One Necessary Thing
by Robert Hamerton-Kelly
Scripture: Colossians 1:15-28; Luke 10:38-42
“There is only one necessary thing; and Mary has chosen that better part and it shall never be taken away from her.” — Luke 10:42
I have discovered that as I grow older I have to focus my energy more and more precisely because its supply is less and less plentiful. The old description of the expert as one who knows more and more about less and less until he knows everything about nothing, comes to mind here, but it is not a precise parallel. The quest I have in mind narrows to a point not of nothing but of something so solidly “there” that it gives meaning to everything we can envisage and grounds our life and our world in satisfaction. Every life is, after all, a quest for its own significance and a search for survival of death. Significance and survival thus describe the contents of the one necessary thing, but relationship describes it structure. It is a relationship that gives us meaning and immortality, and my good news for you today is the same as I have brought you every Sunday I have been privileged to preach to you, that Jesus Christ wishes to be in a relationship with you so that he might make you meaningful and immortal. The relationship with Jesus is the one thing necessary and in our story Mary chose it and Jesus assures her that is shall never be taken away from her.
What did Mary do to show that she had made this momentous decision? No much! She merely sat with Jesus, and enjoyed his company. She chose simply to be with him, and Jesus called that the better choice, and the one necessary thing that will never be taken away. The letter to the Colossians calls it, “…Christ in you the hope of glory…” (1:27), and so it is.
So what shall we say of Martha? I have heard many sermons that defend Martha and say that Jesus was too hard on her. This was usually the point of view of housewives in the congregation who understood the effort it took to feed guests. Here are two sisters and a brother, Lazarus, living together. Jesus and his entourage come to visit so there are at least 13 visitors, one a celebrity, and her sister Mary leaves her alone to do all the frantic work it takes to succor so many guests. We understand her anxiety and we also understand her sense of the unfairness of it all. Mary simply does what Martha would like to do but cannot, because of her sense of responsibility. “It is unfair and the Lord should recognize that and ask Mary to go and help her sister,” says Martha.
There is an unattractive whining in Martha’s tone, but also a refreshing directness. She addresses Jesus directly, upbraiding him for allowing this breech of obligation by not telling Mary to help her. Instead of saying to her, “Mary it is not fair to leave all the chores of entertaining to your sister. Go and help her,” he says nothing, and when Martha comes to point this out and complain, he answers her infuriatingly, “You are worrying about little things, while Mary has chosen the one big thing, so leave her alone.”
The narrative background is the impending death of Jesus. These are not normal circumstances in which normal expectations are still in place. Martha who is right to expect help does not understand what time it is. Mary knows that this is the last time she will enjoy the company of the earthly Jesus. After this it will be the spiritual company, promised in the “which shall never be taken away from her.”
The point to focus on is this promise that what Mary has chosen will never be taken from her, which implies that what Martha has chosen, good and necessary though it is, will in due course be taken from her. What are these two things, one to be taken and one to abide with us forever? Well clearly, the former is the active life Martha chose and the latter the contemplative life Mary chose. In the tradition of the church this meant that a monastic life of contemplation was superior to a life of worldly activity. Since that traditional meaning of the two symbols is passé let us try to find another meaning for the symbols, taking Martha first and then Mary.
There is a time in life when one should be busy with many things, when early on one is still seeking the good and the true, busy to good purpose not busy to distraction. Then one narrows the horizon by choice as well as by necessity and if one has been wise and disciplined that narrowing takes place as a more and more intense focus on the really important things, until it alights on the one necessary thing, namely, the truth.
Mary surely has hard work in her history but now goes straight to the truth, without struggle, and having found it stays with it inseparably. The Martha type continues to postpone gratification because of the obligations she has to fulfill, Mary enjoys the one necessary thing, and the company of Jesus, Martha continues to attend to the many necessary things.
Does this mean that there are two distinct types of faith experience, one immediate and compelling one gradual and demanding? William James, brother of the novelist Henry James, wrote in his early classic, “Varieties of Religious Experience,” that there are two types of religious folk, “the once born” and “the twice born.” Do these types illuminate the two types we have in our story? Possibly: the Mary type is the twice born and the Martha type the once born. Mary goes straight to Jesus as if by some illumination and stays there as if no longer a part of this world. Martha goes to the kitchen and stays there working hard to make things go in this world. Both believe in Jesus.
What shall we say? Surely we can say both types are valid and praiseworthy? Surely we can telescope one into the other and acknowledge that Mary and Martha are aspects of one faith experience, its active and contemplative side, work and prayer. Indeed the Benedictine order has as its motto Orare et laborare, “To pray and to work.”
There are these two ways to be a Christian, equally praiseworthy, but one will pass away and the other will never be taken away. Let the one stand for the type of piety that is always in the business of trying to change the world and the other the type that seeks first, fellowship with the living Christ, the pearl of great price. This is wisdom: the laser point of life is Jesus Christ himself. If you wish to live in the world successfully, get in touch with his power, have a relationship with him. The world passes away; Jesus abides forever, and with him so shall we.