Wednesday, July 9, 2008

"Only One Thing"

“As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, ‘Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!’ ‘Martha, Martha,’ the Lord answered, ‘you are worried about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.’” Luke 10: 38-42

Busy, busy, busy. Do you ever think “There just aren’t enough hours in the day,” “It’s just a busy season,” or “I have to do this--it's just really important”? A super busy life starts with good intentions, but busyness creates distractions, pressure, and resentment.

This is considered to be the earliest painting of Vermeer’s, the great 17-Century Dutch painter, second only to Rembrandt. It was finished around 1656 and depicts Christ in the house of Mary and Martha. Christ, traveling with his disciples, is welcomed into the home of the sisters, two very different women.

Look at the painting. The core of the composition is the three figures, grouped closely together, emphasizing their physical and psychological interactions. The figures, their gestures, and their locations in relation to each other are where Vermeer tells us so much about the characters of Mary and Martha.

Martha is standing behind a table that she’s just put a basket of food upon. She’s hunched over, looking tired—it seems that she’s carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders. Martha is in the midst of “doing”—one can probably sense her fussing and flitting about Jesus, making sure he’s comfortable, getting the food prepared, making sure the house looks nice. She’s distracted by all the preparations that need to be made, and it’s hard to blame her—Jesus is in her house, after all! But look at her pose. Doesn’t she look burdened? It’s interesting that the basket of food that she’s putting on the table is what is keeping her from Christ. The table with all the “work” is the barrier between her and Jesus. She wanted to make sure Jesus was comfortable and the house was clean for him, but in doing so, Martha became a slave to her house and duties.

Mary, on the other hand, is sitting at the feet of Jesus, as Luke describes. She looks comfortable and carefree—she’s even barefoot! She’s obviously not one to be bogged down by details when visitors come. She took the opportunity not to entertain Jesus, but to learn from him and listen to him. Her head rests on her hand as she listens. Her back is toward the table and her sister. There is nothing between her and Jesus. Although her face is mostly in shadow, it’s easy to see that she is in a peaceful, contemplative state, which mirrors the appearance of Jesus much more than it does her sister, Martha.

Jesus is sitting in a chair, relaxed. Martha, frustrated at all of the work that needed to be done, asked Jesus to rebuke her sister for not helping her with the work. “Tell her to help me!” she asked Jesus. Verse 41 is his response to Martha. “You are worried about upset about many things but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” Jesus commended Mary, pointing to her example of being still before him. Although Jesus did commend Martha’s zeal, he wanted to point out that Martha was unnecessarily burdening herself with over-carefulness and serving.

We’ve got to remember not to get so caught up in serving the Lord that we forget to worship him and get to know him better. As Mary did, we need to choose what is better.

"Be still and know that I am God." Psalm 46:10


Cami said...


This was so amazing to read. It totally spoke to me. I feel like I just got hit with a ton of bricks!

I have some thoughts/questions on this. Let's talk about it next time we see each other!


Jared ~::44::~ said...

Very thought out; and so true...


Lisa Marie said...

I'm sad that anyone's first reaction to a Vermeer painting would be annoyance.