figuratively to mean one’s lot or standing in life. In Psalm 16 we read, “The Lord Himself is the portion of mine inheritance, and of my cup: thou shalt maintain my lot. The lot is fallen unto me in a fair ground: yea I have a goodly heritage.” In Psalm 73 we read, “My flesh and my heart faileth: but God is the strength of my heart, and my portion for ever.” And we will remember the story of Esau and Jacob in Genesis, where Esau sells his birthright portion for a food portion. And so Jesus is not by any means being dismissive of Martha’s efforts in serving him and those with him something of a feast, when he says that a better “portion” lies in close attention to the Lord and fellowship with Him, just as the Old Testament said. We remember too that Jesus had a rather different perspective over matters of food than those around him, including his own disciples. Yes food does have its own importance, and He Himself, in contrast to John the Baptist, was said to “eat” and to “drink”, but it is not to take the front row of the seating, so to speak. This is why a discipline of fasting or abstinence will always remain important for Christian discipline, just as it has over the centuries. We need to be reminded always that there are other things that are more important to us than what the body cries out to us for. The portion of food pleasure is indeed to be appreciated and given thanks for, but the portion that is to be sought above all is that of God Himself. For this reason, Jesus says that it was Mary that had chosen the truly good portion, in sitting at the Lord’s feet and listening to His teaching.
CS Lewis used to say that the idea that Jesus was a good man but not God is not open to us for acceptance. This word by Jesus to Martha is a good example of this. A teacher who was not God would perhaps have said to Mary, Go and help your sister now, and then come back to me after the meal. But as especially S. John makes clear, Jesus was always conscious that the words He uttered came directly from the Father. His teaching was indeed God’s teaching, and it would amount to idolatry to put that teaching behind the preparation and serving of food. No doubt that was why Jesus on another occasion did not send the crowds home rather than continue to teach them, and was called therefore then to feed the 5000.
This relationship between the Father and the Son, a relationship that is described at length in the logic of the Athanasian Creed, is illustrated in S. Paul’s epistle to the Colossians. Jesus Christ is “the image of the invisible God,” says the Apostle Paul. The Son is the Father’s agent in creating and sustaining the universe. Also He is the Head of the church. These positions and functions belong only to God, but they are assigned to Jesus the Son. And through the Son, God was pleased to reconcile to Himself all things.
It is never made really explicit in the Old Testament whether the “three men” who accepted Abraham’s hospitality were indeed manifestations of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, or whether they were the Lord and two angels. However, Jesus’ words to Martha about Mary having chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her, neither in her going and helping Martha in the kitchen, nor for all eternity, are completely consistent with the words of S. Paul that Jesus was and is for eternity, the image of the invisible God. Like hospitable Martha, Abraham prepared a feast for His Lord. Like the attendant and expectant Mary, Abraham waited upon the Lord for His Word and promise. It is for us now to be the inheritors of the Kingdom of Heaven, and to prefer this inheritance over everything else.