Adapted from a sermon given on the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost at All Souls’, Oklahoma City
By Christopher Yoder
They say there are two kinds of people in the world. Robert Frost said there are “some willing to work, the rest willing to let them.” Or, if you prefer the movies, in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Clint Eastwood’s character says: “In this world there’s two kinds of people, my friend: those with loaded guns and those who dig. You dig.” We might be tempted to say something like this about today’s gospel lesson: There are two kinds of people: Marthas and Marys. One works, and the other lets her. One labors, the other prays.
But, while St. Luke does certainly draw a contrast between Martha and Mary, the two sisters are not mere symbols, instances of opposite types, nor are they static. The contrast between Martha and Mary is more complex, more illuminating, than that. So, it is worth attending more closely to how each sister is described in the text.
Let’s start with Martha. Martha is, you might say, the Responsible One. She does the right thing: when Jesus comes to their village, she receives him into her house. She welcomes the stranger. She is hospitable. Like Abraham welcoming the three men under the tree of Mamre, Martha receives Jesus and sets about serving him. It’s just what she ought to be doing, isn’t it?
But something has gone wrong. St. Luke says that “Martha was cumbered about much serving.” She was “distracted,” as several translations have it. The Greek word used here suggests something plucking and pulling at her attention, seeking to draw her away, as ravenous beasts seek to drag away their prey. Her mind is filled with all that must be done, and she is irritated and resentful with her sister for abandoning her to do everything alone. So much so that she complains to the Lord.
The Lord’s response to her lays the issue bare. “Martha, Martha,” Jesus says, “thou art careful and troubled about many things.” She is full of cares, full of worries, which crowd and clamor in her mind. She keeps running over and over again in her mind what has to be done, keeps returning to her annoyance, perhaps rehearsing in her mind all the things she will say to her sister once Jesus has gone. She is troubled about many things, her mind is turbulent, worries and stress swirling around and around in her mind, like a stormy sea, or like the Oklahoma skies in tornado season. With Martha, you get the impression of constant movement, of restlessness and unease.
In contrast, St. Luke’s portrait of Mary is one of stability and rest. While Martha bustles about the kitchen, her thoughts “a blooming, buzzing confusion” (William James), Mary sits at the feet of Jesus, and listens to him. She stays in one place, and she attends to one thing. Her body is at rest and her mind is attentive and receptive to Jesus. “Mary sat at Jesus’ feet, and heard his word,” the text says. Both descriptions are the marks of a right response to the Lord, in line with other, exemplary responses to Jesus in St. Luke’s gospel. Mary sits at Jesus’s feet — a position of humility and submission, the posture of a student, settling in to learn from her master. She sits at Jesus’s feet, just as the man Jesus had freed from the legion of demons sat at Jesus’ feet when the Lord had set him free (8:35). Or again, as Jairus threw himself at Jesus’ feet to beg for the life of his daughter (8:41); or as the one leper who alone returned to thank Jesus for healing him (17:16); Mary sits at Christ’s feet and lavishes her attention on him, like the nameless woman who earlier, at Simon’s house, had anointed his feet and washed them with her tears, of whom Jesus had said, “Her sins, which are many, are forgiven — for she loved much” (7:36f). Mary sat at Jesus’ feet; she is close to him. It is a posture of intimacy and trust.
She sits near Christ and “hears his word.” She does what the Lord desires; does what the voice from the cloud thunders when Jesus was transfigured before the disciples: “This is my Son, my Beloved, listen to him” (9:35). She does what Jesus himself desires, when he says that his mother and his brothers, his true family, “are those who hear the word of God and do it” (8:21). And again, “Blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it” (11:28). She is receptive to his word, and she will obey him — she will take his yoke upon her and learn from him, and find rest for her soul.
If Martha is characterized by restlessness and motion, Mary is characterized by stability and rest, by single-minded attentiveness and humble receptivity to the word of the Lord.
But don’t our sympathies tend to lie with Martha? After all, despite her resentment of her sister, she does seem to be the Responsible One. She is the one doing her duty, doing what is expected of her. So, why does Jesus not take Martha’s side?
Jesus says, “Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things: but one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.” She lacks simplicity; she has allowed herself to be pulled in all directions. Martha’s distraction and her resentment have obscured her vision. She cannot see past herself.
“Thou art careful and troubled about many things: but one thing is needful.” What is that one thing? It is to sit at the feet of the Lord and to hear and obey his word. It is to find the Lord Jesus himself to be the one thing needful, the pearl of great price, the treasure hidden in the field.
“Thou art careful and troubled about many things: but one thing is needful.” Does not Jesus address us in these words? If Martha was distracted, cumbered about with many things, how much more are we prone to distraction? We live in what the essayist Alan Jacobs has called “an age of distraction.” We possess tools that are nearly perfectly designed to capture our attention and to scatter it in a thousand different directions. How are we, in an age of distraction, to give our attention to the Lord?
Two thoughts. First, we ought to ask for God’s help. Distraction stems from a lack of single-mindedness, from a lack of simplicity. But, as Abbot John Chapman says, it’s “not that we can try to be simple. God does that for us” (Spiritual Letters). So, we can simply and humbly ask for God’s help. There is a line from a poem by the Bengali poet Rabrindranath Tagore that we might turn into a prayer:
Only let me make my life simple and straight,
Like a flute of reed for thee to fill with music.
— “Song VII (‘My soul has put off her adornments’)”
A second thought. The late, great Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe suggested that distraction in prayer often comes from our not asking God for what we actually want. If you only ask God for what you think you ought to want, only pray for “high-minded” things, when you do not actually want these things, then it should not surprise you if you are easily distracted by thoughts of what you actually want. So, McCabe says, we ought to ask God for what we actually want, even if it seems frivolous: like praying to pass an exam, or asking for help in making your mortgage payment. When we ask God for what we actually want, odds are we will be less distracted in our prayer. As McCabe puts it, “People on a sinking ship do not complain of distractions in prayer.” Prayer, after all, is more than asking God for things, but about coming close to the Lord, about learning, about growing in love, about being drawn to him. When we come before the Lord in prayer as we actually are and bring our actual desires to him, we will learn, by God’s grace, that behind all our desires is a desire for nothing other than God himself.
If this is the case then perhaps, counterintuitively, Martha’s exasperated plea to Jesus is a model for how to pray in a state of distraction. Perhaps Mary shows the end, and Martha shows where to start. She approaches the Lord as she actually is, speaking to him simply and honestly of her distraction and resentment. She does not try to be what she is not. And notice how gently our Lord answers her: “Martha, Martha,” he tenderly says. And his words are a gift to her; he shows her the truth about herself: his words show her distraction and resentments for what they are. His answer contains the antidote to her distraction and perhaps also the seed for reconciliation between her and the sister she has complained against. Jesus, implicitly, invites Martha to lay aside her teeming thoughts and worries and to find rest for her soul in him.
I do not think that Martha’s exchange with the Lord left her unchanged. Rather, I like to think that she came away that little bit less cumbered about, less worried, less troubled by many things, and that much closer to finding the Lord himself to be the one thing needful; that she came away from her encounter with the Lord knowing that little bit more what the psalmist expressed, “When many cares fill my mind, your consolations cheer my soul” (Ps. 94:19).
And if it was so with Martha, then might it not also be so for you and for me?