One True Essential

Diego Velázquez, ‘Christ in the House of Martha and Mary’, 1618

When Martha invited Jesus into the home she shared with her sister and brother, she couldn’t have known the splendid friendship she’d just instigated. You never know the remarkable string of events you’ll set in motion by something so ordinary as opening your door and laying an extra plate at the table.

Martha got right to it, cranking things up in the kitchen and preparing for the many guests who followed the rabbi into her living room. After a while, Martha grew agitated because there she was working her finger to the bone over a hot stove while Mary refused to leave Jesus’ side, soaking up every word. When Martha protested, Jesus, in the gentle tone every over-exerted person needs to hear, answered Martha, Martha, you are anxious and distracted about so many things. Then Jesus added, Mary has chosen the one thing most essential here. Let’s not take that from her.

It’s easy to think that in this short narrative Jesus takes sides in the long feud between competing spiritualities: the spirituality of action versus the spirituality of contemplation. This war rages on even now, between the justice-loving activists and the mystic-minded contemplatives. Of course, it would be silly to think Jesus was interested in, much less bound by, our divisions, the ways we like to codify paradigms and categorize everything and everyone according to some flavor du jour.

Jesus did not push against Martha’s labor, but rather against her distraction, her worry. God knows we need people who clear the fields and announce the truth, people who get antsy whenever we forget that there’s a world we must tend to. But God also knows that those of us who’ve recognized how much our work matters are tempted to think it matters too much, to forget that God and love stand at the center of our labor and our noble causes, to forget that our soul is our deep treasure – and that our soul can absolutely shrivel and die. There’s nothing more heartbreaking than to find a person who’s given themselves to a cause and then, amid their fervid exertion, completely lost themselves in it. Now, only a shell of a human remains, barking burdensome platitudes.

The truth is, however, contemplatives struggle just the same. When we too heavily emphasise “the disciplines” or “the practices,” as if they are a force unto themselves, we entirely miss the point. There are few things more obnoxious than a would-be mystic who’s worn themselves out (not to mention everyone around them) because they thought the work of silence or “spiritual union” was their mission they must accomplish.

What Martha and Mary needed, what we need – that one thing that is necessary – is Jesus. In our seasons of grit and grind as in our seasons of quiet and sabbath, what we need is Jesus. Jesus may come to us in a thousand ways, through Psalm and Gospel, wind and river, worship or children or wine or sweat or solitude – but we must choose him. We must choose that which is absolutely essential, the one thing that, unless we have it, we will die.