Today’s gospel passage recounts that classic scene between Jesus and sisters Mary and Martha.
Martha is busy working in the home to serve Our Lord, while her sister Mary sits at his feet and listens to his words. Martha says to Jesus, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” Jesus recognizes the root of her ailment and so responds, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things …”
These are words that still resonate deeply today.
How often do we become anxious and troubled by many things? Our thoughts become fragmented. Our time becomes fragmented. Our priorities become fragmented. The list of relationships and responsibilities that clamor for our time and attention is long. It includes all our various relationships, our families, friends, and neighbors, our young children and grandchildren, our aging parents and grandparents, our jobs and vocations, the growing queue of Netflix shows we just can’t seem to keep up with, no matter how many hours we devote.
We can even be anxious and troubled by our service to Christ and his church! This is Martha’s predicament. It is in the very midst of serving Jesus that she succumbs to a bit of good old fashioned self-pity and even mild resentment. “She’s not helping. I’m doing all the work. It’s not fair. Tell her to help me.” So Jesus says, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful.”
Only one. Not two, or three, or twelve. There is, in the end, only one thing needful; necessary; of lasting importance. What is this “one thing” that is needful?
The answer is found in Mary’s actions. Mary is seated at the feet of Jesus; listening to his teaching. She is not just with him. She is with him and listening to him.
It’s a different kind of being with God isn’t it? It’s not getting down on our knees and listing all the cares and concerns we have, or the wants and desires and needs we have. That’s okay too, of course. There’s a place for that. But it is not the “one thing needful.” The “one thing needful” is being in the presence of Our Lord, spending time listening to him, communing with him. Being filled by him! It is prayerful silence with an open heart. It is prayerful reading of the Holy Scripture. It is prayerful listening to the living Word of God speaking to us.
Think of a conversation with a spouse or friend. When we are truly listening, our complete attention and focus is on the other person. We are not distracted by our own thoughts or feelings. The same is true for our relationship with God. When we truly listen to Our Lord, the focus of our heart is on him.
If our service to Christ and his church is an act of giving, then our listening to him and his Word is an act of receiving. Yes, we are called to both. But what Jesus teaches to Martha is the crucial importance of priority in the spiritual life.
We love God … because He first loved us (I John 4.19). God is the source of our life and salvation, he is the source of the love that flows within us. Of what value are our acts of service to Christ if we cut ourselves off from the source himself?
Again, think of the spousal analogy. I could wash the dishes and clean the kitchen all day, every day, as an act of service to my wife. But this is not a replacement for spending time with her, for listening to her, for being present with her. It is the relationship itself that lends value to the acts of service. The acts are done in love for the sake of the relationship, without which they have lost all meaning.
There is a classic of Russian spirituality called, The Way of a Pilgrim. It is the story of a pilgrim who travels around Russia in search of “the one thing needful.” His sole quest is to be in complete union with God; to pray without ceasing. To be present and mindful and focused on God at all times and in all places; Whether speaking or silent. Whether waking or sleeping. Whether reading or working or walking or resting.
In it the pilgrim describes the malady of the human condition, “The trouble is that we live far from ourselves and have but little wish to get any nearer to ourselves. Indeed we are running away all the time to avoid coming face to face with our real selves, and we barter the truth for trifles. We think, ‘I would very gladly take an interest in spiritual things, and in prayer, but I have no time, the fuss and cares of life give no chance for such a thing.’ Yet which is really important and necessary, salvation and the eternal life of the soul, or the fleeting life of the body on which we spend so much labour?” (p.109).
St. John Cassian writes, “To cling always to God and to the things of God — this must be our major effort, this must be the road that the heart follows unswervingly … by saying [of the good portion which Mary chose] ‘it will not be taken away from her,’ Jesus was showing that Martha’s role could be taken away from her, since the service of the body can only last as long as the human being is there, whereas the zeal of Mary can never end” (ACC on Luke p.183).
Being with Our Lord — the Word made flesh — listening to him, communing with him, this is the one thing needful, that cannot be taken away. Indeed, the relationship with Jesus which begins in this life, will carry on through all eternity.
Our living relationship with him is the one thing needful. He who is …
“ … the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities–all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the first-born from the dead, that in everything he might be pre-eminent (that is, first).”– (Colossians 1.15-18)
Let us not grow anxious or troubled by all of life’s circumstances, especially those we encounter in our service to Christ. Let us also not deceive ourselves that we have no time to spend with Our Lord Jesus Christ, who is the very source and creator of time itself. But in the words of St. Ambrose of Milan “Let us strive to have what no one can take away from us.”
Let us strive each day — each moment — for the one thing that is needful, the Word of God — Our Lord Jesus Christ — present, alive, and at work in our lives.
Adapted from the sermon. Audio available here.