Sitting Still

© Michael Clarkson, 2019.  Preached at St. John’s Ithaca, July 21, 2019, for Proper 11, Year C, Track 1.  Texts:  Amos 8:1-12Psalm 52; Colossians 1:15-28; Luke 10:38-42.  Image: Christ in the House of Martha and Mary by Jan Brueghel the Younger and Peter Paul Rubens.

I’d like to tell you a lesser-known story about Martha and Mary.

The two sisters are students at the University of Virginia, where they both took an Introduction to Psychology class last year.  As usual in such classes, there was an opportunity to sign up for extra-credit studies in which researchers performed experiments on them.  Though the sisters are rather different in temperament, they tended to sign up for the same studies, and this one was no exception.

Mary went first.  The researcher had Mary empty her pockets, and leave behind her backpack, her watch, her cell phone, and so forth.  Mary entered a room that was about as empty as you can imagine—just four blank walls, a chair, and a button on the arm of the chair.  The researcher gave Mary a simple task:  to sit in the chair for 20 minutes, not getting up, not falling asleep, and trying to think pleasant thoughts.  Before leaving, the researcher said, “Oh, and about that button:  why don’t you go ahead and give it a press now while I’m here.  Don’t be alarmed, but it will give you a mild electrical shock.”  Mary gingerly pressed it, and indeed, it was not pleasant.  She wasn’t sure “mild” had been the right description.  Smiling in sympathy, the researcher asked, “I bet you’d pay money not to feel that again.”  Mary nodded in agreement.  The researcher left the room, and Mary settled in the chair.  She spent the next 20 minutes doing her best not to fall asleep, not to get up, and to think pleasant thoughts.  To be honest, her thoughts went everywhere—the exam she had on Friday, the snide comment Martha had made earlier that day, the Instagram posts she was missing from her friends right now on her phone—but, Mary had always had a certain stillness about her, a comfort with quiet, and as her breathing slowed, so did her thoughts.  When the researcher came back in, Mary thought maybe it had only been 10 minutes, but the researcher assured her the full 20 was up.  Mary had to fill out a survey about the experience, then she got her phone back (yay!), and went back to the lobby to wait for her sister.

Martha meanwhile had been shown into a similar room, given the same instructions, had pressed the button and yelped, growling at the researcher, “How is that ethical?  I could’ve hurt myself.”  Trying to be comforting, the researcher said, “I bet you’d pay money not to feel that again.”  “Duh,” was Martha’s response.  Martha’s 20 minutes began.  It was hard for her.  She never was one for sitting still.  She squirmed in the chair.  Gosh it was uncomfortable.  She shook her ankles to get some movement.  She tried closing her eyes, but that didn’t last long.  Bored, bored, bored.  How long had it been?  She went to check her phone, but, right, it wasn’t there.  Her thoughts kept cycling, the same things coming up over and over.  She was still mad at her sister about that thing this morning in the dining hall.  OMG the time was going so slowly.  Mad.  Really mad.  I mean, how could she?!  Gah.  So dumb.  Oh, what the heck:  and she pushed the button.  BZZZ.  Ouch.  Huh, okay, maybe don’t do that again.  This went on for an interminable time, until the researcher finally came back in, and Martha bounded up out of the chair.  On the survey afterwards, Martha wrote, “The button sure hurt, but it was better than doing nothing.”

A couple years later, when the researcher published her results, it turned out 25% of women had done the same thing as Martha (shock themselves), and about 70% of men.   The researcher said an interview about the work, “It’s not that we can never enjoy thinking.  But something about doing it on command, at a certain time—and deliberately—is really, really hard.  It may be that our minds … are not designed to withdraw from the environment, to withdraw from the people around us and to focus inwards.”

That’s the end of my lesser-known story about Mary and Martha.  It’s a true story, other than my insertion of their particular characters.[1]  The research was published in the journal Science back in 2014.   The final sentence of the abstract read, “Most people seem to prefer to be doing something rather than nothing, even if that something is negative.”

That conclusion would not have shocked another scientist, Blaise Pascal.  In addition to inventing a mechanical calculator, the roulette wheel, and doing so much work on measuring the pressure that the standard unit for it is actually named after him, Pascal was also a theologian.  In 1654, about four centuries before that psychology experiment, Pascal wrote,

“I have discovered that all the unhappiness of [humankind] arises from one single fact, that [we] cannot [sit] quietly in [our] own [rooms]…We are full of things which take us out of ourselves.  Our instinct makes us feel that we must seek our happiness outside ourselves.  Happiness is neither without us nor within us. It is in God.”[2]

And that conclusion would not have shocked Jesus.  “There is need of only one thing,” he said to Martha, leaving it up to her and to us to puzzle out what that might be.  A puzzle it is:  the Greek source of that sentence has enough variants in ancient biblical manuscripts that the editor of the NRSV reports the translation committee had trouble deciding which variant to include in our bibles.  Some variants even omit that statement about “one thing”, about which the editor comments, “[those omissions in ancient sources] probably represents a deliberate [removal] of an incomprehensible passage.”[3]

One strand of Christian tradition has taken Jesus’ “one thing” to mean that action is inferior to contemplation:[4]  that it’s better to be the disciple listening at Jesus’ feet, than to be the servant working in the world.[5]  A reaction to that tradition is to try and “fix” this Gospel reading.  After all, Jesus can’t possibly be saying action is bad.  Last week’s Gospel reading of the Good Samaritan even ended with, “Go and do likewise.”  Think of all the good ministries we carry out:  feeding the hungry at Loaves and Fishes, serving the needy with Laundry Love, writing letters to support other faith communities and to petition our elected officials, and all the other works known and unknown that take place in this parish to realize the Kingdom of God.  How can action like that be bad, or not as important?

The answer to that question is found in all four readings today, though in the interest of time I’ll spare you the hour-long version of this sermon.[6]  In Luke, that answer is found when Martha is described as “distracted” and “worried.”  The NRSV translation in verse 41 is tame:  other choices would be terrified, panicked, to make a clamor or uproar.[7]

Martha’s ministry is not bad.  Her action is not bad.  But she’s lost focus.  She’s become so distraught, so wrapped up in the externals of that ministry, that she’s attacking her sister Mary, and even implicitly attacking Jesus (who had the audacity to let Mary be his disciple instead of help Martha).  For the moment she’s doing the right thing for the wrong reasons.  Like how observing the religious festivals in Amos is supposed to be the right thing, but is not right if the entire time one is distracted by thoughts of exploiting the poor and needy after the weekend is finally over.  There can be no religion without justice, no ministry without love.[8]

Jesus’ remedy for that is the one needful thing, the better part:  himself.  Focus on Jesus, on the Word of God incarnate, as the source and end of all actions.  In a word, pray.  Prayer will ground the work we do.[9]  Prayer will transform our hearts and orient our actions rightly.  Prayer is the foundation of Christian discipleship.  That is what Jesus is teaching us today in this story about Mary and Martha.  He’ll teach us more in next Sunday’s Gospel, when he gives us the Lord’s Prayer.  I think it’s no accident that Luke puts these three stories—the Good Samaritan, Mary and Martha, and the Lord’s Prayer—right next to one another.  Together, they show us that prayer is the foundation of Christian discipleship; and action, its completion.

A final thought: In response to Jesus, in solidarity with Mary and Martha, I’d like to invite you to do something this week.[10]  Spend 20 minutes sitting in your room quietly, without getting up, and with as little external distraction as possible.  Be gentle with yourself.  Whatever thoughts might come, let them come.  Then ever so softly, turn back to Jesus.  When it’s over, when that time of prayer is complete, take a moment to note how you feel.  I’m going to do the same thing this week.  Next Sunday, feel free to let me or someone else know how it went.  I’m looking forward to it.


Reid, Barbara.  “Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C.”  In The Lectionary Commentary, vol. 3, Eerdmans, 2001.

Bartlett, David. L., and Taylor, Barbara Brown, eds.  Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, vol. 3. Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.


About the Science article:

About Pascal:


[1] See References section for links.

[2] Pascal, Pensées 139 and 464, Dutton, 1958.  Michael Moriarity points out (see References) that the first sentence, which is so often quoted in isolation on the Internet, is incomplete until placed in context with the rest of the excerpt.

[3] Bruce Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, second edition, 1994, paragraph on Lk 10:41.

[4] “This interpretation not only is the earliest, but has been the majority view” [p. 127].  David Grumett, Action and/or contemplation? Allegory and liturgy in the reception of Luke 10:38-42, Scottish Journal of Theology 59(2), 2006, p. 125-139.

[5] The portrayal of Mary and Martha here is potentially startling.  The phrase used in verse 39 about Mary, “sat at the Lord’s feet,” means that she was taking on a role at that time reserved for men.  Likewise, twice in verse 40 a particular word is used in connection with Martha. The first time it’s translated “many tasks”, the second “do the work”, but in Greek it’s the same root word both times:  diakonos, meaning a servant, including a waiter at the table, or a minister in a sacred sense.  It’s the origin of the word deacon.  So you could read Martha as being annoyed at having to prepare and serve a large meal for Jesus and his friends.  Or, you could skip ahead to the book of Acts (which is written by the same author as the Gospel of Luke), where in chapter 6 you would find the apostles ordaining seven men as the first official deacons; in which case, you could read Martha as being an even earlier deacon of the church.  Reid (2001) offers a theory of this story being used to exclude women from ministry in the early church.

[6] Summary:  It’s in Amos, where the elite are observing the letter of the law while meanwhile plotting to get back to exploitation of the people.  It’s in the Psalm, when the unnamed tyrant trusts in wealth rather than mercy.  It’s in Colossians—as we’ll find out next week when we continue reading from it—because the people of that church want to put their trust not in Jesus alone but in other places.


[8] “Religion without justice is an affront to the God of Israel.”  The Catholic Study Bible, third ed., Oxford, 2016, p. 1265.

[9] St. Benedict had a phrase for that:  ora et labora, prayer and work.  His rule, now over 1500 years old, guided monks and nuns to balance prayer and work in their daily lives.  But prayer was the Godly work to which nothing was to be preferred [Rule, ch. 43].

[10] This is of course a thinly veiled invitation to centering prayer.  See Thomas Keating, Open Mind, Open Heart: The Contemplative Dimension of the Gospel, 20th anniversary ed., 2006.  Also see Martin Laird, Into the Silent Land: A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation, 2006.