Sunday 17th July 2016, Trinity 8, morning
by Revd Chris Palmer
I remember as a child and teenager listening to this story in Sunday School and sermons and the like. And it always seemed to me that the message was the same. Jesus isn’t saying that Martha’s service and role are unimportant. The people who do the active service in society and the church, who roll up their sleeves and get stuck in are crucial. We need Marthas as well as Marys. Though Jesus is warning as about getting so tied up in our busy work that we have no time for him.
Now in one sense you can’t fault that message. But in another sense it cuts straight across the text - which was somewhat ironic given it was in biblically conservative churches I was listening to this. The main sense of the text is not that the active life is as important as the contemplative life, but quite the opposite. ‘Mary has chosen the better way.’ I suspect this was and is so uncomfortable because our ego needs to justify our busyness. But that ego is precisely the problem not the solution. Jesus is inviting us to leave our anxious need to prove ourselves, to be useful – a need which fears that others are judging us and is very quick to judge them in return. And instead he invites us just to be.
Jumping to Martha’s defence is really a way of jumping to our own defence, and staying blind to the ways in which our preoccupations are distractions from reality; they are not reality itself.
So let’s look at our Martha distractions for a minute, to see if we can recognise them a bit more. The Martha in us keeps up a continual talkative monologue that tells us we are important or not important enough, that we’re likely to look stupid or make a fool of ourselves, that we need to be productive in order to be worthwhile, that we are defined by our educational achievements or whether we have the latest gadgets, that we need to be on the inside of the latest trend (which appears to be PokemonGo at the moment!). And this monologue leads us to judge ourselves and others continually, make comparisons, notice who can promote us or harm us – and probably stay blind to the people who can do neither – and generally live with a background of worry and resentment that controls our responses and instincts.
You can hear this all in Martha. ‘I don’t like that you’re giving her all the attention, when really I’m doing the real work, and she should be helping. Do you hear that? I’m the leader, she’s the assistant, and at the moment I’m not getting the credit for being the important one. Sitting listening is a waste of time; productivity is what counts. All that ‘being not doing nonsense’ isn’t going to get food on the table.’
This is the inner voice in most of us, because it’s also very much the outer voice of society, of the workplace, of politics, and (often) of the church. To hear the voice of Jesus calling us to contemplative living is to hear the quiet and persistent invitation of God above a cacophony of other priorities and demands.
And key to this is to hear Jesus speak, ‘Martha, Martha…’ Notice that he names her and repeats it. Jesus is naming us, speaking these words to us: ‘Chris, Chris…’ ‘Alice, Alice…’ ‘You are distracted by many things, only one thing is needed…’ Notice the 'many' and 'one' theme. When I was a graduate student, a fellow student read a paper at a seminar suggesting that Jesus was referring to the central Jewish belief that there is only one God. ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord; you shall love the Lord you God with all your heart, with all your mind, with all your soul, and with all your strength’. He pointed out that the Greek doesn’t say ‘one thing is needful’ – but ‘there is need of only one’. Martha’s preoccupation with her many tasks was a subtle form of idolatry. Mary gave herself to the one that counts, to the one true God – and that means to sit at the feet of Jesus, in whom the one God visits his people and is made known.
This doesn’t mean always sitting doing nothing and neglecting the necessary stuff of life. It does mean developing a contemplative and mindful outlook on the whole of life, in which we are able to become present to God, rather than merely to our own need for affirmation or success. I’ve been – rather slowly – reading a new book by Brian Draper called Soulfulness: Deepening the Mindful Life . As the title suggests it’s a way of taking the current – and good – vogue for Mindfulness into a more soulful dimension. And in it he invites us to notice the thoughts, the inner monologue which is distracting us. Notice when you judging your appearance in the shop window; notice when you’re worried what somebody thought of you; notice what distracts you when you try to pray; notice when your breathing changes because you encounter particular people you want to impress or threaten you.
This noticing, he says, ‘can lift our heads to witness the world around us… from the non-judgemental, compassionate and loving perspective of the soul.’ In other words, our noticing can become the voice of Jesus saying, ‘you are distracted by many things… you need only one… there is a better way’. And our noticing can become an open and ready response to Jesus, to displace reaching for another excuse for a distracted defensiveness.
One benefit of this is to find a better relationship between activity and contemplation, between being and doing. I almost said, ‘a better balance between being and doing…’. But that’s a false dichotomy. The point is that the doing which is God’s desire is an expression of true being. The activity which God calls us to is an expression of a contemplative heart. In other words, to hear the voice of Jesus in this way enables us to discern God’s will and desire.
I heard it said that, when Justin Welby arrived at Lambeth Palace as Archbishop, he was presented with a diary that was basically full for the coming year. And he tore it up and in prayer and discussion with others identified three priorities for his time as Archbishop. These are posted on his website:
- Prayer and the Religious Life
- Mission and Evangelism
And he ruthlessly removed from his diary what wasn’t about these priorities.
That is contemplative living. It is what having a Rule of Life is about; it is what knowing your personal vocation means – both things I spoken of before. It is about doing some of Martha’s tasks, but being in Mary’s mind. It is about sitting at the feet of Jesus, when someone else is trying to dictate the agenda. It is about being true to the ‘one needful’ – the one God – who, through the voice of Jesus, seeks our attentiveness, our mindfulness, our soulfulness – that is our heart and mind and soul and strength – because he gives his heart and mind and soul and strength to us in Jesus and through the Spirit.
 Brian Draper, Soulfulness: Deepening the mindful life. Hodder & Stoughton, London 2016, especially pp 71-74