Dr. Paul Knudtson
Luke 10 contains a well-known passage about the sisters Mary and Martha welcoming Jesus into their home. In this gospel vignette, we see how Martha becomes irritated when Mary sits listening to Jesus, leaving her to do all the work. She complains to Jesus, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me” (10:40). But instead of telling Mary to help her sister, Jesus says, “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” (10:41-42).
I have always liked this passage of scripture. Perhaps I have liked it because I have especially identified with Mary rather than Martha. I am naturally quiet and reflective, and like sitting still. But I must also admit that I have a lazy streak and so often find it easier to do nothing instead of laboring at burdensome tasks. How easy it is to simply sit in my easy chair in the evening and watch hours of mindless television! To my shame I must say that in weaker moments I have seen myself like Mary, and my energetic, hard-working wife, Elaine, like Martha! Yet this gospel account can hardly be used to praise laziness and to denigrate hard work. Furthermore, countless scriptures can be cited that extol the value of work. The apostle Paul admonishes believers in Thessalonica “to keep away from believers who are living in idleness” (2 Thess 3:6) and even bluntly says that, “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat” (3:10). Jesus is not promoting laziness in his comments to Martha.
More recently I have begun to see Luke 10 quite differently and now see how I more naturally resemble Martha than her sister Mary. That is, like Martha I am “worried and distracted by many things.” Jesus is not criticizing Martha for her industriousness, but for her worry and distraction. My dictionary (Wordsworth) defines worry as, “to be unduly anxious, to fret.” I so often fret and am unduly anxious. When this happens, I often find it hard to care about others the way that I should. I need to learn to become like Mary and sit quietly at the feet of Jesus, listening carefully to what he has to say to me. To do so I must surrender the grip that my worries and distractions have on me.
Evidently welcoming Jesus into our lives has a bearing on how we deal with anxiety. Elsewhere in the gospels Jesus speaks about anxieties that may arise from poverty. He says, “do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” (Matt 6:25). Jesus indicates that worries are related especially to the future, saying, “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today” (Matt 6:34). Jesus invites us to a life in which we give up our worries! What a concept!—worry-free living.
I recently read on a website that P.T.S.D. (post traumatic stress disorder) is often characterized by persistent experiences of anxiety, fear, and depression. Apparently life’s traumas often heighten feelings of anxiety and fear. As I read what was on this website, I wondered if my ongoing struggle with such feelings was due to various traumas that I have experienced in my own life. This may be the case, but I also understand that such emotions are common to all people, and that Jesus’s words apply to me nonetheless.
Readings from various Christian theologians, along with scriptural passages such as the one in Luke 10, help me to consider the relationship between anxiety and my life with Jesus. In his book, The Nature and Destiny of Man (vol. I), Reinhold Niebuhr (referring to Søren Kierkegaard) describes anxiety as the precondition for sin. That is, anxiety is not itself sin, but is a condition in which one is especially vulnerable to sin, especially the sin of unbelief. When we are anxious, we are tempted to give up on God, to turn away from God, to even commit the sin of despair as we surrender completely to our worries. As we see in the gospels, fear and faith do not easily coexist. After calming a storm which threatened to destroy the disciples, Jesus asks them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” (Mark 4:40).
Niebuhr says, “The freedom from anxiety . . . is a possibility only if perfect trust in divine security has been achieved” (p.183). Ted Peters puts it this way: “the person who trusts has what it takes to render anxiety powerless. Faith as trust provides us with a sense of security even if the situation seems threatening. . . . Faith manifests itself in us as courage” (Sin: Radical Evil in Soul and Society, p.66).
Anxiety is a universal human experience. It derives strength from our creaturely vulnerability and mortality. It can either lead us away from God to unbelief, or else it can lead us to God as the only reliable source of peace and joy—or as Peters says, of courage.
Rather than being held a hostage to my worries and cares like Martha, I wish to give these up as I with Mary choose the one thing needed and sit at the feet of Jesus.
“Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:6-7)