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.”
Maybe we appreciate these words of Jesus to Martha because we relish any time we have in our busy life to just sit and listen, time to just be rather than do. Time to smell the roses.
But as compelling as this is, there is also a danger to it when thinking about this conversation that Luke records. Too often, when we hear or read this story, we diminish the importance of Martha’s service, and romanticize Mary’s choice to sit at Jesus feet and listen. We conclude that Jesus just wants us to sit and listen and not serve. If we accuse Martha too harshly, she may decide not to serve at all, and if we commend Mary too much, she just might sit there forever and never serve. The point is there is a time to go and do, and there is a time to sit and reflect. Knowing which to do when is a matter of spiritual discernment.
It is precisely the discernment that is important. The one thing that Martha needs more than she needs her sister to help her to get everything done, is to discern when it is time to sit and listen and contemplate and when it is time to go and do.
Only One Thing
The Kingdom of God had come near to Mary, Martha and Lazarus because Jesus is visiting in here home. And, it was Martha who invited him in to visit. Being in the presence of Jesus the time was ripe to sit and listen to Jesus. And when our time with Jesus draws near, we have the timely opportunity to receive the Kingdom of God if we only discern it.
Just as Jesus told his disciples when he sent them into the villages ahead of him, they were like laborers entering a harvest, the Kingdom of God was drawing near whether the people received or not. The fact remained that the Kingdom of God had drawn near. Discerning the time of our visitation by the Kingdom of God, and knowing in that moment what matters the most, comes from listening to the Holy Spirit.
There are times when what matters most is giving an active response, like that of the Good Samaritan who stopped his trip to help someone is dire need of medical care, or the woman at the well, when she went back into town to tell the people that she had met the Messiah. Neither the Samaritan nor the woman at Jacob’s well could sit still, they had something that needed to be done right then because the Kingdom of God had come near to them.
When we are in the presence of who is one in need we also recognize that the Kingdom of God is breaking in and we must respond by going and doing what needs to be done. Then sometimes, what matters the most is a contemplative response. Sometimes we need to sit and listen like Mary did on this occasion. The key for us is to allow the Holy Spirit to give us the discernment to know what is called for from us in the moment. One response is not better than the other. What matters most is listening to the Holy Spirit in order to discern what to do on each occasion.
Figuring out what is ultimately more important demands discernment. And nothing is more important than receiving the Kingdom of God, wherever you are, when it comes near. Some-times when we discern that it is near, the faithful thing to do is to drop everything and sit still and listen ~ like Mary. At other times when we discern the presence of the Kingdom of God, the faithful thing to do is get busy and commit to the task at hand ~ like Martha.
I think if we were to ask Jesus which of these two things we need more of, sitting and listening or action, he would probably say both because both have their time and place. The key is to listen for the guidance of the Holy Spirit to guide our hearts and minds into the one that is needed most in the moment.
So we can be watchful for the ways in which the Kingdom of God is breaking into the world around us. It might happen any time when we least expect it. Who knows what form it will take, this Kingdom of God that is ever drawing near and coming among us? May we look for it in the midst of the daily routines of our lives; and pray for the ability to listen to the nudging of the Holy Spirit to help us discern when the Kingdom is near. If we are open to the Spirit then we will know the one thing that is most needed in the moment.
Sue is NLS Spiritual Director, since 2019 and is a retired Lutheran Pastor (ELCA). Active in VdC since 1995, she has served two terms on the Board of the Texas VdC Secretariat, and also on the Texas Gulf Coast VdC Board as Spiritual Director since its start-up in 2017.