Choosing Mary or Martha

“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.’”
–Luke 10:41-42

MaryMartha In Luke 10:38-42, we find one of the best known stories in all of the Gospels, the story of Jesus’ visit to the home of Mary and Martha. Martha welcomes Jesus into her home, and then proceeds to get very busy with all of the work of hospitality that goes with hosting such an honored guest. Her sister Mary, however, goes and sits at Jesus’ feet to listen to what he has to say. Martha, of course, becomes quite indignant at this, asking Jesus if he doesn’t care that Mary has left her to do all of the work. Many times in Bible study or other discussions of this story, I’ve heard someone say, “Well, I’m a Martha, not a Mary,” usually by way of explaining their focus on getting things done. Usually this is said with some degree of resignation, as if that is just the way it is and there is no changing it. Sometimes it is said with a tinge of defensiveness or even pride. If I had a nickel for every time someone has said that they are a Martha and not a Mary, I could probably fund a congregation’s entire ministry for at least a year.

Simply identifying with Martha over Mary, though, misses a key point in the story. Jesus’ response to Martha points to something very important: “Mary has chosen the better part.” Jesus says that Mary’s devotion to his teaching is a choice, and so (by implication) is Martha’s distraction with her tasks. Yes, there were enormous cultural and social norms related to hospitality and guests in Martha’s culture, but Jesus seems to be pointing out that she has a choice in whether to conform to those norms or offer a different kind of hospitality by receiving his words, not just his person. Martha’s culture may have indoctrinated her with all sorts of expectations, but at the end of the day, both she and Mary have a choice.

A friend of mine who is a spiritual director once said that “Busy-ness is the core idolatry of our times,” and I think she is right. We are in some ways slaves to our schedules, our smartphones, our datebooks and devices. Charles Swindoll has noted that as 21st century Americans, “We worship our work; we work at our play; and we play at our worship.” Is it any wonder, then, that so often we feel spiritually off-kilter, disconnected from our own center and from God who is the center of all things?

Now, it is easy to hear that as “Law”, as one more thing we should do, one more thing we ought to do. “I should spend more time being Mary, sitting at Jesus’ feet. Let me at that to the to-do list. Maybe put it on my calendar.” But, to borrow some wisdom from my CPE supervisor: Don’t should on yourself. What would it be like if, instead of thinking about sitting at Jesus’ feet as something we should do, we started thinking about it as something we get to do? What if we claimed our own power and agency in the face of all the expectations and said, “This is something I’m doing for myself as a beloved child of God?”

So what does sitting at Jesus’ feet look like for you? For me, it is (in part) the work of writing this blog. This is a spiritual discipline for me, a time when, five days a week, I sit down and think and pray, a time when I reflect on Scripture and where I’ve seen glimpses of the holy, where and when I’ve heard the voice of Jesus speak. I haven’t written anything in three weeks (because, like Martha, I’ve been distracted with many things), and I have certainly been feeling the loss of time at Jesus’ feet. The real rub is that the things that have been distracting me have been good things: I got married, I had some time off, I’ve been helping launch a new ministry co-op. All good stuff, great stuff even, holy and blessed and gift-from-God stuff. But also stuff that has kept me busy and eventually pushed me a little off-center. I’ve come to recognize two things in recent years, though: off-center doesn’t feel as good as centered, and the difference between centered and off-center is the choices I make.

And so, I offer you an invitation, an invitation to choose the better part. Find things that feed your soul, and choose to do them. Try all kinds of different things. Maybe for you it’s centering prayer; maybe it’s some kind of personal worship or devotion time. Maybe it’s reading your Bible or talking a walk to meditate. Whatever it is, give yourself permission to do it, and try not to should on yourself. Try, instead, to see this is a gift that Jesus seeks to give you: communion with him, in whatever form nourishes your soul. While our choices may make it more difficult for us to receive that gift, it is a gift which Jesus never tires of giving, and which he promises will not be taken away.

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