Posted by: Philip Rushton | August 26, 2014

Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There

“Don’t just do something, sit there.” – Sylvia Boorstein

This phrase acted as the theme for our prayer retreat earlier this month. We began our retreat by reflecting on the story of Mary and Martha in Luke chapter 10, which illustrates this controversial idea that contemplation needs to take priority over action. Since I just spent the last two weeks on vacation trying to live out this mantra, I’m finding myself rather swamped as I step back into the office. So I thought I would publish the short reflection I used during our prayer retreat on the blog and invite a broader audience into the conversation.

Martha has just welcomed Jesus and his twelve disciples into her home and is anxiously trying to be a good host. Meanwhile her sister Mary is sitting at Jesus’ feet. Finding this to be unfair, she confronts Jesus saying, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” Jesus then responds saying, “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.”

I’m not sure how you react to this story, but I often feel like coming to Martha’s defense. She is trying to be a good host. In this culture there were high expectations placed on the matron of the house to provide food. Jesus has just shown up at her home with twelve disciples. That is a lot of people to feed. She is working hard to serve her guests and her sister Mary isn’t helping her out.

If I tried to pull this off at home on a regular basis it would not be very fair. If James started to have a meltdown while Julie was trying to finish making food for a dinner party, I don’t think it would be right to tell Julie I couldn’t help out because I was having a meaningful prayer session in the basement.

I am not convinced that this story is meant to discount the importance of work and service. We need to read this story in the context of the other things Jesus teaches. In fact, in the verses leading up to this passage Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan. This is the story of someone who sacrificially cares for a man who has been beaten and robbed. Fred B. Craddock writes, “If we were to ask Jesus which example applies to us, the Samaritan or Mary, his answer would probably be ‘yes.'”

This passage, then, does not say that we shouldn’t pull our own weight, or sacrificially serve others. The purpose is to correct an unhealthy balance that can happen in our lives. I think there is a reason why this story is inserted right after the Good Samaritan story. We need to find a balance between action and contemplation.

The problem with Martha is that she is overly worried and distracted. She is so caught up in the tasks she has to do that she is unable to be present with Jesus. The problem is not her hospitality. The problem is that she is so consumed with getting things done that she misses out on the more important things of life. The people in her life, including Jesus, take a back seat to her to do-list.

I think Jesus is being intentionally provocative here. He is trying to jolt Martha out of her ingrained pattern of living by being controversial. He does this a lot in the gospels. He will use a hyperbole, or a bold statement to make people re-evaluate their priorities, or see the seriousness of the situation. Jesus, then, interrupts the status quo to help Martha see how important discipleship is. He reminds her that a relationship with God is more important than all of the other tasks we have to do.

If Jesus had to boldly confront the problem of spiritual distraction 2000 years ago, how much more do we need to confront the problem in our day. Martha had a lot on her plate without the added distractions of television, computers, and smart phones. There are so many things in our lives that make it hard for us to sit at the feet of Jesus.

I recently read an article by Nicholas Carr where he summarizes a numbers studies that talk about the way in which technology is making us distracted. He writes:

“When we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning. Even as the Internet grants us easy access to vast amounts of information, it is turning us into shallower thinkers, literally changing the structure of our brain.”

Along with the issue of distraction, there is also the issue of busyness. We value productivity in our culture. When I ask people how they are doing, one of the most common answers is that they are “keeping busy.” Busyness makes us feel like we have value. We want to show that we are doing something important. If we are not busy or productive because of health issues or unemployment we often feel guilty. I have to admit that I even add stuff to my to-do list just so that I can have the satisfaction of crossing it out.

Like Martha, though, this fixation on constantly being busy can cause us to overlook the more important things in life. James has taught me a lot about this. On Monday evenings we often go to the park together, but we don’t always make it. He sometimes likes to stop at the small courtyard at St Stephens church. There is a small fountain and a statue of St. Francis. He will sometimes spend a half hour doing basically nothing. He likes to run around in circles and touch the fountain. I often find myself getting frustrated. I want our play time to be productive. We have a park to get to, with slides and swings. Why are we just sitting here? James, however, has learned the art of enjoying the moment. He doesn’t have a checklist to get through.

Thankfully Jesus provides us with a different way to approach life. He overturns the value system of the world, and replaces it with something different. In a world that constantly says, “don’t just sit there, do something,” Jesus says, “don’t just do something, sit there.”

Jesus even says that this is more important than having a busy schedule. He tells Martha that Mary has chosen a better way. I think we need to affirm this more often. I rarely see people being affirmed for saying ‘no’ to things, or taking time for rest. In a world so fixated on productivity, we need to recover a voice that affirms the value of contemplation and rest.

John and I meet for coffee on Mondays and I often ask him what he needs me to do or how I can be helpful to him. Before our vacation he responded to my inquiry by saying, “the best way you can be helpful is to have a good vacation and take care of your family.” This is a very countercultural statement to hear from your boss. It is very similar to what Jesus says to Martha. John jolted me out of my protestant-work-ethic-mindset and reminded me that there is value in taking time to not just do something but sit there. He reminded me that rest is actually important and helpful.

I think the reason why Jesus says that Mary has chosen the better way is because contemplation is a necessary prerequisite for action. The reality is that when we take time to sit at the feet of Jesus we begin to discern what he is calling us to do. We are able to re-enter the world of work from a healthier place. Contemplation gives us, among other things, perspective, self-awareness, guidance, and strength.

So friends, as we enter a busy time of the year, let’s not forget the value of contemplation. In the midst of our busy and distracted world don’t just do something, sit there!


  1. Yes Yes Yes!!
    Can James preach next time? I love your story about him and I so totally relate. Thanks, Phil.

  2. As I read this I recalled that some of the best times I had with our children was unstructured. They had the agenda and I followed along. And that’s certainly a good model for faith. Thanks.

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