July 17, 2022
For a long time, I’ve found that I’m the type of person who needs to make a to-do list in order to get things done. It helps me focus on what the next thing is, and makes sure that I get to each task I need to do for the day. I’m sure many of y’all are like that. To-do lists help us be productive and keep us from wasting too much time. Of course, there are some of y’all who don’t need a to-do list, and can just know, intuitively, what the next thing that needs to be done will be.
But whether you’re a to-do lister or not, we all know that there are always tasks that need to be done. At the end of the day, there will always be another thing that could’ve been accomplished, another task that could’ve been finished, another project that could’ve been worked on. Whether it’s work or home, friendships or professional connections, we can always tack on more things that could be done to make us more productive. And productivity, it seems, is a cultural obsession of ours.
Way back at the founding of our nation, a French traveler named Alexis de Tocqueville took a tour of as much of it as he could get to. He wrote a book on the early Republic and the unique characteristics of each region. But one thing that stood out to de Tocqueville was how all-in we Americans are with our work, with being productive with our time. He noticed that very little time was spent really enjoying life, and instead people devoted their waking hours to producing things, working on things, filling out their to-do lists.
A commercial during the Superbowl a few years ago for a car company pointed out this dedication we have to working. The actor spoke mockingly of Europeans for being so ready to take vacations and long weekends, while we Americans put in extra hours, work through lunch breaks, and are always striving to do more and produce more. Honestly I’m sure we’ve all felt that pressure, when a day ends where we didn’t do a lot, feeling like we “wasted” the day by not being productive. Maybe even feeling guilty for it?
Martha didn’t have exactly that same kind of pressure, but she did have her own cultural expectations to fulfill. See, in the ancient world from the time of Abraham, hospitality was huge—even if you didn’t know your guests. Martha took her responsibility to be a good hostess seriously. She cooked and cleaned. She prepared her house. She made sure that Jesus and all his disciples never felt anything less than pampered while they were there. And she was good at it! She ran an efficient household, and was successful enough to own her own home. She did very, very well for herself, and her industriousness no doubt helped make that possible.
But then she saw Mary, her little sister. Mary, rather than doing anything to help Martha with her hostess duties (those duties were exclusively women’s work, I should point out), Mary was sitting at Jesus’s feet, doing the very unhelpful thing of learning instead of working. As far as Martha was concerned, Mary was wasting time listening instead of being productive, making wise use of her time, and helping Martha with the housework to host all these people! We don’t know how long Mary was sitting and learning before Martha finally snapped, but Martha did eventually snap. She upbraided Jesus for letting Mary drop all that work at Martha’s feet.
And then, rather than remind Mary to go help her sister, or address the inequity of only women being expected to run hostess duties, or use this as a teaching moment for his disciples on how they could help out, Jesus shakes his head. “Martha, Martha. You are worried and distracted by many things. There is only need of one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
Now at first blush it sounds like Jesus is telling Martha that all her hard work, all her dedication to hosting Jesus and his disciples, all her productivity and presentation are useless. Mary chose the better thing, after all! But is that really what he’s saying? Is he putting Martha down, or is he building Mary up? I think the latter. By reminding Martha that Mary has chosen the better part, Jesus is reminding her (and us) that our priority needs to be being present with Jesus, not busying ourselves with endless tasks.
Because we can get caught up in endless tasks, as individuals and even as a congregation. Filling up our church schedules with VBS or Sunday school programs, coming to every God’s Work Our Hands and Service Sunday, participating at the ballfield ministry, volunteering at the Senior Center and the Food Shelf, coming every year to work at the fair stand or serve tables at the Lutefisk supper—it’s all well and good, but do we fill our church lives with tasks without remembering to stop and sit at Jesus’s feet? We can get so good at doing things in Jesus’s name, packing our schedules full of ways to serve, rushing from one godly task to the next, that we never stop and simply be with Jesus. Our tasks can easily become ends unto themselves, rather than extensions of our relationship with Jesus.
So when Jesus tells Martha that Mary has chosen the better part, he’s telling her to take the time to stop. Every hour of every day doesn’t need to be filled with tasks. We don’t need to be in a constant state of worrying about “wasting” time. Jesus calls us to come and sit. Listen for a while. Contemplate who Jesus is, what he teaches us, and how that good news changes the world. He reminds us as he reminded Martha that when we get too caught up in our tasks, we’ll become so distracted and worried that we may forget about the most important thing—being with Jesus.
So let’s take the time to be still. Take the time to quiet yourself at the feet of Jesus, and listen to what he has to say, even when he says nothing at all. We were never made to be a constant whir of productivity—Adam was tasked with tending the garden, not growing it, not multiplying it, not tilling and weeding and planting and worrying about it. God was so concerned with our need to do all the time that we were given the command to honor the Sabbath rest! Give Jesus time during your day where you are actively, consciously, seriously not busy, not working, not being productive. We were created to be human beings, after all, and not human doings.
Because there will always be another task. There will always be one more thing on your to-do list. There will always be guests to host, work to do, dishes to clean, and deadlines to meet. It will all still be there when you’re done sitting at the feet of Jesus. So remember to choose the better part. Remember to be like Mary, because it won’t be taken away from you. Be with Jesus, and everything else will fall into its place.
Thanks be to God. Amen.