O is for…

One Thing

Remember ye olde story from Luke’s Gospel (10: 38-42) about Martha and Mary?

If you don’t, this is part of it…

But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister [Mary] has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.

Ah, Mary and Martha. It is clear, the between Martha’s bustling about and Mary’s attentive listening, which attitude and action Jesus prefers. But take a secret ballot on Sunday morning and see who wins the popularity contest. I’ll wager that Martha may lose, but it’ll be close!

Don’t we need the Marthas of the world? It is said that Thoreau, in his sojourn at Walden Pond, kept using the same dishes and utensils, meal after meal, day after day. And why make a bed if you’ll just hop back in it a few hours later? Simplicity!

But multi-tasking Martha gets things done, from a three-course meal to a well-dusted living room. And don’t forget, the Lukan passage has Martha welcoming Jesus. Where was Mary? Putting on some make-up? I have to admit, I sometimes imagine that Jesus’ reply to Martha—“you are worried and distracted by many things”—came only after the meal was set before him. Please, give me a roomful of Marthas.

Or maybe not.

How prescient this passage is. We humans are multi-taskers, list-makers and goal-setters. Whether in first century Palestine or 21st Century America, too many of us are Martha-ing along to the loud drummer that demands we do more and better and we live in fear that we’ll never catch up. But, please, help me remember I am a human being, and not a human doing. And, you know what? We will never catch up. But the drum of demands is loud and persistent.

It’s impossible for us to hear the other sound, the quiet drumbeat of rest. Of listening and learning.

Have you seen Billy Crystal’s wonderful City Slickers from 1991? From first viewing to tenth viewing, I always love the moment when Curly, played to curmudgeon perfection by the late Jack Palance, tells Crystal’s Mitch that there is one thing to “the secret of life.” Curly, at this point, holds up one finger.

“What is the one thing?” Mitch will ask.

“That’s what you have to find out.”


What did Jesus mean about “one thing?” What did Martha need? What do you need? Regardless of your faith (Christian or Muslim and more) or lack of faith (doubter or scoffer) what do you need? Jesus’ statement becomes a cross-cultural, inter-faith demand for every person to honestly examine his or her heart, hopes and relationships.

And your “one thing” may change over the years, but I pray (for you and for me) that your search for it helps you to grow and for your neighbor to be blessed.

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