Psalm 15:2-3, 5
“You are worried and upset about many things, but one thing is needed.” But what is that one thing?
Some would say that the one thing that Martha needs – and by extension all busy people – is time. In other words, Jesus is saying slow down Martha and smell the roses. In your busyness you are missing out on life. The problem is not so much that you’re busy, but that you’re frazzled. People, after all, have different capacities for work, but Martha had clearly exceeded hers. I think that that is a message that might resonate with our world of two-career marriages, three-car families, soccer moms, sixty hour work weeks, fast food, and all the rest. It is busy Martha, not contemplative Mary, that most of us identify with. I think that we all see the need for times when we should slow down in order to be rather than to do. We all recognize the need for more quality time in our lives – with spouses, parents, children, and friends. This is not a bad interpretation, but I’m not sure that this is what Jesus meant.
Some would say that that the one thing that Jesus referred to was discernment. In the story of Mary and Martha we see a clash of temperaments. The temperaments of both women are good; both reflective and activist people are necessary for the church – and world – to function well. To the extent that we have choices in these matters, this story is teaching us to be discerning about when to be one or the other. Martha’s fault in this story is that she failed to discern that all her bustling activity was out of place at that particular time. What Jesus needed was something else – perhaps a quiet meal and time with non-anxious friends. And Martha was missing out on an opportunity to sit at the master’s feet. Mary, though, was getting it just right, and Jesus affirms her and all reflective people: “Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” This is also a likely interpretation, but I don’t think it cuts deeply enough.
In the context of the story of Mary and Martha, I think that the “one thing needed” that Jesus is referring to is not quality time or discernment, but … God. The lesson is not just that busy people are too busy and should slow down; or that busy people can get so disoriented that they make bad decisions. The lesson is one of priorities. One thing is needed, and when we get that right, all the other things follow. That one thing is surely God. When God is our priority, then quality time with others, and discernment about when to act and when to be will naturally follow. Martha chose the many parts, but Mary chose the one part that is best of all. By setting aside everything else to sit at the master’s feet and listen, Mary exemplifies what it means to love the Lord will all your heart, soul, strength and mind.
To all the busy Marthas in the world – which is probably most of us – Jesus has a word for us that was intended to make us stop in our tracks and think: you are upset and frazzled and distracted by many things, but remember, only one thing is needed.
By Michael Parker
Maurice Denis, Martha and Mary, The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg1896