I’ve had a great treat this summer: every Wednesday, I’ve gotten to spend the morning with a dear friend’s 20-month old child. The official reason is to give my friend a little time for her own writing, but the real reason, if truth be told, is much more selfish on my part–I get to have an excuse to goof around for a couple of hours. Of late, my schedule has become almost unbearably busy, so this time has become a kind of a sabbath for me too, time away from meetings and email and the tyranny of the to-do list.
Most weeks, my young friend and I spend at least part of our time taking a walk around our shared neighborhood. I often walk these same streets for exercise, striding determinedly along, trying to burn maximum calories while simultaneously working through (and hoping to solve) every problem that has arisen during the day. These walks are work, in a very real sense.
There is no such striding, however, on my Wednesday morning walks. For one thing, I have discovered that a saunter is much more conducive to pushing a stroller than a more hard-charging pace (and not just because our side-walks are very uneven, and I’d like to not bounce the poor child out of the seat). No, we meander along because there is so much that I need to have pointed out to me: lights (whether on houses or streetlamps or in gardens or wherever), trucks and buses, f lowers and birds, and fire hydrants. I really had not known, for example, just how fire-prevention ready our neighborhood is–hydrants are everywhere! What I love too is that everything we see is interesting and novel and worthy of attention. Even when we have been down a street the week before, the enthusiasm for what we observe reminds me that the beauty of creation is undeniably “new every morning,” while the real delight from witnessing it afresh which emanates from the child in that stroller calls me to honor these holy moments of wonder. In her beautiful meditation on Psalm 8, Marilynne Robinson puts it like this:
So I have spent my life watching, not to see beyond the world, merely to see, great mystery, what is plainly before my eyes. I think the concept of transcendence is based on a misreading of creation. With all respect to heaven, the scene of miracle is here, among us.
As lovely–and as true–as this sentiment is, however, I realize none of these observations are particularly news to anyone. We all know that we need to be more attentive, that we need to give greater heed to this “scene of miracle” that lies about us. But somehow, we don’t do it very often. We know we’re supposed to “consider the lilies,” but really, secretly, we can’t imagine who really has the time (or at least who can do that without also seeing all the weeding that needs to be done too). Clearly, whoever they are, they do not have enough to do.
Maybe that’s why I come back, again and again, to the person to whom I most relate in scripture, Martha–a strider if there ever was one. Interestingly, Luke 10 which records part of Martha’s story also narrates–in fact, right before Martha’s story–the parable of the Good Samaritan. In many ways, Martha’s story is an important application of that parable. Strong and feisty, Martha is a woman who gets things done. I’ve heard many sermons critical of Martha, but she, like the Samaritan, is a good neighbor. When Jesus shows up at her house, she gets right to work, no doubt making Jesus’ favorite meal.
She’s famous, of course, for complaining: complaining to Jesus that her sister, Mary, is not helping her, and more centrally, I believe, complaining that Jesus himself doesn’t care that Martha is having to do all the work. But the very act of complaining is noteworthy, though it never seems to occasion much comment from interpreters of this passage: Martha feels able to complain to Jesus because he is a familiar. A random man come to dinner would hardly have elicited such a direct response from her. But Jesus is a friend, able to be talked to frankly.
Jesus’ response is telling. Notice the kindness in the repetition of her name, the recognition of all she, his friend, has on her mind: “Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things.” But then, the curious turn comes: “But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.” Significantly, scripture doesn’t tell us explicitly what the “one thing needful” is. A long history of interpretation argues that Jesus is advocating for Mary’s contemplative life over Martha’s active one. I’m not so sure. Jesus’ words don’t seem to be about condemning Martha’s work as much as lauding Mary’s attention to a greater good. Martha’s complaint, after all, is fundamentally about asking Jesus to notice and affirm what she is doing. It sends the message that her work is of greater importance than his presence as her guest.
No, in making this moral pronouncement, Jesus implicitly reminds Martha of his ability to do so–he is not just a visiting friend, he is also the fully divine Son of God. For Martha, Jesus is not just a familiar, he has become too familiar. And that is a problem. Jesus’ gracious response, then, returns her to that “scene of miracle”–his presence and her sister’s recognition of it–that is going on in her very own home.
Most of us are closer, no doubt, to Martha’s experience than my young walking buddy: we live in a world where the wonder of the new has long ago worn off, where our anxieties and our work often obscures the generous hospitality of the God who feeds us at his table and surrounds us with his tender providence. Martha’s modern-day counterparts face her same challenge: to live in grateful response to the actual presence of Emanuel, the God who is with us. It’s much harder than it sounds–but sometimes a stroll with a toddler seems to help.