From Distractions to Discernment

Dear Mother,


I am at my wits’ end...again!

It’s Mary… again.

How you could have raised two daughters so unalike is one of the great mysteries of life (that I don’t have the time to think about.)

I’m sorry to complain about her so often.

I know there’s nothing you can do to change things,

but writing to you does help me blow off some steam.

You know me; I’ve got to get this out so I can move on to other things.


Here’s what happened yesterday.

I had heard that Jesus of Nazareth

(the wonderful rabbi we’ve told you about so many times) was coming through Bethany and I invited him to my house for a chance to rest from his travels

and at the same time introduce him and his friends to some of our neighbors.

I’ll admit I went a little overboard, as usual.

I invited a few too many people and found myself doing three or four things at once.

I’d put something on to cook and would find the fire needed more wood.

I’d look in the cooking pot and realize it wouldn’t begin to feed everyone,

so I’d rush to the marketplace.

I needed to run over to a neighbor’s and borrow some plates and more cups.


Mary was some help, but frankly, it’s easier for me to do things myself.

I know it’ll be just right.

And, it’s quicker to do it than it is to teach someone else to do it the way I want it done.

(I guess I learned that from you.)


Being a good host means letting the guests enjoy themselves,

not working them into exhaustion,

so I just told everyone to make Jesus and his friends feel at home

while I prepared the meal.

Now, that is some sacrifice on my part, Mother.

You know how much we admire Jesus and how impressed we are with what he says and what he does and what he is!

I’d like to have been in that circle of people around him

and heard what he was talking about.

But, first things first.

I’m a detail person and I wanted everything to be just right.

I must have looked a sight by the time we finally ate.


From the heat of the cooking fire to the quick trips outside for this or that,

my clothes were covered with spots and my hair was a mess.

But everybody seemed so appreciative!

They ate and talked and ate and laughed and ate some more.

Oh, I was in my element!


So, you’re wondering what went wrong.


At first she was willing to pitch in,

but before long I realized she wasn’t preparing the figs

or minding the fire or slicing the fruit, three little things I thought she could manage without my looking over her shoulder to be sure she was doing things right.


I asked someone if he had seen her, and he said, yes,

she’s over there talking to Jesus.

Mother, I had a thousand things to do and there she is, chin resting on her hand,

sitting at his feet, drinking in every word.

I shouldn’t have been so surprised,

and I suppose, thinking back on it, I shouldn’t have been so put out.

But, Mother, I needed her help in getting things ready.

(And I could see she wasn’t going to be much help

in getting things cleaned up when it was all over.)

I could see that as long as Jesus was in the house,

he’d have this one disciple eager to hear more,

and I’d be scraping food off the floor

and fanning smoke from the doused fire out of the house

and finding ways to thank the neighbors for their help.


I’ll admit the meal was a bit lavish.

Maybe something simpler would have sufficed.

But it was too late at that point.

Unfortunately, I was not at my best—my most diplomatic—

when I marched over to Mary, wringing a towel in my hands as if it were her neck,

and I started to think of ways to shame her into helping me.


Then I thought to myself, why waste my breath?

She hasn’t listened to me in years.

But. .. she’ll listen to Jesus, so I said to him,

“Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself?

Then tell her to help me.”


I was so embarrassed when I realized what I had blurted out

to the most respected person I had ever met.

There was an awkward silence as everyone looked at me and then at him.


Well, he wasn’t much help at all.

He said that I was too worried about everything being just right

and that I was distracted. Distracted?

How could I be distracted? I was too busy to be distracted.

There was something going on every minute

and as far as I could tell, there were no choices here; it all had to be done.

I had no time to be distracted

and here he is telling me I’m distracted by too many things!

And then comes the real surprise.

Instead of giving Mary a gentle little nudge and saying something like,

“Martha’s right, Mary. Why don’t you go help your sister for a while—

 he says, “Mary’s chosen the better part.”


In other words, she’s on the right path and I’m wandering off somewhere.

Well, I guess I was more surprised than hurt, more startled than angry.


Mother, I was just hoping Mary would help me take care of a few details

so eventually, before Jesus left, I’d have a chance to sit down, too,

and find some little insight into life,

or learn more about the kingdom he keeps referring to, or hear a story...


I think I know what Jesus was trying to tell me:

I was busy doing the wrong things, maybe for the wrong reasons.

I don’t think he meant all the time, but at least that time.

I let the details get in the way of the occasion.

I suppose if anyone can redeem my busy-ness, Jesus can.


I still wish Mary would do more around here.

I should be used to her ways, I suppose.

But I love to serve people and host gatherings in my house.

And speaking of that, I’ve got to go now.

I have a thousand things to do to get ready for a little celebration

we’re having for an engaged couple down the road.

There’s so much going on these days.






Dear Mother,


I know Martha’s writing you about the other day and I want you to know my side.

You know there’s another side, don’t you?

How you could have raised two daughters so unalike is one of the great mysteries of life. I enjoy thinking about that on my walks around Bethany,

or over the Mount of Olives to Jerusalem.

It’s a short, pleasant walk, and I like to use those quiet walks as a time to consider

why people are so different from one another,

or to measure the ways in which we are so alike!


I pray sometimes as I walk, or as I sit in the garden.

There is one old woman down the road

whose garden is so lovely and fragrant and quiet.

She says she spends almost all day tending it.

Planning and planting and weeding

and moving this flower closer to the shade of the largest tree

and moving this shrub to the open area of sunlight.

But she says she stops worrying about the individual plants and flowers long enough

to enjoy the beauty of the creation she and God share.


Sometimes she’ll be still for an hour or two at a time

and see the flowers dance in the warm gentle wind,

smell the variety of scents carried by the breeze from one direction to another.

She laments that her eyes can no longer focus on the wonderful texture of the leaves

or see the markings on the insects that move from blossom to blossom,

but she says she appreciates all the more the songs of the birds

and the voice of God who speaks to her in the stillness of her little Eden.


Some of our neighbors think she’s crazy,

because she hums the songs of the Temple whether she’s busily working the soil

or quietly enjoying its fruits.


Mother, I think I see both Martha and me in that old woman.

She both labors and rests in a balanced rhythm that is good for her garden

and for herself.


When Martha invited Jesus to the house,

I could see the trouble that lay ahead.

I wanted to caution her to keep things simple,

to remember who the man is, and that his needs are few.

I wanted to say, “Martha, the man is coming to find some peace and quiet.

Out of our warm love for him, let’s not over-schedule his time or overdo our hospitality.” But Martha’s never been one to listen very long.


“There’s work to be done,” she’d say.

And right away I’d feel guilty that I wasn’t buying into her plans

or willing to devote all my energy to her agenda.


If I had a rabbi’s wisdom,

I’d say she’s anxious on the inside and bustling on the outside because of it.

And the more overwrought she becomes, the fussier she gets.

Not me. I always want to think things through more calmly,

consider details as things to be understood, not always as things to be done.


You see, I’m still so very impressed that Jesus even talks to us.

We feel truly close to him, but men who command respect, especially religious leaders, don’t usually want to talk to women like Martha and me.

I suppose, first of all, they believe there’s not much to be gained by it.

Their impression of women is that we are not very bright,

and they imagine us to be pre-occupied with trivia.

(Hmm… maybe Martha is.)

They also see us as seductive, sexually tempting,

and so a respectable rabbi won’t talk to a woman who’s not a member of his family. Except Jesus.


He treats women and men as equally capable

and worthy of dealing with sacred matters.

(That’s one reason people consider him a radical.

He’s received into a woman’s home and shares his teachings with us.)

Is it any wonder then that I’d rather sit at his feet

and learn of things that other sages keep from us,

instead of worrying about how Martha wants to serve the figs?

To paraphrase the Master, “People do not live on figs alone,

but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”


I mentioned that Jesus is labeled a radical.

The word is that he’s in so much trouble with the authorities,

he may not be able to travel freely much longer.

He’s liable to be arrested, probably jailed.

He’s gone on to Jerusalem and even death may await him there.

I sensed that he’s struggling in his heart with bending his will to the will of God.


Mother, I just couldn’t resist leaving the cooking fire to Martha—

she is so good at it anyway—

and moving toward his voice, trying to overhear his words.

Then, seeing that I was paying attention, he invited me to sit down,

and I was not about to refuse.

Love and shalom and compassion were in his voice.

He cares so much for those who will listen well.

He loves his disciples and I am one of them.


And here’s Martha trying to be kind in her own way, hustling and bustling about,

but missing the whole point of his visit!

In the corner of my eye, I could see her coming toward us,

wringing the towel in her hand, weary from much work.

I think I saw a bit of jealousy in her eyes.


Here’s the part that really got my goat!

Instead of catching my attention subtly, taking me aside quietly,

and discussing this as sisters, she spoke to him in that tone of voice—

you know, the bully’s voice she’s perfected over the years.

She says, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me alone to do the serving?

Tell her to give me a hand.”

He calmed her down, saying,

“Martha, Martha, you’re worried and troubled about many things.”

And he told her I had taken the better part and it wouldn’t be taken from me.


While he was in our midst, I firmly believe that we needed to make him our first priority—

not all the details or the food or entertainment.

The word of the Lord is our greatest need, and our greatest strength.

I couldn’t let Jesus pass through our village, our home, our lives...

without giving him my undivided attention.


Before I finish, I guess I’ll have to say this to be fair to Martha.

I’m glad there are people like her.

Her heart’s in serving others.

Her gift is the gift of doing.

I’ll admit she seems to accomplish a lot.

I wouldn’t trade her as a sister, because we make a good team.

I just think she needs to take a Sabbath in the midst of each day—

a time to be still and know God.


I’ll write again soon.

For now the sun is setting,

and I want to go watch the sky slowly turn from day to starry night.

(You taught me the quiet beauty of those moments

and I still celebrate them at day’s end.)





Those two imagined letters provide a bit of commentary

on five verses of the Gospel according to Luke,

a brief scripture lesson in which a gently dramatic family vignette unfolds.

The three characters in the story remind us of what we are about,

as people baptized into the Body of Christ.


First, there is Martha, the one who is so busy doing things.

Someone has suggested that she is a “human doing”, rather than a “human being”.

Just before this story in Luke’s Gospel,

there is the account of the lawyer asking Jesus about how to inherit eternal life.

Jesus asks him what the Law says, and the lawyer responds,

“Love God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind.

And love your neighbor as yourself.”


Jesus responds, “You’ve got that right. Do it and you will live. “


Do it.

But to Martha, he says stop doing.

Sit down. Listen. And learn.

Then there’s Mary.

She chose discipleship as her role.

She is a listener, and therefore a learner.

It is expected that one day she will do what she has learned.

She will need to live out the lessons the Teacher instills.

Love is a verb. Peace must be waged, justice served, hope lived.

But for now, in this moment, in this home,

Mary’s right path is sitting still in Jesus’ presence,

listening for every word that comes from the Lord.


And, there is the Lord.

The Creation story sets a pattern Jesus lives and teaches:

the rhythm of working and resting.

He works the crowds; he retreats.

He preaches to the multitudes; he prays in solitude.

His example models for us the escape from distractions to discernment.

That is, we see in the Gospels his ability to leave work behind

now and then, in order to regain the spiritual stamina

that feeds ministry and builds the Kingdom.


The Body of Christ today needs both Martha’s and Mary’s.

We need the gifts of ambition and energy from people who want to get things done: cook a meal, teach a lesson, visit the sick, paint a room.

Thank God for our Martha’s.


But thank God, too, for our Mary’s: those who come here to worship and pray;

those whose church life is centered on Bible study and Christian nurture;

folks who read devotional guides,

or who join circles of prayer with other members of the Body of Christ.


Of course, the Church is strongest

when every member explores ways to balance discipleship

with both reflection and action, prayers spoken and enacted.

This story calls us to examine our use our time, our stewardship of all of life,

and to seek the spiritual power we need to serve the broken world around us.


Author Fred Craddock rightly warns us

against “cartooning” the scene in that house in Bethany:

“Martha to her eyeballs in soapsuds, Mary pensively on a stool in the den,

and Jesus giving scriptural warrant for letting dishes pile high in the sink.”


Craddock adds,

“If we censure Martha too harshly, she may abandon serving altogether,

and if we commend Mary too profusely, she may sit there forever.

There is a time to go and do; there is a time to listen and reflect.

Knowing which and when is a matter of spiritual discernment.”


And spiritual discernment comes

when your spirit is quiet enough to listen

and willing enough to learn.

Then, let the world beware:

the Church will find the courage and boldness to give itself away in unselfish service.


One of the best ways we could start each day

is to ask ourselves—or, better, to ask God—

what is the better portion, the right thing, for me today?

Let’s not rush the answer, nor neglect its consequence!