The One Thing Necessary – Br. Keith Nelson

Luke 10:38-42

In the world of spiritual care, there is an oft-quoted adage. It seems especially common in the world of hospital chaplaincy:

“Don’t just do something. Stand there.”

I first heard it from the novelist John Green, whose experience as a hospital chaplain shaped his authorial approach to empathy. During my own months as a chaplain intern last Fall, this deceptively simple reminder kept me centered in the demands of my role. While I in fact did, and said, and asked many things, it was ultimately just standing or sitting there in loving availability that God would use to open a healing space in a patient’s experience.

Allowing ourselves to be loved by God, as Jesus did, also requires some degree of just sitting there, as Mary of Bethany did in Jesus’ presence. But consenting to this transformation at the core of our being is anything but passive: it is our single greatest challenge. To the world, that process looks like nothing. But to Jesus, it is the one thing necessary.

In Luke, we encounter two women who respond in love to the presence of Jesus in their home. The fact that they are women is crucial to Luke’s exploration of genuine presence.

Martha is engaged in the work of hospitality as she hosts Jesus and his band of disciples. In this she is fulfilling the gender role expectations of ancient Mediterranean Jewish culture. We are meant to imagine Martha performing tasks in a space nearby but separate from that in which the men of the house would gather, where Jesus is engaged in teaching.

Into this predominantly male space, Mary has entered and has made a bold choice: “she sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying.” To sit at the feet of a rabbi meant to initiate a serious commitment of discipleship. We are meant to notice that in this, Mary has crossed a boundary, and that this boundary-crossing is sanctioned by Jesus. In this, Mary is vulnerable to criticism by people of either gender who might wish to police that boundary.

Martha is distracted. The word in Greek suggests being dragged or driven around. On the surface, she is distracted by the very service she is providing to this important gathering. But the core of her distraction becomes interpersonal. Martha is distracted by the choice Mary has made. Perhaps part of her wishes she could emulate her sister and sit at the Lord’s feet as well. Perhaps part of her identity is so deeply tied to the ways she has always served others that the thought of doing differently in this new situation creates an unbearable tension. Part of her certainly feels abandoned, resentful that she must do the work that others take for granted.

Mary becomes the all-too-reasonable target of Martha’s inner conflict. “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 beneath her ultimatum, I hear a poignant subtext in Martha’s words. I hear her saying one thing, but feeling something deeper that touches the core of her human need. She says to Jesus, “Tell her then to help me,” but she means:

“Do you not see all that I am doing for you?

Do you not see that this is how I love you?”

Martha’s way of living out her faithful commitment to God is primarily defined by what she has the capacity to dofor Jesus. The gospel is filled with passages that summon us to go, to do, to serve, and to act: to be laborers sent out into God’s harvest. But in Martha, this going, doing, and serving isn’t producing the fruit of the kingdom. It is producing anxiety, comparison with others, and the inability to spend any real time with her guest of honor.

Mary’s way of living out her commitment is defined not by any capacity of her own, but by her choice to sit there and listen to the Word of God. Mary does not say, “Lord, tell my sister to stop fussing over everyday chores and to sit down and learn about the kingdom.” Mary is attending, receiving, and absorbing. She is not concerned with the behavior of others. She’s concerned with Jesus.

There is need of only one thing, Jesus says. It is the single-hearted, undivided commitment of discipleship. For Mary, this requires the silent, courageous risk of taking her place before Jesus, in opposition to the expectations of her society and the accusations of her own sister. But the response of Jesus is unequivocal: “Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

We live in a society that actively discourages true presence. Like Martha, we are driven to expend our energies across many domains of life, many of them good. But if our expenditure lacks presence, we become bound in cycles that fragment our attention, leaving less of us available to the people and things that matter most to us, and the God who craves the simple return of our love.

Jesus invites us to relinquish those pressures at the edge of the circle and to draw renewed presence from His. To the world, this looks like doing nothing of value. But to Jesus, it is the one thing necessary.

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  1. Rosemary Feal on October 7, 2023 at 15:20

    A corollary question worth considering: who is to prepare the supper?

  2. Carney Ivy on October 7, 2023 at 08:10

    Brother Keith,
    This is one of the BEST interpretations of the Mary and Martha story that I have heard. Maybe the BEST! It is so easy to busy yourself with life – there is always more work. Working on one’s relationship with God and each other is something different altogether – and more difficult. Thank you!

  3. Ann Trousdale on October 7, 2023 at 07:10

    Wow, Brother Keith. In all my long life, including my years in seminary, I don’t think I’ve heard this passage so profoundly explicated. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

  4. Thomas DeFreitas on October 7, 2023 at 05:23

    This is the first time I listened to a sermon as I read it. The potent words were made all the more penetrating as I heard them being spoken.

    Attending, absorbing, receiving. Yes. And I hadn’t ever thought of Mary’s gentle resistance to the strict gender-roles of her day: that she would be student to the teacher!

    Thank you, Brother Keith, for your words.

  5. Maryan Davis on October 14, 2022 at 08:30

    Dear Brother Keith,

    What a joy to hear your words! My mother taught me this very same way of being simply by the way she lived. She worked hard at making sure all our needs were met while centering her life in God at the same time! Presence was important to her!
    She knelt down at bedside every night with my brother and me and taught us to pray!
    Fooling around was frowned upon and we knew it! That same model carried over into our lives in a way that has encouraged my formation as a disciple of Christ to this day! God’s loving presence in our lives is her most precious gift to us and in turn a gift we will want to give back to God through our loving presence in our relationship in Christ and in all creation!

    “If you love one another as I have loved you, then you will truly be my disciples!” ( John)
    Mom was also present in the lives of those around her

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