Only One Thing
By Debie Thomas
In this week’s Gospel story, Jesus enters a certain village, and a woman named Martha welcomes him into her home. As soon as Jesus (and presumably his disciples) enter the house, Martha busies herself with the practical work of hospitality — cleaning, organizing, cooking, and serving. Her sister, Mary, meanwhile, sits at Jesus’s feet, listening to all he says with rapt attention, and paying no heed to her harried sister.
We have no idea how long Martha’s patience holds (I imagine she spends a good hour or two in the kitchen, banging pot lids around to express her displeasure), but soon enough she boils over, and storms into the dining room to confront Jesus: “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 Jesus, instead of chiding Mary or offering Martha the recognition she craves, answers thus: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, and it will not be taken away from her.”
It’s a brief story, but I have to confess that it leaves me feeling conflicted and uneasy. I spent a good part of this week trying to make it palatable. To make it okay. By which I mean: I spent a good part of the week trying to make Jesus palatable and okay. But that (mercifully) is not my job. My job is to encounter the Gospel, and to allow it to encounter me. My job is to engage with its paradoxes as honestly as I can. Here, then, are the results of my encounter and my engagement, messy as they are:
1. Seriously, Jesus? You can’t do better than this? I grew up in a traditional South Asian culture that placed a supremely high value on hospitality. I also grew up in an ethnic and religious context where “women’s work” carried less spiritual worth than men’s. Some of my earliest and most vivid memories involve sari-clad women (my mom, my aunts, and dozens of other “church ladies”) hovering anxiously over tables laden with fragrant, delicious dishes, refilling a cup of water here, offering a third helping of rice and chicken curry there, mopping up a coffee spill somewhere else — while the men talked, studied, debated, relaxed, and feasted.
Whether the occasion was a weekday home Bible study, a Sunday evening potluck, or the all-church Christmas party, the women prepped, cooked, served, and cleaned to make the gathering festive and fun. They did so with a strong sense of dignity and pride — after all, this was the work they had been raised to do. It was the work that consolidated their identities as “good women of God.” But it didn’t take me long as a kid to figure out that what really counted as spiritual work was the work the men did. The work of preaching, teaching, leading worship, and presiding over Communion.
To be fair, I don’t think this was because the men were boors. I think it was because the patriarchal culture that raised them made sure they never experienced the inside of a kitchen, a pantry, a clothes dryer, or a bottle of Pine Sol. They literally never saw the work that makes hospitality possible.
This is some of the baggage I bring to this week’s lectionary. So when I read Jesus’s words to Martha, my first response is irritation, and my second is disappointment. Yes, Jesus elevated the status of women by affirming Mary’s right to discipleship. (Traditionally, only male disciples sat at their Teacher’s feet to study the Torah). This gender reversal is a huge deal, and I don’t take it for granted.
And yet. I wish Jesus had done more. I wish he’d rounded up his (male) disciples, ushered them into the kitchen, and directed them to bake the bread, fry the fish, and chop the vegetables — all while Martha took a much needed nap. I wish he’d said, “Peter, you wash the dishes. James and John, you put away the leftovers. Judas, get the beds made. Andrew, you’re on sweeping and mopping duty, and the rest of you: go ask the women what else they need done. Oh, and in case you boys are wondering: this “girlie” stuff isn’t a prelude to the sacred. This stuff IS the sacred.”
Perhaps it sounds nitpicking or silly, but still, I can’t help wondering: if Jesus had taken a more radical stance in Martha’s house, would his followers have wasted the next two thousand years arguing over “a woman’s rightful place” in the home and in the Church? Would countless women today feel so self-conscious, judged, and shamed over how well they do or don’t juggle the competing demands of their domestic, professional, and religious lives? Maybe. But maybe not.
Don’t get me wrong; I do believe that Jesus championed women in a thousand essential ways during his time on earth. But the fact remains that in this particular story, Martha’s burdensome sense of obligation and duty had cultural roots which Jesus didn’t confront on her behalf. Her anxiety didn’t come from nowhere; she lived inside a social and religious system that fully expected her to behave as she did, and the power of that system was formidable. In other words, Martha needed deep, systemic change in order to live into the permission Jesus tried to offer her. She couldn’t embrace such radical freedom by herself — she needed the folks with power to embrace it with her and for her.
So I wonder: what would it be like for us contemporary Christians to examine the systems and structures that still bind people like Martha today? What would it cost us to dismantle those systems? What would it look like to create concrete opportunities for today’s Marthas to rest? To sit freely at Jesus’s feet? To find support, community, and help as they struggle to become disciples? What would it look like to stand in solidarity with your nearest Martha as she unlearns a lifetime’s worth of messaging about what makes her soul lovable, valuable, honorable, and holy?
2. Wait! You want us to be unbalanced? The bottom line is, it’s ridiculous to champion contemplation over action. Word over deed. The mystic over the activist. Worship over service. Why? Because we need both. Our common life requires both. How would the Church ever survive without Marthas? Marthas who bake the Eucharistic bread. Marthas who tend the grounds. Marthas who arrange the flowers and restock the votive candles and sew the pageant costumes and dust the pews. After all, isn’t it telling that Mary and Martha were sisters? Their differences couldn’t erase the basic fact that they belonged together. They needed each other. They held each other in balance. Right?
Or… not right? The truth is, I have tried and tried this week to read Mary and Martha’s story as a story about balance. But I don’t think Jesus’s ringing endorsement of Mary’s “choosing the better part” will allow me to get away with that tepid reading. Because the story is not about balance. The story is about choosing the one thing, the best thing — and forsaking everything else for its sake. The story is about single-mindedness. About a passionate and undistracted pursuit of a single, mind-blowing treasure. Think of Jesus’s most evocative parables; they all point in this same direction. The pearl of great price. The buried treasure in the field. The lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost son. Christianity is not about balance; it’s about extravagance. It’s not about being reasonable; it’s about being wildly, madly, and deeply in love with Jesus.
As soon as Jesus entered Martha’s house, he turned the place upside down. He messed with Martha’s expectations, routines, and habits. He insisted on costly change. Perhaps Martha’s mistake was that she assumed she could invite Jesus into her life, and then carry on with that life as usual, maintaining control, privileging her own priorities, and clinging to her long-cherished agenda and schedule. What was Jesus’s response to that assumption? Nope. Absolutely not. That’s not how discipleship works.
In contrast, Mary recognized that Jesus’s presence in her house required a radical shift. A role change. A wholehearted surrender. Every action, every decision, every priority, would have to be filtered through this new love, this new devotion, this new passion. Why? Because Jesus was no ordinary guest. He was the Guest who would be Host. The Host who would provide the bread of life, the living water, and the wine that was his own blood, to anyone who would sit at his feet and receive his hospitality.
It’s easy to lose sight of Mary. In our work-frenzied, performance-driven lives, it’s easy to believe that pondering, listening, waiting, and resting have no value. In our age of snark and cynicism, it’s easy to roll our eyes at spiritual earnestness. In a world that is profoundly broken and unjust, it’s easy to argue that we should leave contemplation to the monastics, and throw all of our time and energy into social engagement. To be clear: we are called to work for justice. We are called to bring liberty to the oppressed and comfort to the afflicted. But every “work” we do must begin, Jesus insists, from “only one thing.” It must begin with him. It must begin at his feet.
3. Okay, it’s true — I ache to be whole. Jesus didn’t call Martha out for her hospitality. It was not her cooking, cleaning, or serving that bothered him. Notice the actual problem he named: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things.”
The root meaning of the word “worry” is “strangle” or “seize by the throat and tear.” The root meaning of the word “distraction” is “a separation or a dragging apart of something that should be whole.” These are violent words. Words that wound and fracture. States of mind that render us incoherent, divided, and un-whole.
Jesus found Martha in just such a state of fragmentation — a condition in which she could not enjoy his company, savor his presence, find inspiration in her work, receive anything he wished to offer her, or show him genuine love. Instead, all she could do was question his love (“Lord, do you not care?”), fixate on herself (“My sister has left me to do all the work by myself”) and triangulate (“Tell her then to help me.”)
Does any of this sound familiar? Is your inner life so fragmented, so strangled, so incoherent, that you struggle to give and receive love? Are you quick to seethe? Has your busyness become an affront to the people you long to host? Is your worry keeping you from being fully present, fully engaged, fully alive? Have you lost the ability to attend? To linger? To delve deep? Are you using your packed schedule to avoid intimacy with God or with others?
My answer to many of these questions is yes. If yours is yes, too, then I wonder if we can hear Jesus’s words to Martha, not as a criticism, but as an invitation. Not as a rebuke, but as a soothing balm. Jesus knows that we ache to be whole. Jesus knows that we place brutal and devastating expectations on ourselves. Jesus knows that our resentments, like Martha’s, are often borne of envy.
Martha longed to sit where Mary sat. She longed to take delight in Jesus’s words. She longed to surrender her heavy burden and allow Jesus to host her. Maybe we long for these good things, too.
Here’s the good news: There is need of only one thing, and if we choose it, no one will ever have the power to take it away from us. So let’s choose it. Jesus our Host is waiting.
Debie Thomas: firstname.lastname@example.org
Image credits: (1) Orthodox Christian Network; (2) Wikipedia.org; and (3) Wikipedia.org.
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