July 21, 2019
Do you ever get so busy you can’t think straight? You get so caught up in putting out fires and dealing with emergencies, there’s just no time left for the really important things like spending time with your family, or taking care of your own needs, or spending quality time with Jesus.
In 1967 (two years before the moon landing we remembered yesterday), Charles Hummel wrote a little pamphlet titled, “Tyranny of the Urgent.” It’s been revised and re-published over and over again, and it’s still available in print – in fact, if you want a copy, I have five of them to give away today. Just ask me after the service. These 32 little pages were foundational in developing the concept of time management.
Today, there are hundreds of books out there and dozens of online courses you can take, all designed to help you manage your time more effectively. But every one of them draws on the wisdom distilled here in Hummel’s little pamphlet. From knowing your purpose, to prioritizing your tasks, to paying attention to where your time actually goes, just about every time management technique being promoted these days comes right back to Hummel’s basic idea that too often, we sacrifice what’s important on the altar of what’s urgent.
Remember that we are on the road with Jesus as we work our way through Luke’s gospel. Jesus has left Samaria now, and he is getting closer to his destination. He has set his face toward Jerusalem, and nothing is going to stop him from fulfilling his purpose. Jesus isn’t going to let the urgent keep him from doing what’s most important.
Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.”
But the Lord answered her, “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.” (Luke 10:38-42)
There are some things Luke doesn’t tell us, but we know from John’s gospel. First, this scene takes place in Bethany, just over the Mount of Olives from Jerusalem –we are only about six miles from Jesus’ destination. Also, Martha and Mary have a brother, Lazarus, whom Jesus will raise from the dead. Luke doesn’t mention him at all.
Scripture also doesn’t explain to us why Martha is the head of the household, making her the one who invites Jesus into her home instead of her brother. And it doesn’t tell us that she is fixing dinner for 70-90 people – we may assume she’s preparing a meal as part of the hospitality she offers her guest, but we might be wrong about how many people that meal would feed, and we might be wrong about meal preparation altogether.
Martha’s many tasks may have nothing at all to do with serving a meal. They might be tasks associated with a business she runs, or they might be tasks connected to ministry – like organizing who will be visiting the sick or who will be reading scripture in worship. We don’t know what tasks are giving Martha so much grief.
But we do know that she has a sister sitting at Jesus’ feet, and we know that Martha is very, very busy.
The NRSV says that Martha was “distracted” – but there are actually three different words used here, and none of them translate into what we might experience as distraction. This isn’t Attention Deficit Disorder, and it isn’t the kind of distraction we experience through social media or keeping the news channel going all day.
The first word used to describe Martha’s situation is periespato. It means she was worried. When Jesus answers her, he uses two different words: merimnas and thorubaze. They mean anxious and bothered, or troubled.
In other words, Martha has allowed the urgent to overcome what’s important in her life. She is worried, anxious, and bothered – or, as we will sing next week, she is ‘cumbered with a load of care.’
On top of all that, when she goes to Jesus with her problem, she tells him how to solve it for her! (Tell my sister to help me!) Can you imagine telling Jesus how to do his job? Martha doesn’t seem to realize that she is making demands on the One who spoke creation into existence. She is totally focused on her own anxiety, her own worry, her own troubles.
And there is Mary, completely unaware that Martha is so frazzled. Why? Because she is sitting at Jesus’ feet, listening to him. Mary doesn’t say a single word in this story. She is doing one thing and one thing only. She is listening to Jesus teach, seated at his feet like the other disciples. And we need to pay attention to this detail, because in first century Palestine, it just wasn’t done.
It was not appropriate for a woman to assume the place of a religious disciple. That was a privilege reserved for men. When you think about it, this family has two countercultural women – one runs the household and the other devotes herself to study at the feet of a rabbi. We may not see this as scandalous, but in Mary and Martha’s time, it was.
We probably more often identify with Martha than with Mary, don’t we? We get worried about the many things we are trying to manage in our lives, and they become our focus instead of Christ. We let the urgent overtake the important.
We try to tell God how to answer our prayers, instead of waiting patiently on the Lord to learn his will for us. Like Martha, we try to get Jesus to side with us when we are in the middle of conflict. Psychologists call this ‘triangulation,’ attempting to pull a third party into a dispute in order to gang up on the person with whom we have a complaint. It isn’t healthy.
And sometimes, like Martha we get so caught up in serving, that instead of serving others, or serving Christ, we serve just for the sake of serving. Shortly after I was appointed here in New Ulm, I asked the district superintendent what I needed to know about United Methodists. He said, “United Methodists love to fill grocery bags for the poor, but they’ve forgotten why they do it.”
Serving is at the core of our identity, both as a denomination, and as a congregation. That’s why we can get excited about serving breakfast to the community and collecting items for the Simpson Shelter or Operation Christmas Child.
We aren’t afraid of rolling up our sleeves and pitching in. For many of us, we’d rather work than talk about our faith. We prefer the kind of discipleship that shows up in action to the kind that shows up in contemplation.
But when our service turns into the thing we worship instead of the way we worship, we find ourselves trapped in the same anxiety and worry that troubled Martha. When we start fretting over getting all the little tasks done, it’s a warning sign that we’ve lost our focus on Christ, and fallen under the tyranny of the urgent.
But look at what Jesus does. He enters. He speaks. He answers. The Word made flesh is present. That’s all. And all he asks of Martha or Mary or you or me is to be present with him. The “one thing needed” by any of us is to be fully present in Christ’s presence.
Mary has chosen the better part, not because she is sitting down on the job and leaving Martha to do all the heavy lifting. Another pastor has remarked, “This isn’t Martha versus Mary. This is both Martha and Mary being respected and fed by Jesus.”
And if that isn’t a word we need to hear in today’s world, I don’t know what is. While some might want to play up divisions and differences, “Jesus rejects that and does a both/and: he acknowledges Martha’s labor towards hospitality and honors Mary’s position as a disciple.”
Mary has chosen the better part because she is focused intently on Jesus alone. Martha could be doing the same thing as she serves.
It’s clear that Martha is devoted to Jesus, because she calls him Lord. She’s just forgotten that the reason she has so much work to do isn’t because Jesus demands it, but because she has put the urgent ahead of the important.
Colossians 3:23-24 tells us, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, … It is the Lord Christ you are serving.” Because when it comes down to it, this story – like every story in the Bible – isn’t so much about what Mary or Martha are doing, it’s about what Jesus is doing.
When Jesus replies to Martha’s demands, he calls her by name. Twice. He doesn’t dismiss her or scold her. She may be telling Jesus how to solve her problem, but he is much more interested in developing a relationship with her than dividing up the work that needs to be done.
Jesus doesn’t care so much about whose turn it is to wash the dishes. Just as Jesus didn’t respond directly to the lawyer asking “who is my neighbor?” Jesus doesn’t comply with Martha’s very direct instruction. Instead, he speaks to her anxiety, to her inner turmoil, because Jesus is more interested in what’s going on in her heart.
She matters to him, not because of all the work she does, but because she is his friend and he loves her, just as he loves Mary. Just as he loves you and me.
This story about Martha and her sister Mary is often used to tell us we need to stop multi-tasking and start doing just one thing at a time. And that’s helpful advice. Science tells us that multi-tasking is bad for your brain anyway.
Slowing our internal pace allows us to be more receptive to God’s still, small voice. It helps us focus our energy and attention in a way that is, in the long run, much more productive and fruitful than the scattershot approach to getting things done. We could accept this as the lesson Jesus is teaching, without going any deeper, and it would do us worlds of good.
Sometimes this story is held up as an example of how Jesus treated women just as he treated men, with full equality. When Jesus encourages Mary to sit at his feet and receives Martha’s hospitality, he elevates these women in the sight of all the men around him, as equally deserving and able disciples. This is also a good lesson to remember, that Jesus lifts up those who have no standing in society, and gives them a place in his kingdom.
But what if we go a little deeper? Jill Duffield writes that this story is really about right worship,
“because where we focus, how we spend our time, what we expend our energy doing, all reveal who and what we truly worship. If we dig a little deeper, beyond holding up Mary and scolding Martha, we discover ourselves in them both. We see our own tendency to ‘major in the minors,’ neglecting to relish the people right in front of us, the people, if we tend to them, who reveal Christ to us. If we dig a little deeper, … We understand in the depth of our being that we need Jesus, the bread of life. And, grace upon grace, he is there, in our home, eager to be with us, no time limit, no cell phone, no distractions.”
When our service turns into the thing we worship instead of the way we worship, we find ourselves trapped in the same anxiety and worry that troubled Martha. Mary didn’t choose ‘the better part’ because she was sitting and listening. It wasn’t her form of devotion that Martha was missing. It was the object of her devotion that made the difference.
This week, as you go about your many tasks, Christ invites you to focus your attention on the one thing you need. You don’t need to beat yourself up for being less like Mary than you think you ought to be. Whether you are working hard or sitting in contemplation, do it for Jesus.
And let Jesus be there for you.