There is a lot of controversy regarding bilingual education. We used to have a really good program in Los Angeles, until the voters killed it. Not that it was perfect, mind you. Here is how it worked. You taught the kids who spoke no English in their native language, gradually mixing in English, and gradually increasing the amount of English used until, by the fifth grade, the kids were speaking English all day. This allowed the kids to learn difficult subjects such as Social Studies, Math, Science, etc., in their native language. Imagine going to France and trying to study French history in French when you don’t speak a word of French. Now imagine doing that and being six years old. Talk about child abuse!
Anyway, even in the beginning, English is used. During the afternoons, classes were divided up and mixed for music, art, and physical education. You see, those subjects are very physical. You can use English only and the kids will still understand you. It’s called comprehensible input in linguistics. This way, kids could start to learn English without any anxiety. This was a great bilingual program based upon the natural language acquisition approach to second language learning. There was only one problem.
The teachers in the program were elementary school teachers, and not trained in linguistics. During those early afternoon music, art, and P.E. lessons, it wasn’t the subject that was important, it was the English. It didn’t matter if the kid got the concepts of the subjects. It was only the English that mattered. But teachers quickly shifted the focus from English to the subject matter. They wanted the kids to be successful at making a macaroni picture frame (and who wouldn’t want to be good at that?). Many of the teachers, out of frustration, would slip back into the kids’ native language to make the instructions more clear thereby defeating the whole purpose of the lesson. The truth is, it’s easy for us to lose sight of what is really important. Take for example, this week’s gospel reading from Luke.
“And it happened, as they were going, he entered into a certain village, and a certain woman named Martha gladly received him into the house. And she had a sister named Miriam, who was sitting down beside the feet of the Lord and was listening to his word. And Martha was being distracted concerning much service, and she went and said, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me alone to serve? Then speak to her that she might help me.’ And the Lord answered and said to her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled concerning much, and one thing is a necessity. For Mary picked out the good part which will not be taken away from her.’” (Luke, Chapter 10, a direct translation)
I always had problems with this little reading because I could see Martha’s point of view. I have been in many situations in which I wondered why I seemed to be doing all the work. And consider for the moment the word “they” in the first sentence. Is Luke referring to just Jesus and his twelve homies, or is he talking about those 72 people Jesus sent out and who had returned so happy and all from casting out demons? I would have to say that I would be a little pissed if I had to prepare food for 72 surprise guests who just happen to pop by. But of course, this story may well never have happened, or it might have. What is important is that it teaches a lesson about spirituality.
This story illustrates a contrast in two behaviors. The text says that they gladly welcomed Jesus. They were happy to see Jesus. The text also uses the word “Lord” three times. Luke is stressing the position of Jesus as “master”. He is important. His words are important. His teaching was important. Miriam is listening. And Martha is busy preparing a meal.
One day, my most wonderful wife, who is perfect in nearly every way, was busy cleaning the sink after loading the dishwasher. At that moment, a program about the paranormal I was watching started to feature a haunted house near where we used to live. Becky is enamored with ghostie programs. She watches Ghosthunters on the Scify network religiously. I called her over to watch it. She said she would be there in a moment, as soon as she finished the sink. But it was only a short segment. I called to her to hurry, but she just kept on cleaning. By the time she got to the set, the segment was over. I told her I was sorry she missed it. She simply said she needed to get the sink clean. My feeling was that the sink would still be there after the program was over. By the way, I would have cleaned the sink for her so she could watch the segment, but she says I don’t clean it well enough.
It is easy for us to get involved in something, and miss out on the things in life that are really important. I know a guy, a friend of mine, who works nearly eighty hours a week. He doesn’t mind. He does it so he can provide a good life for his family. He works hard and makes good money. The problem is, that he never gets to be around his family. He’s always working. He doesn’t get the benefit of them and they don’t get the benefit of him. What good is it to provide everything for your family, but deny your family the one thing they need most, you? What is really important in life?
According to Jesus, what is important is making that connection to the divine creative spirit, to God, if you will. There would have been plenty of time after the teaching for Martha to prepare a meal, and then Miriam (Mary) would have been available to help. Jesus reminds Martha that she is worried about a whole lot of things, but there is only one thing that matters. Miriam (Mary) has made the correct choice.
It is important, also, to point out that Miriam is sitting at the feet of Jesus. This is the traditional posture for the student and teacher. Jesus has accepted Miriam as a student. Rabbis did not accept female students. This is just one of many instances in the New Testament in which the status of woman in society is elevated. Jesus likes to make it clear that women are equal to men. The story of Jesus, as written by whomever wrote it, frequently places women in positions of importance. It is a woman who washes his feet. It is women who first see the risen Christ. This message would not have been lost on the first century followers of Jesus. It was the later church that would put women in a subordinate role.
This story is a perfect example of the teachings Jesus gave in his famous sermon on the mount (or Plain, if you’re reading Luke). The birds don’t work. They manage to survive okay. The flowers don’t work, and look how pretty they are. Martha is worried about taking care of business. She wants to welcome the Lord. Meanwhile, she is missing everything the Lord has to say. And yet, Jesus does not criticize her for spending her time the way she does. He doesn’t go out and chastise her and demand she come inside and listen. He does not even say she is doing the wrong thing. He simply says that Miriam has chosen the “better” part, not the “good” part, as opposed to the “bad” part, but the “better” part. This would imply that Martha’s choice was also good. Serving others is important.
Martha’s choice to serve was good. Miriam’s choice was better. Moreover, Miriam’s choice was none of Martha’s business. Martha wants Jesus to tell Miriam to get in the kitchen and help out. But Miriam has her own idea of what should be done. Jesus makes it clear. Martha, you worry too much about shit. Martha made a choice. She wants validation for her choice. She wants her choice to be the ONLY correct choice. Not only is Martha’s choice not the only good choice, it isn’t even the better one.
I used to read bible stories and think that some of them were pretty stupid. And then I stopped myself. I considered. A great many people have read this book over the centuries, some of them very, very intelligent, rational people. They seem to feel that this is an important book with important things to teach us. So I changed the way I read the book. I started to read the book with the assumption that the stories were good. I started reading the bible with the point of view that if a story seemed stupid to me, then I must be looking at the story the wrong way. How could I view this story so that it made sense?
We always tend to see things through our own cultural glasses. And we always assume that our own culture sees things the correct way. We don’t notice that Miriam has made the choice to forego her traditional role as servant to take on the traditional male role as student because that is normal for us. But for people back in the first century, that would have been radical. We don’t always see things the same way as the writers of the bible because our world is so different from theirs in so many ways. But that doesn’t make the truth of the story and less powerful.
We still set the wrong priorities in our lives. We still waste the golden moments that come in our lives. We miss out on opportunities to grow because we are too anxious on concerned with day to day living. As someone once said, when you’re fighting back the alligators, it’s easy to forget that the reason you were there was to clean out the swamp. The story still has meaning for us today. The bible, the Tao Te Ching, the Sutras, the Koran, and countless other holy books have something to teach us. Are we too busy with life to listen and learn how to live?