Mary and Martha

Listening to the Word

Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Luke 10: 38-42

Jesus is getting close to Jerusalem and confrontation. Luke says that Jesus goes to the home of Mary and Martha, which we know from John is also the home of Lazarus, which is located in the village of Bethany, just over the hill from the outskirts of Jerusalem. Luke says they welcome him into their home and Martha gets busy doing the many things a good hostess does: preparing food, setting the table, straightening the room, picking up the newspapers that have piled up, and on and on. Meanwhile, sister Mary sits in front of Jesus listening to what he has to say. Martha, understandably frustrated says, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister just sits there while I do all the work? Tell her to get up and help!” Jesus replies, “Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things: there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part…”

It is important to note that Jesus says to Martha, “you are worried and distracted.” He doesn’t criticize her for working and doing. Remember this comes just two verses after Jesus has given us the parable of the Good Samaritan with the concluding words, “Go and do …” The issue here is not simply that Martha is doing while Mary contemplates. The issue is Martha is distracted. The word translated “distracted” is a Greek word which means to be jerked around like a horse is jerked by a rider pulling on the reins. The image is that Martha is being jerked around by her frenetic busy-ness. It’s as if her desires are out of order so she is out of control in her busy-ness. The result is that she is unable to attend to the one thing most needful – sitting and listening to Jesus.

Several years ago I attended a national meeting of about two hundred clergy from around the country and representing various church traditions across the ecumenical spectrum. In preparation we were asked to name what we considered the major obstacles to our church members’ growth as disciples. Without a close second, church members’ busy-ness was easily agreed upon by clergy as the number one problem keeping them from growing in Christ.

Charles Campbell in his book, The Word Before the Powers, says that one of the strategies of the principalities and powers use to accomplish their deadly purposes is diversion. The powers will do almost anything to keep us diverted from noticing what they’re doing as well as diverting us from knowing God (p. 37). Entertainment and busy-ness are two primary ways we are diverted and distracted. We’re diverted by TV and sports or we’re so busy we can’t do anything else but sit exhausted. We’re too busy to notice or care about anything beyond our daily routines, and therefore we become more fully captive to the powers.

Eugene Peterson said that although we all go through periods when we’re busier than at other times, overall our lives should have an integrity about them; integrated in such a way that we are not running frenetically all of the time. We are too busy, he says, because we are vain. We want to appear important. Significant. And the crowded schedule and the heavy demands on my time are proof that I am important. We live in a society that says busy-ness is proof of importance so we do the same.

Secondly, Peterson says, that we are too busy because we are lazy. We let others decide what we will do instead of deciding ourselves. C. S. Lewis used to say that only lazy people work hard. By lazily abdicating what is important we let others decide what we do with our time and we end up doing everything but what is essential.

Jesus says that Mary knew the one thing most needful as she sat at his feet and listened to him. With his face turned to Jerusalem, Jesus is acutely aware that we are in this for keeps. And we must stick with him, focus upon him, worship him, listen to him, and live the shared-life in the body of Christ with him if we are going to make it.

Eugene Peterson reminds us of the scene in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, in which a whaleboat is being rowed through rough seas and wind and salt spray chasing the great white whale. Sailors are laboring fiercely; rowing the oars, everyone in the boat is intently focused on the task of catching and harpooning the Great White, Moby Dick. The big story is the larger than life conflict between good and evil, sea monster versus the morally outraged and deranged man, Captain Ahab. Ahab shouts encouragement to his men to row faster and faster; then he threatens them and berates them to get them to row faster and faster. Yet, in the front of the boat is one man who does nothing. He is just sitting there. He doesn’t hold an oar no matter how much the captain yells and no matter how much help the men need he does not pitch in to help. This man does not even break a sweat. No shouting, in fact he is completely silent with all of the crashing and cursing around him. This man is the harpooner, quiet, poised, waiting. And Melville writes this sentence, “To insure the greatest efficiency in the dart, the harpooners of this world must start to their feet out of idleness, and not out of toil.”

This harpooner knows who he is and he knows what is essential and what is not. He does not get entangled in what would get in the way of what is important. And he can only do the important by sitting in preparation. Sitting makes all of his other activity possible.

Let us do this one thing: sit at the feet of Jesus and listen to the Word.

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