Revd Helen Marshall, Chaplain of St Ursula, Bern, Switzerland, explores this week’s lectionary Gospel, Luke 10.38-42.
Mary or Martha: which sister do you most identify with?
Whenever I have used this passage in a group discussion almost everyone identifies with Martha; indeed, some people feel very indignant on her behalf. We may instinctively associate ourselves with Martha because we are busy people. We, like her, often have so many things to do. We can be worried and distracted, pulled in several different directions at the same time. This may be particularly true for many of us within the Diocese in Europe. Many people in our Chaplaincies have highly demanding and stressful jobs, and they are involved in running activities in our churches too. There can also be additional pressures for those living away from their home country.
Busyness itself can often be seen as a ‘virtue’ in our wider culture, both inside and outside the church. Certainly whenever a group of clergy get together, it’s never more than a few minutes before someone says how busy they are. Then there often a follows an unconscious competition as to who is the most busy and stressed. We all do it – me included. It is as if the busyness itself proves we are doing something worthwhile.
Jesus’ dialogue with Martha should make us pause.
Martha is distracted by her many tasks and she is also resentful that she is left to do all the work in the kitchen alone, while Mary sits down at Jesus’ feet to spend time in his presence and listen to his teaching. Martha calls on Jesus to take her side. Can’t he see that it’s not fair? But Jesus’ reply to Martha is a gentle rebuke ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken away from her.’ I always like to think this is also an invitation; Martha too can leave her many tasks and sit at Jesus feet with Mary.
Christ in the house of Martha and Mary: Johannes Vermeer
Jesus implies that what is needed at this particular moment is that Martha spends time with him, rather than making him a gourmet meal. Rather than busying herself doing something ‘for’ him, she is invited to sit down and receive ‘from’ him like Mary. I don’t think that Jesus is saying that Martha should never work in the kitchen or be busy serving others. After all, Jesus himself was a man of action, he was constantly giving himself to serve others. But he was also a man of prayer. He certainly didn’t spend time being busy for the sake of being busy; all he did and said came out of his loving dependence on his Father. His ‘doing’ came out of his ‘being’, his deep rootedness in God.
We cannot be like Martha all the time. We need to build ‘Mary’ moments into our lives; times when we can sit still at Jesus’ feet, listening and meditating on Scripture and simply being in his presence in silence. This is where we receive the life giving energy, the resources of grace we need for all we do.
In our Chaplaincy in Bern, we have recently started a regular lectio divina group. (Lectio divina – sacred reading – is an ancient Benedictine practice of meditating on Scripture.) A short passage of Scripture is read slowly several times, and we ponder it in silence, noticing a word or phrase which particularly strikes us. At the end, we have the opportunity to share briefly together what we have received. It is a rich and nourishing time.
It is good for us to reflect on the balance of our lives. Is all our busy activity strictly necessary? Are we so busy doing things ‘for’ God, that we never make time to receive ‘from’ him? Even in the midst of stressful and demanding jobs, it may be possible to create some little spaces in our lives to offer to God, simply to be with him. We may then find that these times are oases of grace which provide life and nourishment and a new focus in what we do. They are the ‘one thing necessary.’
The aim in the end is to integrate the Mary and Martha within us; to keep the simple attentiveness of Mary even when we are doing practical tasks, or serving others. To live as Jesus lived, to allow all we are and do to come out of what we have first received in grace from God.