By Ann Boyd
It’s not even 8:00 in the morning and I’m looking at a list of over a dozen things to get done — editing to take care of, dishes to wash, laundry to fold, and my email inbox is raging out of control. As I sit for a few minutes to pray and plan the day, I think again about Mary and Martha. Mary “chose the better part,” and I do appreciate that — but what about the work Martha was doing? Even after sitting with Jesus, the dishes are still there. How can we resolve this tension?
As always, let’s begin with the text:
Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” — Luke 10.38-42 (NRSV)
What about the work?
Let’s imagine that Martha comes at this whole situation from a different angle — she experiences a giant leap in self-awareness, takes off her apron, and decides she wants to sit with Jesus, too. Even in this scenario, nobody was arguing that there wasn’t work that needed to be done. People needed to be fed, dishes washed, beds prepared. This wasn’t a Sabbath day; this was a day for ticking things off the list.
The Women’s Bible Commentary offers this simple thought: “The pressure of these tasks did not permit Martha to learn from Jesus.” (WBC, pg. 575) I’m not sure I agree with this. Is there an inherent discord between these tasks and learning from Jesus? What would have been the best way? Could they be combined, or delayed, or shifted? It seems that there must be a way to get the work done in the presence of Jesus. (Brother Lawrence, help us!)
I’ve been wondering about Jesus’s attitude toward work. It seems that he is in favor of it, since he was there at creation (with the Father and the Spirit) and their work was good. It also seems that he thinks we shouldn’t worry about it, that things will work out, and provision will come like it does for the birds and the lilies (Matthew 6.25-34).
And yet even with deep trust in Jesus and taking on his easy yoke, there is no way around the fact that the papers need to be written, the books read, the laundry washed, and (oh dear) last month’s phone bill needs to be paid. A little bit of anxiety about these things can help to keep things moving along, but it does seem in direct opposition to Mary’s relaxed demeanor.
So when and how does the action take place? Is there a secret to performing tasks from a state of peaceful presence with the Lord? How does this work? Where is the sweet spot between anxiously preparing dinner and sitting around talking with Jesus? How could Martha have enjoyed the presence of Jesus while also making sure people were fed? How can I do that in my own home?
I think I know what the answer is, and it’s not easy. It’s about being friends with Jesus and listening to him.There is no hard and fast rule about when to work and when to stop. I just need to be constantly listening to God’s Spirit whispering to me, teaching me both to enjoy my work at the right time and instructing me to stop when someone needs a band-aid or a hug. How maddening to not have a clear blueprint! But how freeing, too — right? The best way is rarely an easy way.
How can I find joy in my work today?
How can I stay open to the voice of Jesus in my work?
What can I do to pay close attention to the humans around me today?
This piece comes to us from The Well, and was originally published as part of a series of twelve reflections on the story of Mary and Martha at Ann’s blog. If you’d like to read the whole series, start with the first post, where they are listed in full at the end of the piece. Copyright 2014 Ann Boyd. Used with permission.
Previous posts in this series: