There’s a memorable scene in the movie “City Slickers” where the grizzled cow hand Curly played by Jack Palance passes on his wisdom to Mitch, played by Billy Crystal. It goes like this:
Curly: Do you know what the secret of life is? [holds up one finger]
Mitch: Your finger?
Curly: One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and the rest don’t mean [bleep].
Mitch: But, what is the “one thing?”
Curly: [smiles] That’s what you have to find out.
There’s an only slightly less opaque conversation between Jesus and Martha that appears in the Gospel of Luke (10:38-42). In that story, Jesus and his disciples are welcomed at the home of sisters Martha and Mary. While Jesus is sharing his message with the assembled guests, Mary is plopped down at his feet, listening attentively while Martha is “preoccupied” with getting everything ready for dinner. Martha’s not too happy about this arrangement and takes it up directly with Jesus.
Martha came to him and said, ‘Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to prepare the table all by myself? Tell her to help me.’ The Lord answered, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things. One thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the better part. It won’t be taken away from her.’
Most biblical scholars pit Mary and Martha’s tasks against each other, either asserting that clearly contemplation and study are of higher value than domestic work, or, in the case of feminist scholars, pointing out that everyone would have gone hungry if Martha hadn’t been in the kitchen doing work that men have typically negated or taken for granted. I’m not so sure Jesus was dismissing domestic work in favor of contemplation so much as he was urging Martha to focus on the “one thing” that was important to her in that moment rather than being “worried and distracted by many things.” My suspicion is that if Martha had been peaceful in her meal preparation, doing what she could do by herself without succumbing to the pressure of time while allowing Mary to do what was important to her in the moment, Jesus would have honored her choice as much as Mary’s.
In his text Four Seasons of Ministry, Bruce Epperly notes the need for healthy balance in ministry and quotes Charles Hummel on the importance of finding “freedom from the tyranny of the urgent.” (62) Our Buddhist sisters and brothers teach the freedom that comes from doing even mundane tasks mindfully, as this mindfulness brings a sense of inner quiet. In Holy Adventure, Epperly notes that “the church as the body of Christ exists to join seamlessly the inner journey of contemplation and the outer journey of action in its vocation as God’s partner in bringing healing and wholeness to all creation.” (123)
Maybe if we can learn to do just the one thing that is necessary in every moment, we’ll bring more healing and wholeness to our lives and the lives of those around us.
I think even Curly and Mitch might agree.