I find this story of Mary and Martha quite fascinating. What is it all about? On the surface, the point of the story is clear: Jesus visits the home of Mary and Martha and the two sisters make very different choices about how to respond to Jesus’ presence. One of them, Mary, sits down at his feet and listens to his teaching. The other, Martha, apparently goes off to do some work.
Then Martha comes back to the room where Mary and Jesus are, and complains that her sister has left her to do all the work. She asks for Jesus’ support in this little tiff with her sister: “Don’t you care that she’s left me to do all the work?” But Jesus doesn’t appear to! In fact, he says that it is Mary who has “chosen the better part.”
What’s happening here? In the Middle Ages, this was a favorite text to extol the virtues of the monastic life! Mary, sitting quietly at Jesus’ feet was seen as the model “contemplative,” and clearly superior to the busy, active Martha. But I don’t think that is what this passage is about.
I think the key to understanding this story is in noting where Luke places it. It comes at the very end of chapter 10. This is one of the most radical chapters in his Gospel. In chapter 10, Jesus time and time again turns the social and religious codes of his time upside down. The story immediately preceding this one is the Good Samaritan. The hero of this story, the one commended by Jesus, is the Jews’ number one enemy, the hated Samaritan.
In the same way, in our story of Mary and Martha, Jesus turns the religious and social codes upside down, and seems to be commending the wrong person. Firstly, by every standard, Martha did the right thing. It was the code of hospitality that when someone comes to your door, be it friend or even a stranger, that you welcome them and prepare them a meal. Mary was breaking that code. Mary should have been helping her sister. But that is the very least of what she does wrong. She not only violates the social code, but, worse, she, a woman, sits down at the feet of a teacher. No woman was permitted to fill the role of a disciple. Only males could discuss with their teacher the meanings and nuances of the Torah.
Yet Jesus approves. By every social and religious code and custom, Martha is right to be aggrieved, yet Jesus says that it is Mary, in her radical breaking of the social and religious mores who has “chosen the better part.” In Luke, chapter 10, Jesus is suggesting that a Samaritan is equal to a Jew in loving one’s neighbor, and now, that a woman is equal to a man in loving God. It’s impossible to fully comprehend how much those suggestions would have offended the people of Jesus’ day.
These stories, over the centuries, have become so well known, so “beautiful,” that they can lose their power to shake us up! their power to challenge us, to make us angry, defensive, repentant … the power to convert us! They smash open all our carefully constructed systems of who is in and who out. For no one, we realize, is to be left out of Jesus’ universal and overwhelming love and compassion.
That for me, is the first challenge of this story. But there is a second. It centers on this strange phrase that Jesus uses to Martha. He tells her, “Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things,” and then he uses this strange phrase; “There is need of only one thing.” What is the “one thing” needful? For me, reading this phrase in the context of Luke’s whole Gospel, I think it is the equivalent of “the pearl of great price.”(Matt 13:46) It is the one thing that is so important that everything else pales into insignificance. It is the “kingdom of God” which we are exhorted to seek first, and then everything will be added to it. Martha’s busy, caring and loving service were all good, but she had missed the heart of it; she had missed the “one thing,” the pearl. Mary though had glimpsed the pearl. In Jesus she saw the heart of it all. She so longed to be with Jesus, to learn from Jesus, to spend time with Jesus, that nothing was as important to her. Here was the pearl of great price, here was the Kingdom of God breaking into her life in the person of Jesus Christ.
I guess there is something of the Mary and the Martha inside each one of us: the active, busy, distracted as well as the reflective and contemplative. But our modern life so stresses the active virtues that we are more in danger of forgetting the need for spiritual replenishment, for practicing the presence of God, for sitting quietly and still at the feet of Jesus: just being with him in quietness and stillness, in order to renew our energy and our spirit. In your life, are you missing the “one thing,” the pearl of great price? Are you so scattered, busy and distracted, that the “center cannot hold?”
This story challenges each of us to ask where and when we find the place and the time to replenish our spirits? When do we renew our souls? If we don’t, our energy will leave us, our ability to serve will be compromised, and like Martha we will be distracted more than aware. “Martha, there is need of only one thing.” I was trying to think what that one thing is for me, or at least how I could describe it, and this is the image that came to mind:
I worked as a priest in the English town of Berkhamsted, which is situated on the Grand Union Canal. I used to love sitting and watching narrow boats and barges entering the locks. A boat would come in at a low level, and the great gates would be closed behind it. The boat would slow its engines right down and become completely still. It wasn’t moving; it was quite still. And yet all the time, the water was slowly rising underneath. When the gate in front was finally swung open, and the boat’s engines started up again, the boat emerged on a much higher level. I think that can happen to us when we become still and stop our restless activities, and spend our time waiting quietly on God. We seem to have stopped, but slowly and imperceptively, God is raising and lifting us up to a new height, a new plane.
That, I think, is what Mary had discovered by sitting at the Lord’s feet and listening to his voice. This was the “one thing needful,” the “better part” of which Jesus speaks in this text. And it is to that “better part” that we are invited; to take time regularly to be alone with God, to sit at the feet of the Master. This is the one thing needful, the pearl of great price, the better part “which will not be taken away from you.”
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