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New Revised Standard Version
38 Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home.
39 She had a sister named Mary, who sat at Jesus’ feet and listened to what he was saying.
40 But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.”
41 But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things;
42 there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
The Christian churches, camps, and conferences that I grew up attending loved this story. If intimacy with God was our highest aspiration, which in these communities was often the case, this story confirmed our call: to sit at Jesus’ feet. To listen closely and to gaze adoringly. To be like Mary. As close as we could be to Jesus.
Here is Martha, busy and distracted, wanting Mary to come help her with the hosting tasks, and she pulls Jesus in to get him on her side. But Jesus admonishes Martha:
let your sister be. She’s sitting at my feet. She cares less about serving, more about connection . . . love, nearness, attention: she has chosen the better part.
Songs about Mary filled our gatherings. Even if I don’t read the story in the same way anymore, to this day, at least once a month, this song from my teenage years will pop into my head:
Let it be said of me, she chose the better part / let it be said of me she loved with all her heart.
I was asked recently to think about what I would want on my gravestone and immediately – she loved with all her heart – popped into my head. My quick second thought was that wouldn’t actually be what I want, but dang, that refrain “let it be said of me….” is a really sticky one for me!
For much of western, Eurocentric Christian history, this has been a common interpretation. My communities were revamping interpretations as old as those of Church leaders like Origen, an early theologian who wrote in the second century that this story represented two ways to approach a life of faith: the life of action, like Martha, or the life contemplation, like Mary.
Service or love. That which is temporary or that which is eternal. I have come to see some not great consequences of reading the story this way. For one, it reduces the two women in these stories to spiritual tropes about how to live in the world. Or, even when we see the sisters as full people, it pits them against each other to make a good woman/bad woman to teach people a lesson on right living—one who makes a good decision with her life and one who makes a bad one. And then there is this whole triangulation that happens . . . a reporting structure that draws in Jesus, which seems a bit weird and diminishing of the sisters’ relationship, too. Is there a more liberative story we can find in the words and actions of Mary, Martha, and Jesus?
Today, I wonder if we can reimagine some of the dynamics of the story, to understand a different way of coming around the table.
Choice & Need
A couple of years ago here at Reservoir, at the end of a service when folks were hanging out and talking, someone offered me an interpretation of this story that has been in my imagination since. This is among my favorite interactions in this church because it came out of nowhere – we hadn’t been talking about the passage during the service or anything like that. After service, as I was walking back behind the sound desk, I bumped into a wonderful friend I look up to, who always has a good word. With no context and no greeting, she looked at me, eyes big and bright:
“Katie, about Mary and Martha. When Jesus says Mary has chosen the better part, it’s not about the better part, it’s not about what she was doing. It’s that she CHOSE! She made a choice!”
I was so caught by this. I was in a season of understanding what it meant to come into deeper choice. To exercise my agency, my authority…. and in the span of 20 seconds, this friend took a familiar story and gave me a whole new way to see it. It’s not that the better part was Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet. It’s that she chose what she needed.
This brings us into the heart of what we are talking about today. That the story of Mary, Martha, and Jesus is an invitation to consider what we need.
“You are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing,”
Jesus says. Few things are needed, and really only one. There is need of only one thing. Only one thing is needed.
And this is where I sense choice and need meeting each other. We get to choose to pay attention to what we most need. In these lives we live where so many of us are overextended and frayed and stressed beyond our means, where we are worried and distressed and distracted by so many things that it may feel like we need a million things. Could it be that what we need is as simple as one thing? Is it possible to choose what we need?
There is a powerful and simple question I have discovered to help in this process:
“What do you need today?”
It’s a question that invites us to quiet ourselves enough to ask the question of our self and another, to listen to another’s response, to respond our self.
I know two folks who are colleagues who ask this question of each other every day. Before they get to work, they look at each other and take a turn asking:
“What do you need today?”
They come into voice. They listen to their own self, what is arising within or around them, that they need for the day. They listen to each other. They listen to what the other needs. It is not so they can supply or provide what the other person needs, but to have a place to practice asking and naming what they need.
One of my loved ones and I ask each other this question a couple times a month. It takes a couple beats to quiet down, to sense what we may need. When the question first hits the air, I usually first think through my to do list for the day: I need to call this person, prep for this meeting, read this article, write this paper, check in with my parents, pack food before I go. But the question isn’t ‘What do I need to do today?’ It’s ‘What do I need today?’
I need focus for the work at hand, grace for the thing that I am nervous about. Sometimes when things are feeling really crammed and piled on, I sense I need spaciousness. Three really good meals and some snacks in between. Part of the quieting is that our needs are often felt in our body, in our spirit. In the midst of the chaos of our days, it’s so easy to live out of touch with our needs—but our bodies and spirits have a lot to say when we can pause to listen.
It’s meaningful to articulate what we need. Tapping into what we need may come naturally for some, but for others it is a challenging task. Perhaps, for reasons of race, gender, age, birth order, our family system of origin, or personality, we have been socialized to spend our days responding to the needs of others. Some have developed a hypersensitivity to other’s needs and are admired for having a gift of anticipating what others need. For folks who have a tendency to take care of the needs of others—coming into our own sense of what we need might be a challenging task. Others may be so focused on something external, that coming to the internal place of sensing your own need be unfamiliar.
What if Mary and Martha were able to sit at the table together and ask each other:
What do you need today?
What if they invited Jesus to join them at this table, and anyone else who was in the house that day.
What do you need today?
I like imagining that together, there at the table, they could trust an Abundance that could provide for each one’s needs. That they could bear witness to what the other was holding—needing—in love and care, without having to become the means to have that need met. What if they could creatively speak into each other’s lives, to imagine together how they could take care of what was needed to do, so everyone could have what they need? What if they encouraged each other to choose the thing they most needed? Because the demands of the world will always push up against what we need. Can we help each other choose what we need? How can we invite Jesus and each other to join us at this table?
I think of a friend who has made a decision to operate in new ways, sensing need for new directions. I think of the Beloved Community Fund here at Reservoir, where, for the last year, people have taken a moment of quiet and pause to sense their practical needs – for shelter, for therapy or spiritual direction – and shared what they need with the fund, which has been able to witness and offer connection and support. In these places, people are sensing the thing they need, bringing it to the table, and naming it to the ones they trust.
Needs are not distinct to individuals alone, but also for units of people, to communities. While we are asking the question “What do you need today?” can we get in the habit of also asking together:
What does our family need today? What does our household need in this season? What does our community group need? What does our work team need? What does our church need?
Systems have needs too, and if we can start listening to what our group body needs, what we need collectively, if we can discern this together, we might be able to come into more life-giving ways of being with each other, of choosing our movements forward and also our rest.
My hope for us is that our tables can be a place where we ask each other:
What do you need today? What does our table need today?
Where we can encourage each other to choose what we need. That we can sense the companionship of Mary, Martha, Jesus bearing their needs before each other. Priest and writer Henri Nouwen reflects that the table is a place of profound intimacy— it is a place we bring and bear ourselves, and naming our needs can be deeply intimate. And because of this very intimacy, the table can also can be a place of experience a profound absence of intimacy, when tension, disconnection, or loss is present.
So, for any whose tables feel like they don’t hold enough trust or enough connection or enough presence to ask and be asked “What do you need today?” I pray that Jesus would meet you at your table. I pray that Jesus would be preparing you a table in the presence of all that is painful, in the valley of the shadow of death, in the presence of your enemies, and that in time you would find a table – maybe at a community group, or among neighbors – where you can be present to each other’s needs.
I pray this for all of us. That we all find this place to share with others our needs. Not to fix them, or to solve them, but to participate in the human, divine act of naming what we need, and to practice and encourage each other to choose – to choose what we need. To sense Jesus near us, coming close to us in our need, perhaps even just the one or few things we need today.
Jesus, would you be with us today in what we need. May your spirit help us sense and tend to what we need. May we lovingly listen to one another’s needs – and may we trust the Abundance of your love to supply what we need.