In this famous story from Luke 10:38-42, we find Martha working to provide the meal for Jesus to eat and Mary sitting at His feet listening to what He has to say. Like us, Martha complains about her workload. Nonetheless, Jesus defends Mary’s act of preference. Every generation of leaders since the first century has written about this passage.
Consider Johannes Vermeer’s (1632-1675) painting:
I recently reread Thomas Merton’s comments on the Mary/Martha tensions in his address to monks in his book Contemplation in a World of Action (pp.244-250).
Allow me to summarize a few of his insights here:
- The conflict of Mary and Martha is in ourselves. Having sufficient time with Jesus to sustain our doing for Him is, perhaps, the primary tension of every leader. You are not alone.
- The Holy Spirit invites us to prefer “the apparent uselessness, unproductivity, and inactivity of simply sitting at the feet of Jesus and listening to Him. We are called to prefer this over an apparently more productive, more active, more busy life.”
- Our act of preference to sit at Jesus’ feet is a protest and defiance against our culture that says a person’s worth and value is in “getting things done.” We affirm there is something else that is more important. This will never be fully explainable to other people.
- We renounce the goodness of benefits and advantages that characterize an overly-active life for something else which is better for us. We accept restrictions and sacrifices in order to grow in the inner freedom Mary models here.
- We are called to a life of direct communion with and dependence upon Jesus. This requires purification by God in silence, prayer, solitude, and detachment.
- We recognize that time in silence and listening is often painful, difficult, full of hardship, and demanding. Learning to be attentive to Jesus is a challenging discipline to sustain long-term.
Put yourself in the painting. Who do you identify with at this moment? If you were Martha what would be in your basket – what are the preoccupations of your life, the “so many things” that worry and bother you, and that lead you to avoid stillness before God?