“…you are worried and bothered by many things, but only one thing is necessary…”
If you grew up in church, or even stood next to someone who went to church a few times to make their mom happy, you’ve heard the story of Martha and Mary. Someone has told you not to be a “Martha” Someone has told you to stop working so much and just “rest at the feet of Jesus…”
In the stories retelling, one woman, Mary, sits at full attention, listening peacefully, while Jesus is a guest in her sister’s house.
The other woman, Martha, works hard for Jesus, doing all the things…not however, without a considerable amount of huffing and puffing. No doubt everyone in her immediate vicinity was made aware of her over extended hospitality through well timed sighs and strategic pot banging. In the moment she exposes her least sanctified self, she turns to her guest, the savior of the world, and pitches a fairly self-righteous pity party. “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the serving alone?”…classic Martha.
This is a thing women do and we are quite brilliant at it. Female martyrdom is indeed crafty and, if directed in a healthy way, would probably at least solve one or two global issues…at very least, access to affordable healthcare and more skirts with pockets. We are never so stupid as to engage in a frontal assault. We groom allies. We hire mercenaries, and watch the carnage with weepy eyes from the sidelines. We cry out to God about our burdens and our busyness and then continue to set the same schedule for the next week…hopelessly waiting for Jesus to step in and tell everyone around us how tired we are and then guilt them into helping more. It is an incredibly efficient way to both victimize ourselves and punish anyone around us…I am no stranger to this method. In fact, I’m embarrassingly good at it…and so is Martha.
Anyway…back to the story. Jesus responds to Martha. “You are worried and bothered…only one thing is necessary…Mary has chosen the good part, which shall not be taken away from her.” I don’t really know what happened after that…none of the New Testament writers were brave enough to repeat Martha’s response…I’m guessing Martha reached a whole ‘nother level of unsanctified. Either way, that’s about all there is to it, and countless sermons as well as sage, womanly advice have been dispensed thereupon.
While I’ve always loved the story and I keep trying to “be the Mary” …I’m just not. I “do the things” and I like it that way. Churches always heavily preach in Mary’s favor but that leaves us Marthas of the world feeling some brand of religious guilt that makes us fake smiles and pretend sweetness when we really want to tell you to get off your ass and help! So I’m conflicted, because someone needs to get stuff done when Jesus comes to town, and yet Mary is the embodiment of a Biblical Millennial. You can find her at any time, crying around about this or that, asking for time off to pray while Martha pays the mortgage. I just can’t.
So I ask then, what is the one thing? Jesus said “one thing is necessary” but He also wanted to eat. In my head math, I am counting and I am not reaching logical numbers. Lots of grubby guys in her house, lots of expectations and asking “what’s for dinner”…easily more than one. I can only assume He didn’t want both of them to sit staring at Him while His stomach growled. His presence in the home required that work be done but it also required the honor of their attention. It required a working form of worship.
I wonder sometimes how different the story would have gone had Martha walked up to Mary and said, ” Hey, I get that you’re home from college and just wanna decompress, but we’ve got like 13 men in our house right now and its gonna be about 2000 years before they are culturally inclined to help in the kitchen, so would you please wash while I dry?…” I think that may have actually been closer to the one thing. That kind of awareness of what is necessary and that kind of humility in asking for help when overwhelmed. When I try to understand what it was that Jesus was saying, it seems less like I drop the workload and more like I introduce the worship.
Worship worked out in a life that is overfilled with things to be done then, simply looks like presence with the people He put around us and connection to the presence of a God within us. While Mary was materially useless she was eternally present. She was focused on the person and not the process. Martha understood that honoring the guest in her home meant that there needed to be a process, but she missed the person. She worshiped the work instead of the One. Like all things we give to that can never give back, she was left with the bitterness that incubates in exhaustion.
One of my favorite authors, Gregory Boyle, describes a homeless addict who came to his front door as “Jesus in his least recognizable form.” Meaning that whoever approaches your door is worthy of your honor and attention. Will we see them as Jesus in our midst or as a set of boxes to check? Whether our days are spent in a cubicle between driving children to sporting activities, or a staying at home doing “all the things,” or just as a human trying to help other humans while eating and living indoors, we are daily encountering Jesus in His least recognizable form. We are daily entertaining Him in our midst…the hurting, the lonely, the aggressive, and the annoying.
Work needs to be done, and we often legitimately don’t have time to “sit at His feet.” But we can be present. We can offer our full attention to those who enter our homes and our spaces and our sphere of influence with the kind of hospitality that doesn’t grow out of martyrdom but gratitude and worship. We can draw in and ask for help, we can step back from a checklist of our own overworked expectations. It’s the thing that Jesus wanted…a heart that knows what is necessary. It is a heart that continually looks for Him in unrecognizable form and does what is needed to make welcome the work that is born out of loving like He loves. It’s just one thing and it changes everything.