“Summertime, and the livin’ is easy”…at least according to the George Gershwin song. Summer has a nostalgic hold on our imagination. We idealize it as the time of year when we slow down, kick back and take some time off from the routines of pressures and stresses to enjoy a more relaxed rhythm of life. Though, for a number of us there’s still a lot of work to get done at the office. For others there’s the kids activities that have you driving from swim lessons, to T-Ball games, to the art enrichment camp. And for practically all of us there’s those summer road construction projects that have us sitting impatiently in our cars on Willow Road and I- 294 and the Dan Ryan.
Is summer ever that idyllic time when the “livin’ is easy?” Of course, especially when we get away on vacation, or take advantage of warm evenings to take long, pleasant walks, or on a hot day watch the grandkids laugh and play in their “Slip and Slide,” or maybe get out on the golf course for a day with friends – though how leasurable that is depends on how you’re hitting the ball. Which is close to a truth for our lives. Because whether or not the “livin’ is easy” depends on the situation and what is going on in your life at the time. Take today’s story in Luke.
The Reverend Jesus has stopped by the house for lunch. Martha and her sister, Mary, welcome him into their home and they go into the living room. The lemonade is poured and there’s some polite small talk, then it’s off to the kitchen to prepare the meal for the honored guest. That is to say, Martha goes off to the kitchen; Mary chooses to stay behind with Jesus.
Martha gets to work, checking the stew bubbling in the pot over the fire, cutting up some fresh tomatoes for the salad, and slicing the zucchini bread that has cooled. She’s working up a sweat – and feeling resentment about Mary not being there to help out.
The meal is coming to that point when everything needs to be done at once to get it on the table. The vegetables have to be drained. The stew ladled out into bowls. The water glasses filled. Martha purposely clatters some of the dishes together loud enough for her sister to hear. She’s working up some real steam now, or as Luke mildly describes her frustration, “Martha is distracted by her many tasks.” Finally, Martha has had it. She slams down a cooking spoon and stomps out into the living room wiping her hands on her apron. There’s Mary parked at Jesus’ feet. Hands on hips, Martha raises her voice and speaks to Jesus instead of her sister Mary. “Lord,” she says irritably, “do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her to lend me a hand.”
Psychologists have a special term for the way Martha was trying to maneuver Jesus: triangulation. It is about putting a third person between you and the person you have the issue with, in order to have that third person resolve it in your favor. That leaves the third person triangled in a position of taking a side in a dispute they are not a part of. It compromises the third person; they are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. And it happens all the time, in families, at the office and between friends. That’s why there’s a word for it.
Now, of course, were we in Martha’s place, you and I would like to think we would be more tactful. Take our sibling aside and quietly tell her you need her help in the kitchen. But who can say for sure? Again it depends on the situation and what is going on at the time. Under the same kind of pressure – mixed in with some old baggage of previous experiences – we might react out of frustration like Martha did.
Jesus responds to Martha rather gently. “Martha, Martha” he begins, saying her name two times.
Remember when your mother would say your name twice? If she said your full name, that meant you were in trouble. “Benjamin Roe Bishop you get in here and clean up this mess right now.” But if she said, “Benny, Benny” it meant she was going to say something that I needed to pay attention to and understand.
Jesus responds to Martha’s outburst not so much with judgment, but with a chiding comment that contains a nugget of wisdom. “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need for only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part…”
The better part. Life has so many parts, doesn’t it? There is the part about our responsibility at home to people who are counting on us. There is the part of our responsibilities at work, at school, at church. There is the part about our responsibility to see to our own well being. Sometimes it seems as if we keep accumulating more and more parts to our life, and the pieces of the pie keep getting sliced thinner and thinner.
Is it that way for you? Jesus is talking to us as well as to Martha. Well then, what is the better part?
Biblical commentators and theologians have postulated and argued about just what that “one thing and better part” is that Jesus is referring to. The consensus tends to skew to the contemplative part of life since Mary, sitting at Jesus feet, is given as the example. And certainly there are times that taking time to reflect and pay attention to your soul is the “better part.”
John Bradshaw, the author and counselor, does an interesting word play in suggesting that many of us, with so many options in our lives, become distracted with many things, like Martha. He says that in our hurry-up, do-everything lives we become “human doings” instead of human beings. As a result Bradshaw says, our inner lives suffer and we hobble through life out of balance.
Sue Bender, a mother of two sons, a therapist and artist, has written a small, eloquent book in which she tells her own story of being driven by a life of doing. It’s a wonderful account of discovery as she describes her journey to find balance in her harried life.
In a rather unexpected way, Sue Bender’s journey began in a men’s clothing store. She found herself drawn to an authentic Amish quilt that was being used as a backdrop for some display. The traditional nine patch quilt’s combination of vibrant colors and geometric designs spoke to her with a message of order and tranquility. She remarks, “I didn’t know when I first looked at the Amish quilt and felt my heart pounding that my soul was starving, that an inner voice was trying to make sense of my life.” It touched her so deeply that she decided to take some time away to live among the Amish, where she learned about what the Amish refer to as “a path that has heart.” (Plain and Simple, p. xii)
Using the metaphor of the quilt pattern to describe her life, Bender writes, “How opposite my life was from that Amish quilt. My life was like a crazy quilt. Hundreds of scattered, unrelated, stimulating fragments – each going off in its own direction, creating a lot of frantic energy.”(IBID p. 4)
Bender says that she always assumed that the more choices a person had, the better their life. Her active life was crammed full of choices and things to do. But in living among the Amish, she came to realize that her life was not as rich as she thought. She explains the downside saying, “A tyranny of lists engulfed me. Every morning I would compose my ‘things to do’ list for the day – and as the day went along, I would add new things as they came up.” Such that by the end of the day, her “to do” list would have some items crossed off, and other items left undone would be marked with checks and circles. The following morning’s list would begin with the leftovers from the day before. (IBID p. 6-7)
“Very rarely did I ever stop to ask myself the question, ‘What really matters?’” Bender reflected. Because when she looked around, most of her friends were like her – all scurrying around, worrying and trying their best to keep up while feeling vaguely overwhelmed. Then in retrospect she realized, “Only now, in looking back, can I recall hearing a child’s voice inside me calling, ‘STOP. I want to get off. The merry-go-round is spinning faster and faster. Please make it stop.’” (IBID p. 8)
“Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need for only one thing.” Martha needed to slow down, find some space for peace, enjoy the company around her, and adjust her priorities not for herself alone, but for others in her life.
So what do you think? Does that mean that the one thing, the point of this story, is that a person like you and me needs to focus on being more contemplative? I don’t think so. That’s too one sided and oversimplifies what is going on in this story. The point of this little vignette is not that Martha is wrong and Mary is right. As a matter of fact, my guess is that were you to ask Jesus which one thing we need more – Mary’s reflective quietness or Martha’s busy activism – he would probably answer: “YES.” Because both parts are needed for a healthy, balanced life. Remember Jesus also said, “I have come that you may have life, and have it in all its fullness.”
There is a Mary and a Martha living inside each of us. One of them may be more dominant than the other, but that only means you should not ignore the other part. Both our Mary and our Martha sides are essential to living fully. The challenge is in discerning when to be more like Mary and when to be more like Martha.
Sometimes what we need to do is step out of the fast lane, take a break from the endless stream of busyness, attend to our inner life and rest in God’s hands – like Mary. Other times the faithful thing to do is get busy, commit ourselves to some important, worthwhile task with all the organizational drive we can muster – like Martha.
Near the end of her book, Sue Bender writes, “There is a big difference between having choices and making a choice. Declaring to yourself what is essential is a choice that creates a framework that eliminates some choices, but gives meaning to the things that remain.” (IBID p. 141))
Luke’s story about Martha and Mary ends with Jesus telling Martha to choose the one thing she needs. We don’t know what happens next. We don’t know whether Martha collected herself and chose to sit down next to her sister with Jesus; or, whether she threw up her arms and chose to go back to the kitchen to get that gosh darn meal on the table like a good hostess. The incompleteness of this ending is not unlike the nature of the choices we will be presented with tomorrow and the next day and the next day after that. May we choose the one thing that puts us on the “path that has heart” according to the circumstance and what we discern to be more important at the time.
May it be so in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen. .