July 17th, 2022
Jesus points us away from our worry and stress and toward a single-minded focus on the deepest hope that is in us.
There’s an old story that takes place in a tiny, picture-postcard New England village — a town where, it so happened, the actor Paul Newman was fond of vacationing.
A Michigan woman and her family were visiting that seaside town. Late one Saturday morning, she felt a craving for a double-dip chocolate ice-cream cone, so she stopped by the local café and general store.
As she walked in, there was only one other customer in the place: a man in jeans and a T-shirt, sitting at the counter having a donut and coffee. Idly, the woman glanced his way, then did a double-take. One further look at those baby-blue eyes confirmed it: her fellow customer was none other than Paul Newman.
Newman noticed her presence and nodded graciously in her direction. Then he went back to his coffee.
“He just wants his privacy,” the woman thought to herself. “Just order your ice cream. Pretend there isn’t a famous movie star sitting a few feet away.”
That’s exactly what she did (although — as she later told the tale — her heart was thumping the whole time and her hands felt clammy). Calmly, she watched the clerk scoop out her ice cream and pack it into the cone, never looking once in Newman’s direction. Then she handed over the money, accepted the ice-cream cone and change, and headed out the door without a sideward glance. As the screen door slammed shut, she congratulated herself on how coolly she’d handled the whole situation — like a real Hollywood insider.
When the woman reached her car, she realized something wasn’t right. Something was missing. In one hand she held her change, but her other hand was empty. “Now where’s my double-dip chocolate ice-cream cone?” she asked herself. “Could I have left it in the store?”
Sheepishly, she went back in, hoping she’d see the cone still in the clerk’s hand or maybe in one of those holders on the counter.
But no. She looked to the left. She looked to the right. No sign of the missing cone. She was just about to ask the clerk if he remembered handing it to her when she happened to glance over in Paul Newman’s direction. Those blue eyes were sparkling with amusement.
Flashing his trademark, pearly-white grin, he said, “You put it in your purse!”
Now there’s a woman who was distracted!
So is Martha, in today’s gospel lesson — but for a different reason. Luke tells us she’s “distracted by her many tasks.” Martha’s on a mission. She has a dinner party to put on.
Martha, it seems, is one of a circle of women Jesus esteems very highly. A couple of chapters earlier, Luke shares a few of those names: Mary Magdalene, Joanna the wife of Herod’s steward and Susanna. These women, leaders of the early church, “provided for [Jesus and his disciples] out of their resources.”1
That’s what Martha’s doing this night. It’s not just Jesus dropping over for a quick bite. The visit was likely pre-planned. Surely Jesus has chosen Martha’s home because it’s big enough for a crowd.
Luke doesn’t mention any husband of Martha. She seems to be the householder. The Aramaic name Martha literally means “lady” or “mistress.” It’s the female version of “lord.” She’s a woman of substance, this Martha, and of some personal authority too.
Despite all the sermons you’ve heard about Martha clanging pots around in the kitchen, she was probably overseeing the whole operation — greeting guests in the front courtyard one minute, checking with the wine-steward the next, then dashing into the kitchen to supervise the cooks. She was hardly a housewife warming up a tuna casserole.
Martha’s opened her home to offer hospitality to this traveling rabbi and his entourage. She’s doing it as a public sign of her religious commitment. In welcoming Jesus and his followers, she’s following the time-honored Middle Eastern ritual of hospitality.
But then Martha sees something that stops her dead in her tracks. Her sister Mary is sitting at Jesus’ feet, hanging on his every word.
Doesn’t Mary know she has work to do? Doesn’t she have a lengthy to-do list Martha herself has given her? What’s gotten into her, that she would cast her responsibilities aside and act like one of the guests?
In that moment, everything comes crashing in on Martha — her nervousness, her worry, her stress. She turns to Jesus and says in annoyance, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.”
The words are out of her mouth before Martha can take them back. With a horrible, sinking feeling, she realizes she’s just broken one of the paramount laws of hospitality anywhere, anytime: “Never let them see you sweat.”
The room falls silent. Martha’s forgotten her own role. She’s allowed worry to get the better of her.
The awkward silence lasts for the briefest of moments. Jesus turns to her, and when he speaks, his voice is kind. “Martha, Martha,” he says — as one might comfort a distraught child — “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.”
With his gracious response, Jesus frees Martha from embarrassment. It was her faux pas; he didn’t have to rescue her. Yet Jesus sees right into Martha’s inner self, into that part, deep within, that’s like a frightened child. Just live in the now, he tells her in effect. Don’t borrow trouble from the future.
Plenty of sermons on this passage have been built on a harsh judgment of Martha, a judgment that labels Mary as good and Martha as bad. But that’s not accurate. Jesus is not angry at Martha. He’s not telling her to go sit down beside Mary, gazing up at him with schoolgirl adoration, and let the dinner burn. If that company of travelers is to eat, someone’s got to handle the logistics.
Martha’s the host. She’s expected to work hard. Jesus knows her devotion to him is no less than her sister’s. It’s just that she’s gotten distracted. She’s lost her perspective, her ability to focus on the most important thing in that present moment.
How often has that happened to you? How many times have you set out to do the right thing but have slept little the night before, only to greet the morning exhausted and filled with fantasies of all that could go wrong? How many times have you then gone on to positively bumble the task you had to do, all because you were distracted, worried that you couldn’t do it?
It’s been pointed out that worry can function as a form of addiction. Some of us are addicted to worry, as surely as others are addicted to nicotine or alcohol.
Worry is at least familiar. Because it’s familiar, it feels so much safer than real life. Some of us seem to believe that if we punish ourselves severely enough with worry, if we chastise ourselves for all the things that could happen if we’re not vigilant, then somehow those things never will happen. We punish ourselves in advance, hoping to avoid a harsher punishment from others later.
So, what’s the antidote to worry? Jesus has the answer when he tells Mary there is need of only one thing. She needs to keep her primary hope ever before her.
Someone once asked a great man who had arisen out of humble beginnings, “What did your father teach you that was most important?” The man replied, “He taught me that whatever he happened to be doing at the time, that was the most important.”
What Jesus is trying to teach Martha is a similar quality of attentiveness, of living fully in the present. Mary is gifted at living in the present, but Martha’s not so adept. Mary is listening to Jesus at that very moment, and she’s doing it with her whole being. Martha, on the other hand, is supervising the dinner preparations — but she’s doing it poorly. All she can think about is her worry, her fear of failure.
Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection — born Nicholas Herman — was a lay Carmelite brother who lived in France in the 1600s. His career in the priory was undistinguished. He worked mostly in the kitchen. Yet Brother Lawrence became famous among his brothers as a deeply grounded man of God. After his death, his brothers compiled his sayings into a book called The Practice of the Presence of God. It’s become a spiritual classic.
The essence of Brother Lawrence’s spirituality is summed up in this statement of his: “The time of business does not with me differ from the time of prayer; and in the noise and clatter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I possess God in as great tranquility as if I were upon my knees at the Blessed Sacrament.”2
The late Anthony de Mello, a native of India, was a Roman Catholic priest. In his short but remarkable ministry as a teacher of spirituality, he brought together eastern and western thought as few others have. De Mello once shared this ancient Chinese proverb: “When the archer shoots for nothing, he has all his skills; when he shoots for a brass buckle, he is already nervous. When he shoots for a prize of gold, he goes blind. He’s out of his mind. He sees two targets .... He thinks more of winning than of shooting.”3
“The archer’s skill,” says de Mello, “has not changed: but the prize divides him. He cares. He thinks more of winning than of shooting.”
Jesus commends Mary for her attentiveness, her ability to center herself on the one thing that’s needful. As for Martha, he gently points her in that same direction, away from her worry and her stress and toward a single-minded focus on the deepest hope that is in her.
He does the same for us.
1 Luke 8:3.
2 Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God (Hendrickson Publishers, 2011), 22.
3 Anthony de Mello, Rediscovering Life (Image Books, 2012), 57.