lockdown lessons no.2: first thing first

38 Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39 She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 40 But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” 41 But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42 there is need of only one thing Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

Luke 10:38-42 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

A ‘word’ from God…

“Stillness”, said my prophetic friend, “That’s what God is saying to us right now”.

Be still and know that I am God’ (Psalm 46:10). Theologically we know that being still is a prerequisite to knowing God.

Yet we in the western church are defined by ‘busyness’. ‘Get busy, and if you can’t get busy, at least look busy’. Even in this period of lockdown I know of clergy (and laity) who are suffering under the weight of this pressure, shifting as it has from real-time to virtual reality.

Martha Tasker

We all have our Martha and Mary moments. Most of us tend to veer one way or the other. To those who know me well it won’t come as a surprise to hear me say that I am predominantly a Martha!

Martha: Aramaic origin, meaning ‘lady; mistress of the house’.

Martha. Even the name has a ring of solid determination to it. Martha’s are task-oriented. We are doers. We get things done. Martha Tasker.

The thing about tasks, as necessary as they are, is that they replicate. Tasks produce tasks, giving the tasker a heart-sinking feeling that our work is never completed. We taskers make work for ourselves, causing distraction. “I can’t do this right now, so I’ll do that that thing instead…I’ll come back to the other thing later”. And so it goes on. We are worried and distracted by many things.

The ‘many distractions’ of social media

Social media is a killer for taskers. Post. Share. Comment. Tweet. Retweet. Like. Love…

Taskers love to be ‘liked’. Maybe its because we’re short on affirmation. Or we think we are. Affirmation and validation. Martha: “Lord, do you not care…” Its the cry of the unaffirmed.

Periodically I try and get on top of my social media (mis)usage. Here’s tip – try using a social media management tool – buffer, hootsuite, publer. That way you can post to your various platforms without having to access them directly.

Airy-fairy Mary

Mary/Miriam: Hebrew origin, meaning ‘star of the sea’ – evoking a sense of aqueous fluidity.

Mary’s frustrate the hell out of Martha’s. Airy-fairy Mary.

Mary’s are content just to sit and listen. Head in the stars, Mary’s go with the flow. So impractical, especially when there are things to be done and we Martha’s need the help!

The better part

Here’s the thing. Martha gets a tough rap. Its not that she’s wrong. She welcomed Jesus into her home and set about ‘doing’ stuff for Him and his motley crew. Martha’s ‘doing’ is not a bad thing, but its not the first thing. Its not a question of value, but a question of choice.

“Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

The Greek word applied here for ‘the better part’ is agathos (ἀγαθός), meaning ‘the good, or first, thing’.

Jesus doesn’t humiliate Martha. His words contain a distinct tone of sympathy. “Martha, Martha…” The implication is that Martha has worked herself up into a frenzy over her many tasks. Driven to distraction, and beset with worry and anxiety.

Its as if Jesus is saying, “Martha. Stop. Still yourself. There’s only one thing needed here. Mary has chosen it first. To sit and be with me. Its a good thing. Join her, with me. All your ‘doing’ will pass. The ‘being’ part will remain.”

Essentially this is a story about hospitality. Making a welcome for Jesus and his friends. Of the two parts to this and any welcome – being and doing – we can’t have one without the other, but…

…Mary has chosen the good thing first.

This week I have had the privilege to be involved with giving hospitality to a group of international students who have been stranded in Liverpool due to the Covid19 crisis. The easiest thing would have been to simply gift them food and toiletry parcels. However, a generic food parcel may have contained food that they might not have been able to eat because of cultural reasons. Meaning that it has been important to sit (at a suitable distance) and listen to what their actual needs are, before setting about providing them. In other words, choosing to do the better part first.

Balancing the parts

As I said at the beginning of this article, we are all – each one of us – part Martha and part Mary. One way of reading this account is to do so through the lens of human psychology. Martha and Mary represent two parts of the human mindset. One part the right inclination to ‘do’ for others – to task ourselves with helping. The other being simply being.

Mindfully (and prayerfully) we need to attend to the balancing of our inner – and outer – Martha and Mary. Our ‘housekeeper’ and ‘sea star’. Our being and doing, in that order.

Church – are we trying too hard?

I have long thought that we in the western church are trying too hard. We’ve become a ‘Martha Church’, reflecting the culture in which we exist. On my visits to churches in the global south (and African churches in the UK), I’ve enjoyed how laid back people are. The timeless quality to worship services, and the organic way in which needs are met and help is distributed.

Even in these difficult and confusing days of Covid19 we still seem to be running around doing stuff. Our doing has merely shifted online. Much of our digital input is undoubtedly worthy and valuable, but, as important as it is, it may not be the ‘better thing’.

Is there a lesson in this for us, the Church? A lesson which we can, and should, carry into the ‘new normal’ (whatever and whenever that is!).

All this doing. All our programmes and initiatives. All our distractions and worries. These are passing. Like wind over grass. Passing. Vanishing as soon as it appears. Remembered no more.

Be still. And know. I am. God.

Its the better part. The first choice. The good thing. That which remains.


‘I want them (clergy) to be people who can dare to refuse to work flat out, to compete with me in strenuousness, who can sit still without feeling guilty, from whom I can learn some kind of tranquility in a society which has almost lost the art’

Monica Furlong, author, journalist, and activist (1930 – 2003)
‘The Church of England’s most influential and creative layperson of the post-war period’ (obit)