July 17, 2016
William G. Carter
Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
It is a bit of surprise to come across this story when we do. Jesus has just told the great story of The Good Samaritan, with all the energy it took to tell it, and all of the feedback he undoubtedly received for telling it. Immediately Luke tells us about a squabble between two sisters, one of them diligently preparing a meal for Jesus while the other skips the hard work, sits and listens to him.
The story starts here, a domestic squabble between two siblings. If you are not an only child, you know something about this. My dad would lace up his work boots on a Saturday morning and call out, “I need some help out in the yard.” My sister and I reacted in different ways. She would lace up her junior work boots, run outside, and say, “Here I am, what can I do?”
As for me, I was a bit more reflective. I would contemplate the philosophy of doing manual labor. Usually I was sitting down somewhere in the bathroom, with the door locked, as I read through the biography of a famous person like George Washington. I spent a lot of time pondering if famous people ever did yard work. In time, someone would pound at the door and declare in a piercing cry, “You need to come outside and help me and Dad.” I would ignore her, I was busy. She would pound again. Then she would take her dispute to a higher authority.
Isn’t that what’s happening here?
So I feel vindicated when I hear Jesus soothe the hard-working sister, “”Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; Mary has chosen the better part.” It’s not an exact parallel, but it works for me. And it’s a surprise that Luke would tell a story like this, a story of two siblings, one of them annoyed at the other.
Of course, there is that other story he tells, “Once upon a time, there was a man with two sons.” The Good Son stayed home and worked hard in his father's fields, while the other son ran off and squandered his share of the family fortune. In that story, we are invited to sympathize with the Good Son, who watches his wayward brother stumble back to a “Welcome Home” banquet while he had worked hard and done nothing wrong.
Today we have a story of Two Sisters. One is in the kitchen and the other is not. Martha is the diligent one and she is perturbed. She’s working hard and she doesn’t have any help. So she says, "Lord, tell my sister to come and help me." I bet she is cooking up one enormous meal while Mary's just sitting there. Can you blame Martha for being annoyed?
And then we have Mary, who sits at the feet of Jesus. She listens to his voice, sets her agenda aside, receives his instruction, and presumably ponders these things in her heart. This is the Gospel of Luke, after all, and Jesus is always on center stage. He is the one we are to be listening for, and listening to. If Jesus came to your house, wouldn’t you want to sit at his feet?
Now, you know the usual way that this story is used. It’s held up as a mirror, and the question is asked: “Which one are you?” Are you hard-working Martha, focused on the tasks at hand, doing the necessary preparations behind the scenes, watching the clock, tending to all the necessary details? Or are you devoted Mary, gazing into the face of Christ, free from worry, focused on the deep significance of the moment, and not bogged down with the unnecessary details? Some are drawn to Martha, others attracted to Mary. That’s often how the issue is posed.
But it’s not that simple. The Marthas who love details need their Jesus-time too and they intend to get it, but first the potatoes must be peeled and the meat has to be cooked. The Marys can’t merely float on air, either; there are necessary life tasks that simply must get done.
Parker Palmer, a good Quaker, says you can’t divide life into action and contemplation. For us to be fully alive, we have to hold both together. There’s always work to be done and there is also necessary reflection to find wisdom and meaning in what we do. Palmer says one can’t exist without the other. As he puts it,
When we fail to hold the paradox together, when we abandon the creative tension between the two, then both ends fly apart into madness. That is what often happens to contemplation-and-action in our culture of either/or. Action flies off into frenzy – a frantic and even violent effort to impose one’s will on the world, or at least to survive against the odds. Contemplation flies off into escapism – a flight from the world into a realm of false bliss.
So we need both, doing and being, working and being still. The necessary skill is to hold them together. That’s easier said than done.
The cheaper way is what many people do, to work hard and then go on vacation, to alternate between labor and rest, to put in your time at the office and keep your weekends free. But what I notice is that a lot of people don’t know how to keep their weekends free. Every free moment is jammed full by people who are gasping for air. All Martha, no Mary – and the healthy person is both.
When my daughters were small, they would run around and be busy. When they ran out of things to do, they would come in and declare, “We’re bored.” I learned to respond, “That’s good. It’s good to be bored, because it means that you’re not busy. Pure busyness is evil.” They would look at me strangely. I’m sure they told their friends that they had a really weird father and I’m OK with that.
After they grumped around for a while, declaring how bored they were, I would pour them some lemonade, and say, “Come here and sit under the tree for a bit.” Then I’d give them Speech # 73. It goes like this:
“You can’t sustain an active life without also developing an interior life. Read a book, learn some poetry, walk in the woods, write in a journal, do some art, listen to a big piece of music, sit by a crackling bonfire and think about your day, or best of all: immerse yourself in some silence. Let these things deepen you. Put some pauses in every day. Don’t just do something – stand there.”
That’s Speech # 73. Do you know why I’ve memorized it? So I can recite it to myself.
This is hard work to be like Mary and Martha at the same time, to get the work done and to be still, to stay contemplative while active, active while contemplative. It’s difficult because we live in such a distracted age. People are playing thumbs with their smart phones, always have to be connected, always have to have the TV on, always on the computer, and always have to bounce from one activity to another, always have to keep the calendar crammed full.
So I think what Jesus is saying is a situational corrective. Martha storms out of the kitchen with her dirty apron, demanding that Mary get off her tail and help out. He makes it a teaching moment. He turns to her, and with the gentlest voice possible, he declares to the Marthas in our midst is that there is a time for hard work, but there is never a good time to be distracted by many things, never a good time to be anxious.
Jesus knew how to work hard – he healed one person after another, spoke to enormous crowds, never had a minute’s rest from his own disciples, was always “on” when people were around. And yet, he could say, “Which one of you, by being anxious, could add an inch to the quality of your life? Look at the birds of the air. They neither sow nor reap, but your heavenly Father feeds them. Look at the lilies of the field. The most opulent king in Israel’s history was not dressed as gorgeously as them.”
So Martha, if you’re burning the candle at all three ends, here’s a good time to look at the birds and admire the lilies. That pause, that sacred pause, is the essence of Sabbath. It is God’s gift of time for the restoring of our souls, an invitation to rest in the Lord and to let God run the world for a while. You could take that time today, but you have to do it. You could take that time every day. It’s not always simple, but it really comes down to that.
My friend Debbie is an executive administrator in Alabama. She’s the lady with the clipboard, always on top of the details. She schedules meetings, oversees the payroll, watches the budget, deals with the contractors. You get the idea. I have never known someone so well organized, so capable in so many ways.
She was invited to join the staff of a church training conference, to be led by Presbyterians and Episcopalians. This involved a week of training in Memphis, and each day began with worship. Sometimes the Presbyterian ministers led it, other times the Episcopalian priests.
At the end of the week, she said the final worship service promised to be very long. There were lots of readings, standing and sitting, more standing and sitting, some genuflecting – and then a gentleman stood to share the sermon. He was well up in years, long into retirement. He looked a little disheveled, like an absent-minded professor. He spoke with a southern twang. The man spoke without notes, and seemed to have a hard time gathering his thoughts.
Then he began to tell a story about being raised by his grandparents. They were good, solid country folk. His granddad would go get the Thanksgiving turkey. He stuffed a live turkey into a burlap sack and took the trolley back home.
This was where the story got really good, as seen through the eyes of a nine year old boy. He went out to the back yard as granddad came back. The axe would fall, the turkey’s head was gone, and that turkey would take off running. It would run and run, and stumble and get up, and run some more. It was pretty cool stuff for a nine year old kid: a headless turkey running around the yard!
By this time, Deb said she was totally confused as to where this man was going with this story. Here they sat with a bunch of robed-up clergy in all their high church finery and this guy’s talking about a headless turkey.
But then he paused and said, “Let me give you the moral of this story: activity is not a sure sign of life.” Did you get that? Activity is not a sure sign of life.”
Jesus said, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by all you think you have to do, yet here I am. Come, sit with me.”