Being and doing...
READING: Luke 10:38-42
As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”
“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
It’s happened to me before now: we have invited friends over for a meal, I’ve spent a long time cleaning the house, shopping, preparing the food, setting the table, keeping the cats off the table once it’s set, stopping the cats from licking the butter (not really!) And while I don’t want to paint Andrew in a bad light, it certainly seems to be that I invest more time and energy into getting everything ready. Our guests arrive, and I supply them with a drink, and then I have to go into the kitchen to finish the preparations, Andrew keeps the drinks topped up and the conversation flowing, while I’m out there doing what needs doing, missing out on the laughter, the enjoyment of being with our friends. Then finally, when everything is ready, and the meal is served, I feel almost too tired to enjoy it.
Imagine how I would then feel if one of the guests had said “Well, this is nice, Alison, but quite honestly, Andrew did the right thing by staying with us and chatting to us. We’d have been happy with some bread and cheese.” Hmm.
I always want to take Martha’s side when I hear the story from Luke – it seems so unfair that after she has worked her fingers to the bone, preparing a delicious meal for Jesus, her honoured guest, and having found her sister doing nothing other than sitting at Jesus’s feet, she should then be rebuked – however gently – for asking that her sister should give a little help. There would have been nothing for anyone to eat had Martha also sat down to listen to Jesus, yet here she is, being told that Mary has chosen “the better part”. I can imagine how she felt. I can imagine how that rebuke from Jesus – however gentle, however well-meant – would have stung.
I wonder how Martha reacted: did she acknowledge Jesus’s words with a rueful smile, did she throw the food at them and storm out, did she go back into the kitchen muttering resentfully about lazy sisters and ungrateful guests? Or maybe she laughed a little, acknowledged that Jesus was right, and sit down with Mary to listen to the words of her friend. We will never know, but then, maybe Luke’s aim was less to do with recounting a story about a disagreement between two sisters and more to do with teaching his readers something more about the Kingdom of God.
It is interesting that Luke has juxtapositioned these events between the story of the Good Samaritan and Jesus teaching his disciples how to pray. First, the young lawyer asks what he needs to do to inherit eternal life, what it is that brings the Kingdom of God into the here and now, and he is given the example of the person who, regardless of racial barriers, gives of his time and money to help another. Those who are listening to this story are told to “go and do likewise”. Get out there, Jesus says, find where injustice is being upheld, and people are being oppressed and do something about it. Go. Do.
Then we have Martha and Mary; Martha who is doing. Oh, boy, is she doing! And Jesus stops her, gently taking her arm and saying “Pause. Sit awhile. Find yourself in being, not in doing. This is how to discover the Kingdom.” Listen. Be.
And then Luke has Jesus leading us into deeper understanding of what we need to do to discover the Kingdom of God within ourselves: pray and ask God for what it is that you need.
We are being shown, in these three events what God requires of us, in order to bring the Kingdom of God to our present day, to our lives: First, do not sit by and let injustice happen. Be the change. Work to bring God’s love and justice to the world. Secondly – and more importantly – take time to reflect on God’s word. Listen to him speaking, listen to him guiding you. And thirdly, pray. Bring your concerns to him, pray for his strength. With these three actions, you will be part of God’s Kingdom here on earth. As someone once said:
Vision without action is merely a dream; Action without vision merely passes the time; but vision and action together can change the world.
And so, we have these two women, Mary, the one who sits and listens to the words of Jesus; and Martha, the one who bustles about, doing that which needs to be done. Sometimes preachers will ask their congregation to think about who they most resemble: they demand “are you a Martha or a Mary?”, inviting us to decide if we are the busy person who does not have time to sit and reflect on God, or if we are a more contemplative type of person. We are asked to choose sides; Mary versus Martha.
But I think that rather this story invites us to recognise that there is a Martha and a Mary in us all. We are not one or the other. We are both. And what Jesus invites us to do is to find the happy medium, that sweet spot between too much doing and too much being.
As Fred Craddock, an eminent New Testament scholar commentator says “If we censor Martha too harshly, she may abandon serving altogether. And if we commend Mary too profusely, she may sit there, at Jesus’s feet, forever. There is a time to go and do. There is a time to listen and reflect. Knowing which and when is a matter of spiritual discernment”
There is nothing wrong with what Martha was doing – indeed, she was following the expected norms of the day, providing hospitality for an honoured guest. What Jesus was saying to her was that she was becoming too distracted by what she was doing. The Greek word used in the translation implies an attitude that takes a person’s attention away from a proper concern for the things of God. Here is Martha becoming so preoccupied with the minutia of the meal she is preparing that she forgets the reason for the meal: to welcome Jesus into their midst, to share time with him, to learn from him. To be with him.
Another commentator writes: “The one thing needed is for Martha to receive the gracious presence of Jesus, to listen to his words, and to know that she is valued not for what she does, or how well she does it, but for who she is as a child of God”
We too need to recognise that while Jesus command us to “go and do”, he also invites us to “sit and listen”. And while the action is valid and good, just as Martha’s contribution was valid and good, it should not take the place of the time spent quietly in the presence of God. It is not Martha’s busyness that is the problem, it is rather the timing of it was wrong.
I wonder if I spend too much time trying to prove to God that I am a “good Christian” by doing things, that I forget that God wants to spend time with me. He wants me to serve him after I have recognised my worth as a child of God, not the other way round. We don’t find our identity in what it is we do to keep busy, but rather in what we learn by sitting at his feet. By doing that, we discover that we are loved, not for what we do, but for what we are. Our action should come from our contemplation: once we truly accept that we are beloved children of God, then we desire to show this love to others.
I think too that maybe in this story there is a lesson about how we serve God; how we carry out our service. I can imagine Martha started out being happy to offer her hospitality to Jesus – and, from the reading, it’s possible to guess that it was Jesus’s entourage she was feeding as well. But as time passed, and she received no help from Mary, she became frustrated, and angry, and the joy of serving left her. And it became a chore.
Most of you know that I took part in 40 Acts over Lent – 40 acts of generosity, of doing something for others. But I must admit that there were times when I found being generous to be a real struggle: I remember one time when I was in the kitchen after dinner, and for one reason or another, Andrew had not done the washing up. So, in the “spirit” of 40 Acts I thought I should do it. However, I made so much grumpy noise about it, throwing pans in the sink, huffing and puffing, splashing water about, that finally I had worked myself up into a fury. There was no generosity in what I had done: I ended up doing it “to teach him a lesson”! It was only when I went back to the meditation, and the prayers linked with the act, that I was able to acknowledge what I had been doing. Like Martha, I had allowed the fact that I was doing to overshadow the reason for that doing. There was a God shaped hole in my act of generosity, which took away the meaningfulness of it, and made it into nothing more than a way to teach Andrew a lesson.
Our action and service to God needs to spring from our contemplation and our listening to God. You can imagine that, when Martha finally did have time to sit and listen to Jesus, she would have been so exhausted that she would have been unable to take it all in. If we come to God after all our energy is spent in the doing, then our being, our time spent with him, will be nothing more than a weary moment. But if our action comes from what we have learned, what we have prayed about, what we have asked for, then we will be renewed and ready to act in his name.
So, this reading is not about siding with Martha or Mary. But rather about living into the Kingdom of God through the integration of prayer and of service.
The question is not are you a Mary or a Martha, but rather do you have a balance between the Martha side of your life – the service of God – and the Mary side – the contemplation.
Jesus reminds us, as he reminded Martha, that while the actions are necessary and good, they should neither take the place of the contemplation, nor should they overshadow the contemplation. One thing should underpin everything that we do for God: listening to his word. This is “the better part”. The most important part. The part that holds everything else up: spending time in his presence.
Let us pray:
Lord Christ, When we are driven and relentless with ourselves and with others, tied up with pressures of time, and the demand to do what is urgent rather than what is important,
Speak to us with kindness, as You did to Martha, putting all things in proportion and releasing us into finding our worth in Your love, not in our busyness, or our desire to fix things.
So may Your living Word at the centre of our being claim and command all that we do and all that we are.