Proper 11 / 8th after Pentecost — 22 July 2007
Trinity, Iowa City — 8:45
RCL: Amos 8:1-12 Ps 52 Col 1:15-28 Luke 10:38-42
(c) 2007 William S. J. Moorhead
“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.”
It was Calvin Coolidge who said, “The business of America is business.” (As distinguished from “bi’ness.”) “Business” is a central part of our daily lives. Whether or not we are, in the strict sense, “in business,” we all have “our business” to which we must tend, the affairs of our life. There is a wide range of activities having to do with being a free and self-determining human being in the world which falls under the category of “taking care of business.”
What is this word “business”? Its origin, of course, is in the notion of “busyness” — the state or quality of being busy. Being busy is, in our society, on the whole a Good Thing. We all want to keep busy. It’s important to us that we be productive, that we be useful. Since my retirement from the University, friends ask me, “So. Are you keeping busy?” (To which my answer is, generally, “Yes.”) Our culture is very activist, and very quantitative in its standards. “What do you do?” we ask each other when we meet for the first time. Usually unsaid, but still intended, is “How much can you do? How “useful” are you” What can you produce that can be quantitatively measured in some way?”
Well, all right. There is a very great deal of value in all that. When God put us in this world, God gave us business to do — to be God’s stewards and co-workers in “building the earth.” Laziness is a sin. Productivity is an important value. But…
Jesus suggests in the Gospel today that there’s a little more to be said about it than that.
I always find it easy to relate to Martha and Mary — for all that they are only mentioned three times in the Gospels — here, and twice in St. John — they are very real people to me, and reading between the lines, I can see that Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus (whom Jesus later raises from death) were very close and dear friends of Jesus. And who among us has not had occasion to say, like Martha, “Hey! How come I’m the only one who’s doing any work around here? Somebody come and give me a little help!”
“Look,” says Jesus. “There are lots of things to do. Some of them are even important things, and sooner or later they need to get done. But sometimes the thing to do is just to stop, and sit down, and keep still, and watch, and listen. There are things more important than just doing. Doing must be rooted in being, or else ultimately it will rot, wither, and die, a bitter, hollow shell. But being is delicate, sensitive soil, and needs careful tending and cultivation and feeding. So don’t begrudge the time taken just to be — to listen, to be nourished, to see. Do we not say with St. Irenaeus that the consummation of this life is the “Vision of God”? Do we not then need to spend time learning to see? Do we not need to sit down and be attentive, to look for the extraordinary, to suspend doing for a while and just to be? And Mary has chosen that better part, which will not be taken away from her.
Of course there is a sense in which our lives are something we do. We do have to take care of business — that’s part of our God-given responsibility as God’s stewards, exercising in God’s name the management of the earth. But in a deeper sense our lives, our true lives, are Gift — not something we achieve but something we receive. We need to learn to receive, to see, to be contemplative as the underpinnings of all our activity. One of the great tragedies of growing old in our culture is that contemplation, which can be a real specialty as we get older (although certainly not limited to us) — contemplation is not a very highly valued endeavor in our activist, business-oriented, achievement-oriented society. And so we never learn to be contemplative, we don’t consider it “worthwhile” or “productive,” and so when other activities are taken from us for one reason or another, we are left with nothing — unable to immerse ourselves in this special gift God has prepared for us.
But throughout the whole of our lives, at the heart of our lives, Jesus calls us to put our business — our busyness — aside for a bit, and to sit with him, to be with him, to be ourselves with him, to hear him, and to choose the better part which can never be taken away.