The Stones sang, “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes you just might find you get what you need.” In this morning’s gospel, Mary finds that she gets what she needs. As some translations say, she gets the “one thing needful.” She gets something that can never be taken away from her.
Jesus and his friends are at Martha and Mary’s house for dinner. Martha is rushing around getting the hors d’oeuvres together, laying out the china, marinating the lamb chops. As usual, she had already been the one to plan the menu, do the grocery shopping, vacuum the house, and iron the napkins. She was the one who made sure the guest bedroom was in order and the sink in the hall bathroom had been cleaned. It was bad enough that their brother Lazarus had spent the day on the golf course and would waltz in just in time for cocktails, but that’s what she expected of a man.
But Mary was another story. Her sister really steamed her. While she had been working her fingers to the bone, what had her younger sister been doing? Absolutely nothing – just sitting around talking with Jesus and his friends, as if dinner for 16 would just magically appear on the table! All the tension of the day and the irritation at her sister continues to build. Martha hears yet another gale of laughter coming from the living room while she is alone in the kitchen buttering the peas. Finally, she snaps. Martha rushes into the living room, apron over her dress, one hand on her hip, the other pointing not at Mary, but at Jesus.
She’s furious with her sister, but she decides to triangulate, venting to Jesus. Of all people the Teacher should care about duty and responsibility! And after all, Martha polished to silver and cut fresh flowers for Him. So she makes a scene, interrupting the story Jesus is telling, and demands, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself?” Then she instructs Jesus to adjudicate the family dispute. “Tell her then to help me.” She’s so angry she can’t even say Mary’s name!
Awkward silence. The disciples are embarrassed and look down at their feet. Mary sits stock-still. The only sound is the potatoes that are starting to boil over in the kitchen. How would Jesus answer? Well, like all wise people, Jesus refuses to be triangulated, especially in between two sisters. His answer is directly to Martha. “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.” I’ll leave it for you to imagine how Martha responds to that answer!
This story generally peeves and vexes a certain kind of person. People who take umbrage with this story are also bothered by Jesus’ story about the vineyard worker who worked for 15 minutes in the cool of the evening getting the exact amount of pay as the worker who worked 10 hours in the blaze of the sun. In fact, maybe that was the very story Jesus was telling Mary and his disciples when Martha stormed in. Yet in this scene, Mary doesn’t get the same pay as Martha. Mary, who does nothing, gets the better part – she gets what is needed and lasting in life. Martha, who does everything, gets nothing but high blood pressure.
The affront to industrious, responsible activity here is too obvious to elaborate on. Again, did Mary think that dinner for 16 would just magically appear on the table? Well, who knows? Who knows? Maybe she did and maybe it would! After all, the guest of honor did feed 5000 hungry people with 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish. What could He have done with Martha’s smoked salmon and on sesame cracker?
Jesus calls Martha’s work a distraction that causes her worry. She’s so distracted that she’s missing out on what is important and permanent in life, or as Jesus says, the one thing needful that cannot be taken away. What are our distractions? Any and everything can be used as a distraction from what is needed and lasting in life. As Jesus says, Martha is distracted by “many things.” In Martha’s case, even, quite literally, serving the Lord is a distraction.
What are our distractions? I can’t help but mention the internet in general and smart phones in particular. I have one and it is extremely useful and helpful. But what a distraction! How many times do parents of teenagers have to say “put your phone away!” only to then pull out their own phones when they buzz with a text?
Texting and all its variations is how 9th graders communicate with each other while in the backseat of the same car. It’s absurd that Virginia had to pass a law against texting while driving. How could any think they could text and drive at the same time? It shows how deeply engrained this current distraction is in our culture.
But phones are not the problem, obviously. We are. Pascal famously said “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” And that was in the 1600’s. The human heart hasn’t changed from Martha’s time to Pascal’s time to our time. The human heart craves what it has always craved – security and affirmation. People check their emails and text messages and Facebook pages all the time because each message or text delivers the possibility of affirmation. A recent study showed that receiving emails and texts work on our brain in the same way as drug or alcohol or sex addiction.
The problem is that the affirmation never lasts and phones can be taken away and hidden in drawers. What Jesus calls a distraction is just that – it distracts us for a moment. But then the dinner party is over and all you’re left with is dirty dishes. Or your work finally becomes boring and ceases to be a strong enough distraction. Or your spouse finally can’t bear the burden of being responsible for your affirmation and security. In and through all your nonstop activity, you still wake up in the morning and feel empty inside.
Jesus tells Martha that there is a different way, a better way to live. Mary’s way, to do nothing, to sit down in front of Jesus and listen to what He is saying is what a person needs in life and what lasts in life. Jesus could have been quoting the psalmist: “Be still and know that I am God.” Not “Be busy and act like you are God.” Maybe He told the old joke: What is the difference between you and God? God never pretends that He is you!
Mary doing absolutely nothing but sitting and receiving is the perfect example of what Martin Luther calls “passive righteousness”. “For in the righteousness of faith, we work nothing, render nothing unto God, but we only receive, and suffer another to work in us, that is to say, God.” As for the passing and ephemeral distraction of our own activity, Luther wisely says “I could not trust in it…therefore I embrace only that passive righteousness which is the righteousness of grace, mercy, and forgiveness of sins.”
The love of God is what your heart craves. The love of God is what gives you security and affirmation. The love of God is the one needful thing. And the love of God can never be taken away from you, for love never ends and love never fails.
And what do you have to do to get this love of God? You have to do nothing. As Mary and Martha show us this morning, you have to do nothing. All the some-things in your life will one day be taken away from you, everything except the one needful thing – God’s love for you in Jesus Christ with His grace, mercy, and forgiveness of sins.
I said that Mary is the perfect example. The problem is that most of us aren’t perfect examples. If I stopped there, then I would have just given you good advice that you won’t follow anyway. That’s not the gospel. The gospel is that most of us are Martha’s who have trouble being still and knowing that He is God. So I’ll close with an illustration of how God comes after all of us who are worried and distracted, those of us who do not choose the better part.
My minister friend Jim shares the story a boy named Earl, who was a camper at the summer camp. Earl was a boy who had difficulties in life and method of coping was anger. He acted out, he fought with campers, and he threw food in the dining hall. Jim recalls,
“One evening, the entire camp was gathered together for a campfire. We were singing a song when out of the corner of my eye, I saw Earl sneaking up behind a camper that he especially hated. Before I could do anything, Earl kicked the boy in the back, hard. Then he took off, running through the woods.
The camp director that summer was a man named “Bibs” – and he was a wonderful man who knew about angry distractions, and who also knew about the cross. Bibs saw the entire scene at the campfire. Like a shot, he charged after Earl. I followed them and saw Bibs catch up with Earl. Bibs put his arms around Earl from behind, pinned his arms to his sides, lifted him off the ground and just held him.
I have never seen such kicking and screaming and swearing. It seemed to go on for hours. Bibs didn’t say a word. He just kept hugging Earl. Slowly, the kicking and swearing died down. Then there was silence. Then, somehow, Earl managed to squirm around in Bibs’ arms. He threw his arms around Bibs’ neck – and sobbed and sobbed and sobbed. Bibs just held him, and hugged him.”
The love of God is the one thing needful and the one thing that can never be taken away. What you need is what will last. Amen.