There’s a curious story in the Bible that centers around two of Jesus’ closest friends, Mary and Martha. The two sisters had a special relationship with Jesus. As the Gospel of John 11:5 states, “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.” They loved Jesus as well, and as you may know, there’s a backstory.
Mary and Martha believed that Jesus was responsible for bringing their brother Lazarus back from the dead. Earlier in the Gospel of John, we are told that Lazarus had passed away from an illness, causing Jesus to become “greatly disturbed.” And even though Lazarus had been entombed for four days, when Jesus arrived on the scene, he miraculously brought Lazarus back to life.
The passages we’re looking at today cover another aspect of the Mary, Martha, and Jesus dynamic. It comes from the Gospel of Luke and spans Luke 10:38 to 10:42. It starts like this:
As Jesus and his disciples were traveling, they came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to them. Martha had a sister named Mary, who sat at the feet of Jesus listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted. The food and drink preparations were not complete, and Martha was miffed at Mary for not helping out. She came to Jesus and said, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work all by myself? Tell her to help me!” ~Luke 10:38-41
It’s apparent that Martha has a friendly relationship with Jesus because she has no problem venting her frustration at him. But the key part of the story comes next—and it’s in Jesus’s response to Martha’s request. I’m going to paraphrase it, but in effect Jesus says:
Martha, Martha, you worry about so many things. But there are so few things you should really worry about. In fact, there is only one. Mary has made the better choice, and it will not be taken away from her. ~Luke 10:42
It begs the questions: What is the one thing Martha should have been concerned about? And what did her sister Mary know that Martha did not?
The problem: Martha was there in body, but not in spirit.
In The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See, Richard Rohr explains that Martha was doing the “reasonable, hospitable thing,” preparing food and drink for her unexpected guests. It would have been the norm for women at this time. But, as the Bible passage points out, Martha is “distracted by all the preparations” to the point of being overwhelmed. She was not fully present.
Rohr points out that if Martha was not present to herself, she could not be truly present to her guests. And for that matter, God. And while Mary chose to drop everything to be present for her good friend and distinguished guest, Martha was distracted and not in the moment.
What is true for Mary and Martha is true for us as well. As Jesus said, only one thing is truly necessary. Being present. It’s a good time to stop and consider: Do I have my priorities in order? Am I more concerned with the busyness of life than recognizing the people around me? As Rohr reminds us, “When we are present, and living in the moment, you will eventually and always experience the Presence.” Of God.
We need to be present to one another.
Rohr informs us that it takes wisdom to be present—and to experience the Presence. Wisdom is not to be confused with knowledge, as “all the knowledge in the world does not of itself accumulate into wisdom…wisdom is a different way of seeing and knowing.” He continues:
People who are fully present know how to see fully, rightfully, and truthfully. Presence is the one thing necessary, and in many ways, the hardest thing of all. Just try to keep your heart open, your mind without division or resistance, and your body not somewhere else.
Rohr goes on to warn us, “If you are not present, you will not be able to recognize the Real Presence when it shows itself every day.” The Real Presence will always be there, “but you won’t be.” And to get to that state, we need to start being present to one another, instead of “hiding in the past or worrying about the future.”
In similar language, the enlightened philosopher Lester Levenson said, “We can have peace if we let go of wanting to change the past and wanting to control the future.” The only way we can do that is to be in the present moment.
Ask yourself: What matters most in my life?
A similar perspective on presence can be found in a non-religious source, at the Waking Up app. There, the noted atheist and host Sam Harris asks us the following question: “What makes life worth living?” Depending on what you value, you may have several answers. Harris mentions “meaningful work, being out in nature, and helping others.”
But the most important aspect of all our lives, may be love. Harris reminds us:
While we all want to be loved, more important is giving love. And to do that, we need to be totally connected to the present moment. After all, you can’t really enjoy anything fully, unless you’re connected to the present.
But it’s hard to present if, like Martha, you are distracted. Harris points out that we always seem to get caught up in our own busyness—”meeting deadlines, running errands, fulfilling desires, defending opinions, reacting to other people.” We always seem to believe that “something important needs to be found, accomplished, or otherwise added to our experience.” And it keeps us from living in the present moment.
We sometimes go through hard times, be they with our relationships, our health or our finances. We sometimes have long days, consumed by issues at work and at home. But between these points, and sometimes even during them, we experience moments of beauty and deep inner peace and love—if we are awake enough, and present enough, to realize them.
What Jesus wants for Mary is what he wants for all of us. To be fully present in each moment. To put aside our chores, and our worries, and to bask in the present—and the Presence that is God. It is the ultimate reward and it is open and available to all of us. If we choose to accept it.