The One Thing You Need

  • July 19, 2022

Some of you may have heard this story before. Maybe you have a few opinions about it, or reservations. Whether it’s familiar or not, let’s review.

Jesus enters the home of two sisters: Mary and Martha.  Martha, who offered Jesus hospitality, goes about the work of making him comfortable.  Maybe she is cleaning or making up a bed.  Maybe she is gathering eggs, filleting fish, kneading dough. Any of us who have served as a host can imagine some of the tasks that might keep her busy making things ready for an unexpected guest. 

Whatever Martha is doing, it is a burden to her. She complains to Jesus: “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” For during all this time when Martha’s been hurrying and worrying and working, Mary has been sitting at Jesus’ feet and listening to what he has to say.

Jesus says: “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.”

I wish I could question Jesus about this story.  First, is it every really helpful to compare someone to their sibling?  We do enough of that already by ourselves.  No need for Jesus to pile on.

More importantly, in that culture, women were expected to finish cooking before sitting and talking with a guest; to do otherwise would be disrespect. So isn’t it rather harsh to critique Martha for doing what everyone in her culture would expect her to do?

Also, let’s hear it for the Marthas in the world – the ones who do what needs to be done.  Where would we be, in our homes and at our dinner parties and in our church communities, without some Marthas willing to do those things that are necessary to meet our needs and keep us comfortable, often without thanks or respect?

I have some questions for Jesus. Though I should also give him credit. By accepting Mary’s presence at his feet, and praising her choice, Jesus makes it clear that women are welcome to be disciples, and to spend their time and energy learning. This was nothing less than revolutionary in that time and place.

Still, I wish he had gone further. If there’s work that needs to be done, he could have suggested that it be shared among everyone there, men and messiahs included.  Too often, women are told to relax and yet still expected to accomplish an extraordinary array of tasks.  It’s hard to stop stressing when no one else is prepared to take over your work, and folks are likely to blame you when everything falls apart.

I resist Jesus’ words in this story. And I also recognize that there is wisdom in them.

Because no matter how long our to-do list; what expectations and demands are within us, and around us, we all still need to stop sometimes.  And we are the only ones who can decide to stop.  We are the only ones who can decide to put aside everything else to be still long enough to notice.  To notice that God is in our midst and that God’s incredible creation is all around us.  To notice that our life is a miracle, and that it is full of miracles.  To notice that regardless of the constraints we face, we still have an amazing amount of agency in the way in which we live.  To notice that we must change some things to live the kind of life we were intended for, and that we must change some things so that everyone else can, too.

What are some practices, some times and places, that help you to stop —  to put down whatever you usually do, to make way for something even more important?

Jesus says to us: I know. You have many things to do.  Many of them feel important.  Many of them are important. Do not allow these many things to cause you such worry and distraction that you forget to give your heart to what is most important. You might call it God, Jesus, or Spirit; love, wonder or joy; meaning or compassion.  Whatever you call it, don’t do without it. Don’t allow anything to take it away from you.

Read the poem Welcome Morning by Anne Sexton. Used with permission.