“Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things.Anxiety and worry are constant companions for many of us. Bosses require. Kids demand. To-do lists grow. Financial pressures mount. The environment and the political climate are fragile. The respites we find -- vacation, family time, date night or perhaps immersing ourselves in a hobby -- are fleeting and easily undone.
There is need of only one thing." (Lk. 10:41-42)
Reading this story through the mental filters of our culture it is easy to view Martha as the responsible one, the doer, the "Type A," and to dismiss Mary as the slacker. Here she is getting out of work by listening to the Lord. The messages of our world are similar: He's not really doing his job, taking off for his kid's game. She'd be a better mom if she kept the house cleaner instead of playing with the kids all the time.
It's a misreading to see this story as Jesus' judgment on work or his validation of irresponsibility. Jesus is speaking on a completely different level, the level deep inside ourselves where we decide what is truly important to us.
Anyone who has thrown a party or hosted a Bible study or house church knows the work involved. It's considerable and it is important. Most of us have also been to gatherings where the host/hostess was so focused on the details of the gathering that they never really have a meaningful conversation with a guest. (If you've been to worship at my house you've seen my tendencies in this regard. Ouch!)
While Martha bustles, Mary sits in conversation with the Lord. I used to read this as Mary being the good student, dutifully listening to Jesus expound wonderful teachings. The more I read Jesus, though, I see him more conversing, challenging, engaging people rather than lecturing. He seems someone more at home at a party or a casual dinner than in a pulpit.
We think of Martha as the one with the gift of hospitality, making sure all is prepared. While that is important to allow connections to happen, it's Mary who, by honoring Jesus and being present with him, displays the kind of hospitality that marks the kingdom of God. It's not the Martha Stewart kind, with all the "good things" just so. Rather it's a place where guests and strangers (and hosts, too) are honored for who they are and attended to.
On the deeper level, this is a struggle I (and many people) face constantly. It is hard to spend time in relationship with Jesus -- in prayer/conversation, in Scripture, in contemplation -- without the worries and concerns of the day creeping in and taking over. (Right now I'm struggling to quarantine a mental image of my to-do list!) And while it gets easier over time, it never ceases to be a struggle. I have found in my own journey that practicing spending time with Jesus even if I don't want to makes the next time easier, and that skipping to attend to my tasks makes the next time harder.
What Jesus is saying here is that attending to our relationship with God is a kingdom value. Knowing Jesus does not eliminate tasks and pressures. But they pale in comparison to the blessing of being known by God. It's not that Jesus wants us to slack off and he'll cover us; though I think he is a big fan of sabbath and vacation and re-creation and other ways of living within our human limits.
Jesus' promise is that if we take the time to seek him out amid all the other stuff going on, if sitting at his feet is a priority, he will bless that time and the longest to-do list in the world won't take it away from us.