SCRIPTURE – Luke 10:38-42
As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
Sit Still and Pay Attention!
July 18, 2010
In the movie “City Slickers,” Billy Crystal plays a big-city salesman caught in a mid-life rut who tries to find himself by vacationing on a real-life dude ranch. While he’s there he meets Curly, a tough, wizened cowboy, whom Crystal describes as “a saddlebag with eyes.” In one of their conversations, Curly, realizing Billy Crystal’s quiet desperation and search for purpose, says to him, “Do you know what the secret of life is?” Then he holds up his finger and says, “This.” Crystal says, “The secret of life is your finger?” Curly replies, “One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and the rest don’t mean nothing.” Naturally, Crystal says, “But what’s the one thing?” And Curly replies, “That’s what you have to find out.”
Jesus must have watched “City Slickers” right before we visited Mary and Martha, because when Martha comes to him full of exasperation and anger at Mary, Jesus says, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.” Only one thing? Did Jesus have any awareness of the situation? Did he know how busy Martha was? Of course she’s worried and distracted by many things! Only a short time ago she found out Jesus was coming to her house for supper. And he was bringing his disciples with him. That means that on very short notice, Martha had to prepare a meal for at least 14 people. And this was before Sam’s Club. And oh, by the way, one of the visitors is the son of God so you better not burn the pot roast.
What do you cook for Jesus and his entourage? Martha wasn’t about to serve the Messiah peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem to be crucified; do you think Martha was comfortable serving boiled hotdogs on paper plates? There was a feast to be cooked, fine china to be dusted off, sweeping and mopping and straightening to be done. Showing hospitality to Jesus was of the utmost importance and somebody’s gotta do the work.
Do you see the work Martha had cut out for her? Jesus and his crowd arrive on short notice, so the food hasn’t quite finished cooking and the table still needs setting. Martha excuses herself to the kitchen to finish the preparations, probably expecting her sister Mary to follow her, to lend a hand, to at least offer to hang up the disciples’ tunics or get them a drink. But when Martha peeks out into the living room, wondering where Mary is and why she isn’t helping, there’s her younger sister, sitting at teacher’s feet, which was a spot of learning exclusively reserved for male students like the disciples.
Can you understand Martha’s reaction? Can you feel her anger? Not only is Mary breaking social etiquette by acting like a male disciple, but there’s all that work still to be done, and Mary has yet to stir a pot. If you’ve ever been the only one cleaning up after a big meal, you know what Martha felt. No one likes to be left holding the dishtowel. So Martha boldly approaches Jesus and takes her stand, a stand that I believe any of us would be making at this point: “Lord, don’t you care that I’m doing all the work by myself? Tell Mary to help me!”
It’s very tempting in this passage to want to cast Mary as the good guy and Martha as the bad guy. But to do so does a grave injustice to Martha and all those like her. Martha is the patron saint of multitasking, and this world simply would not exist without her spiritual brothers and sisters. She gets the job done, and the world needs men and women and boys and girls who get the job done. The world would come to a grinding halt without responsible people like Martha. Right now, you Martha types are making out your grocery lists in the margins of the bulletin. What’s wrong with being a Martha? Why is Jesus so critical of her?
He is not, as I read it, criticizing Martha for the work she has been doing. He’s not saying to her that such work doesn’t have to be done; obviously it does. You can’t have a pitch-in supper unless someone pitches in. You can’t have a clean kitchen unless someone cleans. I believe under normal circumstances Jesus would applaud Martha’s efforts, lift her up as a shining example of hospitality, someone who walks the walk of a servant faith.
But these aren’t normal circumstances. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. He’s on his way to die on the cross. He may never be with Mary and Martha again. Mary recognized the significance of Jesus’ visit to her house, and she put her own agendas aside to make sure she spent time with him. The dishes would still be there after dinner; Jesus wouldn’t. When Jesus was hanging on the cross, would Martha regret that she didn’t get all the leftovers put away, or would she regret that she hadn’t spent more time with Jesus?
This is not a story about right vs. wrong. Martha was extending as much hospitality to Jesus by preparing dinner as Mary was by paying attention. Jesus is not questioning Martha’s efforts; he is questioning her motivations. What Mary realized in this story is that the only place to be at that moment was at the feet of the rabbi. Nothing was more important than being in his presence. Jesus didn’t tell Martha that what she was doing wasn’t important work, because it was. What he says to her is about balance, about priority, about making sure the first things stay first.
That is so hard to do today in a world where busyness is the expectation. If someone asks me how my new job is going, I feel compelled to answer, “It’s busy” for fear of looking like a slacker. The other day I asked one of our junior high youth what activities he had planned for the summer, and he said, “Nothing.” And I thought, “Nothing? How can you be doing nothing this summer?” And then I thought, “He’s 13 years old. He’s SUPPOSED to be doing nothing during the summers!” But I have been conditioned to believe that every minute of the day is supposed to be scheduled with something to do, because being productive equals being valuable.
But Jesus never called me to be productive. He called me to be faithful. He called me to be attentive to him. He called me to live life to the fullest. In his book Overload Syndrome, Richard Swenson says, “God does not give out monthly productivity sheets. All he asks is, ‘Do you love me?’ Such love is not measured in units per hour but rather by consistently loving the person standing in front of you at the moment. It does not have to do with the past nor the future, but the present. Right now. Are you bringing the kingdom of God to bear on whatever you are doing – right now?”
I don’t believe Jesus is calling us to stop doing things. The world would end if everyone stopped working. Brother Lawrence wrote, “Our sanctification does not depend as much on changing our activities as it does on doing them for God instead of for ourselves.” There’s a difference between being busy and being distracted. The one thing Jesus was talking about was not a life of contemplation and inactivity. He wanted Martha to be with him, and to invite him to be with her, not matter what was going on around her. We can be sitting at Jesus’ feet when we’re kneeling in prayer or negotiating a contract or fixing lunch or watching a movie. The important thing is not what we’re doing, it’s the awareness of Jesus’ presence with us while we’re doing it. Poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote, “Earth is crammed with Heaven and every common bush afire with God; but only he who sees it takes off his shoes. The rest sit around it and pluck blackberries.” Do we see it? Do we see God’s presence, do we see the bush afire when it’s in our midst? Or are we too busy? Mary saw it, and Jesus said she chose the greater portion in life.
Even when we do finally find time to sit, relax, not be busy, we have trouble doing so because our minds are conditioned to always be working. Worship is a natural time for sitting at Jesus’ feet, but how many of us are guilty of letting our outside schedule and responsibilities invade upon that time? “I know I should go to church today, but I just have so much to do!” Our minds wander to the events of the day ahead. Even our prayers can get clogged up with our own words, because at least then we’re still doing something. I’ve come to believe that my worthiness is directly related to my level of productivity. But if I stop to listen, I would learn from Jesus that my worth is not defined by how much I do, but by who I am, who I was created to be. No amount of activity will change my value in God’s eyes.
Whatever you do, do it with God. Everything, from the most exhilarating to the most mundane, is an opportunity to be with God. If you are a nurse, invite God on your rounds with you. If you are a carpenter, invite God to your next project. If you are a dishwasher or an accountant or an attorney, do those things with God. Hey, if you’re retired, be retired for God! Now, what does that mean? What does it mean to do all these things while paying attention to God’s presence with you? What does it mean to invite Christ to be with us, no matter what we’re doing? Well, that’s the one thing, isn’t it? That’s what we have to find out. And I have a feeling if we commit ourselves to finding how to see God’s presence in every common bush and bus stop and board room, our lives will be made richer and fuller and more enjoyable and we will have chosen the greater portion in life.
Make no mistake about it, life can be busy. The title of a recent article in the Chicago Tribune magazine summed it up: “There’s No Stopping Us: We Work Too Much and Play Too Little, but Who Dares Step Off the Treadmill?” Who dares to take a break from the cooking and the cleaning and the toiling to be still and pay attention? Christ is with us, even now, wanting to speak a life-changing word to us. Do we have time to listen, to sit at his feet and be still? To attend to God? Or are we just too darn busy?