Mary & Martha Measuring Up

Children’s time: What are some things you can measure? How tall you are; what time it is; the temperature; the rain; how much money you have, etc. Are there some things in life you can’t measure? Things like courage, love, patience or compassion. What about just talking with a friend… walking in the sand… digging a hole in the dirt with a stick… maybe not even saying a word at all… those are the things that are just as important as doing a good job and working hard at something you can measure. Mary and Martha learned that in today’s lesson. Martha was busy doing all the work and Mary was busy sitting next to Jesus. Both are important: doing something for Jesus and being with Jesus. But Jesus said the better part is just being with him. And that’s what we’re doing right now – in worship – being with Jesus.

How’s your to-do list coming along? Do you make a list each day of the important things you need to take care of? Some days it seems like I hardly make a dent in that list. Like Martha, I become distracted by many things.

Just last Friday, I had one of those “Martha Moments.” I was supposed to go to camp and pick up kids, but I had a buyer interested in my car and decided to stay in town for that. Meanwhile, I was planning a wedding rehearsal that night and had gotten a call that a member had died at Unity Hospital.

It’s on days like this that I wonder if my worries will get the best of me. And I can see why Martha blew her top with Jesus: “A little help, here, Lord! Don’t you care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Don’t just stand there; do something!”

Ironically, last week it was the do-er who was the hero. The Good Samaritan set aside whatever he was doing that day to help the man left for dead on the roadside. Jesus praises the doing, saying, “Go and do likewise.”

But today, it’s the one sitting there doing nothing that’s the hero. Jesus says to Martha: “Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.”

Doing nothing is a radical concept in American culture. We’re taught from an early age that our value is in our performance – in how well we do on standardized tests – in our performance at work – in sports and in music.

You can measure your performance at work.
You can measure what’s in your bank account. But you can’t measure what Mary’s got.

You can measure what our worship attendance is.
You can measure how many days it took BP to seal off the leak in the Gulf of Mexico!
But you can’t measure what Mary’s got – this immeasurable love of Christ.

This is what Mary is doing – just sitting there with Jesus – she’s paying full attention to him. What is that like to “just be” in the presence of God? Isn’t that what every worship service ought be about? Resting in the presence of God? Steeped in silence and prayer? Singing songs of praise and thanksgiving!

I mean, sure, there’s a lot of doing going on in worship – we do our best to participate – to give of our offerings and tithes – but the whole point is to be with God together.

Whenever we stop what we’re doing to sit at the feet of Jesus, we’re allowing him to set the agenda.
Here’s where we learn the key signature of the faith.
Here’s where we learn to keep God’s tempo.
Here’s where we learn to let our hearts beat to a new rhythm – to be led beside the still waters and green pastures that renew our faith and life.

Author and theologian, Paul Tillich, makes the distinction between finite concerns and ultimate concerns. He says that Martha has focused on the finite – all that can be measured and that has no real lasting power. What is finite will come to an end eventually. Toys will break, cars will rust, even our bodies eventually sag and wear out.

Mary, on the other hand, focuses on the infinite – the ultimate concerns of life. How can you put a value on those things that don’t wear out? Like the courage of someone who has inspired you; the smile that sustained you in a weary place; the joy of singing and brightening someone else’s life for even a moment.

When we went to Tanzania last month, there was a lot of listening going on – of taking it all in – of worshipping with our sisters and brothers at Ikengeza. There wasn’t a specific project we worked on. We can’t say that we built a school or raised a barn. Some might think that’s where the real action is: in pounding nails and painting walls.

And, while there is value in all of that, our main goal was to get to know these people. To hear their stories of faith and courage. And to see what we might be about together in ministry. There will most likely come a time when we will be able to send a work crew to help with some building needs, or farming needs, or the water project. But just as important were the times we stopped all our doing and danced with children at an orphanage, whose parents had died of AIDS. Or, when the bus got stuck we had some extra time to be Mary and to listen to our friends in new ways.

My hope is that we might pay attention to what is of ultimate concern, rather than spending so much time on the things that will pass. Let’s balance our to-do list with our being-moments. Let’s relish the time spent with Jesus (through prayer and worship) as much as we relish doing his work in this world.


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2 Comments on “Mary & Martha Measuring Up”

  1. Julie Johnson Says:

    Thanks, John! I am increasingly frustrated by our society’s preoccupation with measurement. The standardized testing that you mention is a good example-it’s like a cancer on our schools. We’re so obsessed with measurement, that the unmeasurable is becoming marginalized. Thank God for this parable and your interpretation of it! (Hmmm…I sound a bit old and crotchety, don’t I?)


  2. John Stiles Says:

    Ha! Not crotchety at all! Even Mary (in her doing-nothing) was learning a valuable lesson. Let’s hope there’s always room to affirm “the unmeasurable.”


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