The one thing necessary

Martha “was distracted by her many tasks,” the scriptures tell us (Luke 10:38-42), and she didn’t even have Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. It’s no wonder we’re distracted today. Ask a room full of busy professionals how they feel most days and you’re likely to find that just about everyone swims in a flood of distractions, trying to stay afloat and focused. According to one physician, there are six different ways to be distracted. Was Martha the victim of one or more of those kinds of distractions?

The story of Martha and Mary, and of Martha’s many distractions, brings me back to Thomas Merton’s question, a question I revisit every morning when I awaken and every night as I go to bed. What am I living for, in detail, and what do I think is keeping me from living fully for the thing I want to live for? Or as Jesus might have asked Martha, “What’s the one thing necessary in your life, and what distracts you from it?”

Distractions always involve choice. I may not choose to be distracted at first; distractions have a way of appearing suddenly, out of the blue. But it certainly is my choice if I continue to give attention to my distractions and follow where they lead. The trick, I’ve discovered, is not to try to prevent them, which is impossible, but to recognize when we’re distracted and gently bring ourselves back to our center, our focus.

Trouble is, there are lots of things that are not my one thing necessary, but neither are they merely distractions. Filling my car with gasoline, for example, is certainly not the one thing necessary in my life, but I’ve got to do it or I won’t be able to get around. Chores like mowing the lawn, shopping for groceries, laundry and dry cleaning, all have to be done, when frankly I’d rather be sitting on the deck reading, or pondering life from a country hillside, or stringing together words that might change someone’s life for the better or that might change mine. Those chores are not what I’m living for, but neither can I dismiss them as mere distractions.

Martha often gets a bad rap. Her “many tasks” undoubtedly were things that had to be done, and they could just as easily be seen as a ministry of hospitality that might have allowed her and Mary to entertain angels without knowing it (Heb. 13:2). They certainly allowed them to entertain Jesus. Filling my car with gasoline, distracting though it may seem, makes it easier for me to do other things that matter more, like getting to church for worship or to the hospital to visit the sick.

Good Shepherd’s mission is a big one. As a congregation, we are to represent the gospel of Christ in the world; to be the heart and hands of Jesus; to be the body of the risen Christ (1 Cor. 12:27). As individual members, we’re to use our gifts to build up the body of Christ until all of us grow to maturity, “to the measure of the full stature of Christ” (Eph. 4:11-13). We also spend much of our time running an organization and maintaining a building, doing lots of things that may seem, at times, like distractions from our mission, from our one thing necessary. But they’re not distractions really. They’re necessary.

Martha was distracted, I think, not because she was doing the wrong things – they were things that had to be done, after all – but because she was not fully present to what she was doing. While she was doing one thing, her attention was on something else that she wanted to do instead. While she was doing her many things, her mind was on Mary, on what Mary was doing, on what was happening “over there.”

This is not a story about gender roles, about who’s responsible for kitchen work and who’s free for the after-dinner conversation. It’s not an allegory for the tension in the early church between active faith and contemplative faith. It’s a story about the quality of attention we give to the ordinary details of daily life, where God is always present, and about the blessings to be found there if we choose to be fully present to them. It’s a story about Brother Lawrence.

Brother Lawrence was a seventeenth-century monk who found God’s presence as much in his daily work in the monastery kitchen as in the Eucharist. He learned that doing his “one thing necessary” depended not on choosing more holy things to do. It depended on giving more holy attention to the ordinary things he had to do. “The time of business,” he reported, “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.”

Maybe our biggest distraction is not that we slip into doing the wrong things but that we  skate along on the surface, never seeing deeper into the things we do. We’re distracted by the surface appearance of the things we do and never see them as a divine opportunity to deepen our relationship with God, with others, and with all of creation. For Brother Lawrence, sanctification, his growth toward spiritual maturity, he said, did not depend on changing his works, but in continuing to do the things he commonly did, but in doing them for the sake of God.

Questions for reflection

Where are you Martha?

  1. What distracts you from the important work that must be done?
  2. How do you determine which work is important and which work doesn’t really matter?
  3. If Jesus sat in your living room, how would he direct your attention?
  4. What anxieties would keep you from paying full attention to Jesus while he was sitting there? What anxieties keep you from paying full attention to Jesus when he isn’t sitting there?

Where are you Mary?

  1. What’s the important message that sustains you?
  2. How do you hear God’s voice amid the noise of the chores?
  3. Are you in danger of neglecting the upkeep work that might be necessary?
  4. Who is doing work so that you have time to sit with important issues?

Where are you Jesus?

  1. What’s the message that others need to hear?
  2. Who around you simmers with anger and frustration?
  3. How can you defuse that anger and frustration?
  4. How can you create more meaningful encounters with people who may not be focused on the most important things?


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