Wednesday, June 16

Tuesday’s Temptation: Better

Better is the enemy of the good. Voltaire

I admit that I am not a Voltaire scholar. But the English variant of this quote caught my attention. Perfect is the enemy of the good. This comes up in justice circles (side note: can we discuss the "need" for the phrase social justice in an attempt to differentiate from the justice system). In justice circles, that which is concerned for the common welfare of humanity, people are grouped into basically three categories:

  1. Those who work for change and will take any result.
  2. Those who work for change and will only take results that cross a certain threshold.
  3. Those who work for change and will only take the results that remove all barriers to change.

If the idea is perfection, then numbers 1 and 2 are anathema to number 3. Creating a moment where people who are ostensibly striving for the same thing are in opposition to one another.

In Christian scripture, there is this story of Mary and Martha in Luke 10. In the story, Jesus is hanging out at their house. Dinner is being prepared and all it is a frenzy of activity that is falling on Martha's shoulders (because patriarchy). Mary, however, who should be sharing the burden with Martha according to patriarchy has abandoned the preparations in order to sit at Jesus' feet. Martha has had it. She cries out to Jesus, "Don't you care that I have been abandoned to do all the work? Tell Mary to help me!"

From; comparison of translations

Unfortunately, this next bit is where most of our Bible translations go off the wheels. In Jesus' reply. Most translations report that Jesus say Mary chooses what is better, the one thing that is necessaryright choicewhat is right, or what is best. The truth of the matter is that in Greek, there is a multiplicity of options to choose for the response. So Jesus' words depends entirely on your own approach to patriarchy, what it means to be in relationship with the Divine, and willingness to consider that a multiplicity of "good" is possible. What if Mary's choice is good and Martha's choice is also good? What if the two goods are to be in tension with each other? What if we allow Mary to remove the barriers to patriarchy by entering into a space reserved for men while we simultaneously allow Martha to continue serving in the way she is called? And make sure that Martha knows that her way should not be forced onto the Mary's of the world.

Of course, I would posit that this is the real tension. Martha cannot see that the Mary solution is viable. But the patriarchy, of which Mary has no entered into, cannot see that they have put a heavy burden on Martha. Some say the solution would be to call Martha into the space that Mary is in. The question for me becomes, "How will we eat?"

There is a creative third way that can come if we listen to Mary (#3 type person) an Martha (#1 type person). They allow the perfect or better to become the enemy of the good. What if they work together? Mary brings Martha into the space reserved for men. And when they all get hungry, they work together to teach the willing how to cook some food (this is way easier said than done--remember that the kitchen wasn't modern and cooking was a big endeavor). Maybe they need take-out. It isn't that Martha's task shouldn't be done. It just shouldn't be done in such a way that is exploitative.

At any rate, I share Martha and Mary as an example of the better being the enemy of the good. If Mary's way is better, it becomes the enemy of the good--the work that Martha is doing. The work that patriarchy has undervalued since the beginning of time.  If we are not careful, we fall into the same patterns. In striving for the better or perfect, we undervalue those who choose a less radical path. Then Martha and Mary become enemies of one another rather than taking down patriarchy together.

The temptation is to always think that our way is better. Or that unless we get it all, it isn't working getting. That perfection is worth sacrificing those who do good.

Our job is to not be tempted by better and to make it a universal rule for everyone. Our job is to sit in the truth that there are a multiplicity of goods that exist in the world and for each of us to choose our good part.

I pray that each of us will be able to choose our good part on this day and forever more. Earnestly striving to bring freedom to all to choose their own path free from exploitation.


Photo by +Simple on Unsplash


  • Would folks start sharpening their pitchforks and lighting their torches if I were to suggest that yet another option would be for Jesus to get up off his rabbinical ass and maybe … HELP MARTHA FIX DINNER for the 3 of them? (While continuing to teach, that is! Surely the Eternal Word incarnate can multi-task.) I’m no Diane-caliber cook, but around 5:30 pm you can find me slicing bread, building a salad ( at which I’m damn good, BTW), setting the table, etc., so Diane doesn’t have to quite start from scratch when she gets home an hour later. Far’s I can tell, my ‘nads haven’t shriveled to the size of chick-peas. I read the story as actually validating patriarchy because Jesus does NOT do this. But maybe I missed something.

    • Yes I was thinking of that too. But I thought that’s a whole other blog post. 🙂

      So the part that I think is invalidating patriarchy is affirming Mary’s choice to be with the men.

      My question is — if we are to destroy patriarchy, how do we not leave Martha behind? Is it OK to ignore Martha? For the places that are not ready to let Mary all the way into the salon, but will let her into the living room, is that good enough?

      • My solution: crash the salon. My favorite line from “The Post” is where Ben Bradley (or Katherine Graham) says “The way you prove you have the right to publish is by publishing”. People get arrested — I have — but they survive — I did — and the next people to crash the salon will have an easier time.

          • In saner political times when Republicans considered Nelson Rockefeller a radical, no. But given the rise of para-fascism … yeah … point taken. In fact, today’s SCOTUS might decide “Sullivan” the OPPOSITE way. I have to bear in mind that these days the militant brain-dead will fight back.

  • Options 2 and 3 are how ostensible progressives — a.k.a. “boutique progressives” — ended up de facto voting for Trump, BTW. Insisting on perfection makes one vulnerable to the meretricious blandishments of the perfectly Evil.

  • BTW … unrelated subject, but … what is a “pingback” and why does WP issue them? Whenever I link to a previous “Skeptic’s” column I always get an e-mail request to approve a “pingback”. No big deal. I always approve it. Just curious.

  • I haven’t read the Greek text, though I certainly will. (I feel perhaps a “Skeptic’s” column gestating.) But all the English translations from BibleHub, to me, reinforce both (a) a kind of supercilious, J. K. Huysmans-adjacent “crypto-Gnosticism” on Jesus’ part (“Oh Martha! Eating is such a frightfully BOURGEOIS activity! Do sit down and discuss Talmud with Mary and me … theah’s a good girl!”) and (b) patriarchy. But I’ll have to read the koine-Greek text to make an informed judgment.

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