This short story from the Gospel according to Luke is one that we have heard told many times. Jesus comes to a village and is welcomed by a woman named Martha, who invites Jesus, and we must assume, his followers into her home. As soon as Jesus enters, Martha gets busy preparing the hospitality that is expected when guests arrive. On her shoulders lie the responsibility for organizing the meal, cooking the food, and serving these people. As we hear in our reading from the Book of Genesis where Abraham and Sarah hurriedly prepare a sumptuous meal for three unanticipated guests, Martha is expected to give her very best so that Jesus and his followers will know that they are welcome and that their every need is noticed and important.
We don’t know how long Martha toiled gathering the firewood, collecting the food, cooking the meal, and preparing the serving dishes until finally she noticed that she was completely alone while her sister, Mary, was nowhere to be seen. But at some point, she comes into the space where Jesus is and sees Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet listening raptly to his words. At this sight, her sense of selfless hospitality cracks a bit and she asks Jesus to make her sister get up and help her.
But Jesus, instead of chiding Mary or offering Martha some help, answers, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, and it will not be taken away from her.”
Now, I have to confess that I carry a bit of baggage with this story. When Sey and I were raising our three sons, we lived in a lovely home in Austin, Texas that had plenty of space for our growing family and their friends to gather. But one missing element was a kitchen that allowed enough room for more than one or maybe two people to cook and serve. So on too many occasions, I would, like Martha, find myself in the kitchen listening to gales of laughter coming from another room. And also, on too many occasions, I began to grow a bit irritable because while someone needed to prepare food for all these people, I was missing out on all the fun.
Also, we have again this week had a horrendous demonstration of how too often the words and actions of women are ignored or disparaged when they have the audacity to act as if they have the right to voice their opinion or become engaged on the stage of power. This week the amplified rejection was also tied to racism and xenophobia.
So I had to simmer in this stew of recent and past injustice while listening to this very familiar story of hospitality and access. But as often happens when I am praying and studying and preparing to find the pearl in our scripture, something else comes that is a surprise.
I began to consider time, how precious it is, and how too often it seems to just fly by without my careful contemplation. AsTorstein Hagen Chairman of Viking River Cruises says, “The only scarce commodity is time.” Time is something that we too often take for granted, or simply let it race our days along. And though we try to carefully manage our time, too often we come to the end of our day and wonder where all the time went. And, too often we fail to make a space to stop and appreciate time and marvel at its precious quality.
John Swinton in his book, Becoming Friends of Time, says that all of us are driven by a particular understanding of time. He says, “For many of us, time as we experience it day by day at a personal level is simply the way in which we pattern and structure our lives in order to help us make sense of the daily flow of our existence. Most of us have a fairly pragmatic approach to time: it is there to be used. It does not make much difference what time isin and of itself; what matters is what time does—the ways it affects our lives, structuring our days, guiding our plans for the future. Although in our more reflective moments, we may be curious as to why spending time with someone whom we love seems to pass by so quickly and what it is about sitting through a boring meeting that makes us feel we are trapped in never-ending time, many of us do not spend much time thinking about time.”
Jesus knows that his time is short to be with his friends and his followers. His “face is set toward Jerusalem.” Like those of our beloveds who are diagnosed with a terminal illness, he is well aware that time is far too precious to waste or ignore. So in this story, I hear Jesus reminding Martha that he is here now and his time with her is a gift—a gift that will not always be available to her in its physical presence. Time is of the essence. While I do not believe that Jesus, even in this time of unchallenged patriarchy, fails to recognize the hospitality that Martha is extending to him, he invites her, and in our hearing, he invites us to pay attention, to be present, to make space in our often busy lives, for the gift of time that is given to us by God who loves us intimately.
Now of course, I would have loved for Jesus to have jumped up and invited his friends to follow him to the cooking fire to help Martha prepare and present the meal. I know that work is rarely a burden when it is shared. But in this story, I do not hear Jesus saying that sitting and studying and conversing is better than doing the work necessary to help others. No, I hear Jesus calling to her and inviting her to consider that time is an aspect of God’s love for us all. And as an aspect of God’s love, the purpose of time is to facilitate and sustain love. Sometimes this means preparing a meal, sometimes this means washing clothes, sometimes this means sitting in undistracted listening to the story of another no matter what chores await, sometimes this means simply being present in the moment.
Mary Oliver in her poem “Summer Day” says,
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
I have just returned from a time away in a sacred place for Sey and me and our sons. It was a time when beauty, and joy, and cherished memories, and time with people I love was at its essence. It was a treasured gift that cannot “be taken away from me.” And it is where God meets me and reminds me that while the work is plentiful, God’s yoke is light if only I will allow myself to recognize that I should not remain alone in the metaphorical kitchen. None of us should! And that whenever I become worried and distracted by many things, there is only one thing I need—to slow down, to be present, to listen carefully, to receive the love that is available everywhere, if only I open my eyes, and my ears, and my heart. To remember that time is a gift and time is precious.
It is Martha’s home. She feels responsible for the guests. She wants it to be the best, to offer everything she has so that everyone feels they are a part of a generous time of sharing. But she is exhausted and the work never stops. So she calls out for reinforcement and Jesus reminds her that as she seeks to do the hard things, she needs to channel Jesus. Time is precious and tasks are many. Jesus needs Martha to hear the truth that the Kingdom of God is near—really near– and time is of the essence. So she needs to make space for the love, the rest, the strength that comes from God alone. Bishop Desmund Tutu, when asked how he made time to be in the chapel with his impossible schedule remarked “I am so busy, that I must spend twice as much time at prayer.”
What is your “now is the time?” What is it that is worrying you, distracting you, or maybe what is it that you have ignored, set aside, that Jesus’ calling your name might get your attention?
May each of us hear this story, regardless of our gender or our age or the tasks that have been laid on us or those tasks we claim as ours and ours alone and recover that which will not be taken from us—to recognize that everything that truly needs to be done has been done for us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. So we are freed to slow down, to make space, to notice the gift of God’s unending love. May we hear Jesus’ invitation to all who are weary and burdened to tune our body into the rhythm of God’s time—to care, notice, and be nourished in the abundance of God’s great gifts and in doing so to claim for ourselves in this time, the better part.
John Swinton. Becoming Friends of Time: Timefullness and Gentle Discipleship. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2016.
Mary Oliver. “The Summer Day” New and Selected Poems, Vol.1. Beacon Press, 1992.