“One Thing is Needful”

Featured image by Mickey McGrath

Pentecost 6 Proper 11 Year C    21 July 2019 .

Luke 10: 38- 42,   Linda Mackie Griggs

“Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.”

Oh, Martha.

Martha of Bethany has haunted me since childhood—since Mrs. Lucas,

my well-intentioned Sunday School teacher (may she rest in peace) read us this story and then said, “Now, boys and girls, what was Martha doing wrong?” And we dutifully replied, “Martha was too busy with her housework.” Of course the implication in our young minds was that the work of hospitality—the work that girls (particularly) of my generation were brought up to do well—setting the table, cooking the meal, doing the dishes—these things were not good enough for Jesus. The Marthas of this world always perceive the sting of Jesus’ admonition, i.e. that real disciples don’t do housework.

To put it more briefly and more bluntly: We were taught that Mary’s offering was praised, while Martha’s was rejected.

Frankly, Martha is my spirit animal. I have come to love her defiantly. Her story resounds in my life—the perfectionist, the planner, the list-checker, the one with control needs. I am capable of turning into a raging Martha at home when preparing for company — I would swear that Martha had knocked Mary in the head with a broomstick and locked her in the closet. There is a little bit of Martha in many of us when we feel the need to be needed, appreciated and seen for the good we do. Which is why this story generates so much energy and discussion—usually around the issue of who should, or should not, be doing the work in this story. After all, say the Marthas, somebody needed to cook and serve if they weren’t to starve, right.? And where the heck was Lazarus in all this—didn’t he live there with his sisters? And what about Abram, in Genesis, when he hustled to greet and feed messengers of God under the oaks of Mamre? Hospitality was important! But, respond the Marys, we should be quiet and listen to Jesus, shouldn’t we? And on, and on, and on.

But these questions have us circling the drain like dirty dishwater—this is a red-herring issue.

As is always the case with scripture, this passage merits a closer look. First, look at the context within Luke’s Gospel. This story rests between the Parable of the Compassionate Samaritan on one side, which invites and challenges us into acts of radical hospitality to the suffering, and on the other side (next week’s Gospel) Jesus’ teaching on prayer to his disciples. So, hospitality on one side, prayer on the other, and what do we have in the middle? A discussion of who should or should not be doing dishes? I don’t think so. This isn’t an either/or between spirituality and hospitality. It’s a both/and; it’s Luke’s examination of the tension between action and contemplation, and how the two can be woven into incarnational faith.

Take that, Mrs. Lucas.

Another misconception is that Mary’s choice and posture of sitting quietly at Jesus’ feet was particularly subservient and obedient. The childhood image we had was of Martha sweating and fretting to one side while Mary was the picture of the perfect schoolchild—sort of a Goofus and Gallant scenario, for those of us who remember Highlights magazine. But actually Mary may have been challenging a convention that only the male disciples were permitted to sit at a rabbi’s feet while he taught. If so, Jesus himself is engaging in radical hospitality through his willingness to transcend traditional boundaries and cultural norms.

This is about a lot more than doing dishes and sibling rivalry.

So why does Jesus chastise his friend Martha?

It has nothing to do with her hands, and everything to do with her heart.

We need to shift our attention from Martha’s work to her state of mind. She wants everything to be just right. She is overworked and overwhelmed. Wanting everything to be perfect. So when she finally explodes in frustration she has so lost perspective that she lets it all out, not at Mary, and not at Lazarus (wherever he is.) She lets fly at Jesus. 

“Lord, do you not care that my sister has left meto do all the work by myself?”

She uses a form of “me” three times. It’s the inner voice of overwork, frustration, need for perfection, and resentment circulating in the brain like a caffeinated hamster on an exercise wheel. She has lost perspective. Perhaps this is a familiar place for a few of us.

Jesus hears between the lines.  He knows that Martha has a lot to do, but he isn’t focused on her actions. He doesn’t say, “Martha you’re doing too much.” He says, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things.” He wants her to be, as Mary is, fully listening—utterly present. Being present to Jesus is something that can’t be taken away.

But it can be given away. That’s what Martha has done. She has discarded her presence to God, and that is what worries her friend Jesus.

Our hospitality-our work for the kingdom—is welcome; our distraction and our worry are not. And it doesn’t have to be that way.

The Christian tradition is filled with examples of the interweaving of spirituality and work. The Benedictines call it ora et labora—prayer and work–as part of a daily practice and rule of life. The ancient Celts had a prayer that accompanied every activity throughout the day, from preparation of meals to kindling a fire to milking a cow:

Bless, O God, my little cow,
Bless, O God, my desire;
Bless Thou my partnership
And the milking of my hands, O God.

But my favorite image is an icon of Carmelite nun, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, doing the dishes. We see her from behind as she stands at a sink, bubbles and steam all around her as she raises a plate above her head, like a Host. This is incarnational faith.

Incarnational faith understands that the work of the Dream of God, as manifest perfectly in the human form of Jesus, is a faith expressed through the whole of our humanity—our full presence, body, mind, heart and soul. Spiritual practice and prayer should lead us into acts of hospitality and caring, and acts of hospitality and caring, when done from a place of presence to the inbreaking Kingdom, are a form of prayer.

And we have evidence that Martha will get the message. She will hear Jesus’ words and be formed by them. Because when Jesus returns to Bethany not long before his death she will greet him with tears and a declaration of her faith, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God.”

Martha is my spirit animal. She is also my spiritual director. Because whenever I feel that inner hamster wheel starting to warm up she reminds me of the importance of a deep breath, and Presence to God. It doesn’t matter whether we are baking bread or breaking it at the altar; whether we are on our knees in the garden or in a chapel.

Only one thing is needful.

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