Will One Thing

“Purity of heart is to will one thing.”
Søren Kierkegaard
42 “…but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better…”
Luke 10:38-42
Jesus and the disciples are on the move. They enter a village and receive life-giving hospitality from two sisters in the intimacy of their home. Martha prepares the meal while Mary sits listening at the feet of Jesus. It is a beautiful scene that lasts but for two verses
before Martha barges into the living room from the kitchen, upset that her sister has left her to do all the work by herself. Jesus lovingly tells her that Mary has chosen the “better thing” and invites Martha to leave the distracting, exquisite preparations aside and simply order in a pizza. She does so, and the three of them, along with the disciples, sit talking, laughing and enjoying the intimacy of great friendship late into the night.
If I had been Luke, this is the ending I would have given to the story. Instead, we are left to finish it in our imaginations.
The typical dualistic manner of interpreting this story is to demonize Martha and celebrate Mary; the activities of service and social justice are subservient to the “better choice” of reflective contemplation.
However, we can avoid this interpretive mistake if we read this account in the light of the Good Samaritan story to which we put our attention last week.
A lawyer correctly responds to a poignant question of Jesus by quoting the Great Commandment, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.” Luke then tells a pair of stories that illustrate the two components of the Great Commandment. The first is the Good Samaritan, which reveals “love of neighbor.” The second is our text this week, which demonstrates Mary’s embrace of the first part of the Great Commandment.
While one is of first priority and the other “second like unto it,” both are essential. Likewise, both of these stories are complementary in illustrating the wholistic nature of the Great Commandment. In fact, it seems plausible that the lawyer in the first story is paired up with Martha in the second as two characters who got it wrong. The lawyer, like Mary, spent a great deal of time in his profession focused on the act of reading and listening to Scripture. Conversely, we have Martha serving her “neighbor” like the Good Samaritan, but through the act of being a gracious host.
Both stories are rooted in acts of hospitality. In the first story, the lawyer appears to reveal the act of “loving God” while the Samaritan shows “love of neighbor.” Jesus picks the Samaritan. In the second, Martha appears to reveal “love of neighbor” while Mary is a portrait of “loving God.” In this instance, Jesus picks Mary. It is ironic that in both stories Jesus highlights the one whom would have most likely been rejected by the crowds: A Samaritan enemy and an ungracious host. The difference is a purity of heart that comes from the “willing of one thing” — the posture wherein all of our scattered longings and misplaced desires are set aside in deference to the “one thing needed.”
The challenge with Martha is that she is lost in the horizontal plane of rivalry. With Jesus in the other room, her attention is instead focused on Mary, thereby robbing her from the joy of “willing one thing” and leaning into what is “better.” Jesus reacts to her by intimately repeating her name twice in a compassionate call back to the essence of the first part of the Great Commandment. It is, after all, the act of “loving the Lord your God…” that serves as the source for “loving your neighbor as yourself.” The vertical focus on Jesus eradicates rivalry and gives life, vitality and sustenance to the horizontal dimensions of life.
These stories remind me of what is at the core of the Street Psalms Community. In my office, above my desk, hangs a plaque from my ordination into that community. In the very center are the vows of the Street Psalms Community: Action, Reflection and Discernment. The three words are written out in a circle thus equating the essentiality of three activities. The “one thing essential” at the center of it all is the person and work of Jesus. Is it time to order in some pizza?
“All human evil comes from one single cause; man’s inability to sit still in a room”
Blaise Pascal
Joel Van Dyke
Director, Urban Training Collaborative
Guatemala City, Guatemala