Don’t Just Do Something…

This is a painting of a familiar Bible story told in Luke’s gospel about Jesus’ visit to sisters Mary and Martha. Mary is praised by Christ for her willingness to sit at his feet and listen to his teachings. Martha, however, is up and about, concerned with food preparation and housekeeping.

The work is by Johannes Vermeer who was considered one of the greatest painters of the Dutch Golden Age, even though he didn’t paint very many pieces (only 40 are known). It is one of his earliest and largest works and the only one portraying a biblical theme. In order to marry his wife, he needed to convert to Catholicism from Calvinism. They went on to have 15 children, four of them died in infancy. It is believed Vermeer died from depression as the Franco-Dutch war made the demand for art drop to nearly zero. He found himself unable to care for his large family and his wife wrote that “…he lapsed into such decay and decadence [that] in a day and a half he went from being healthy to being dead.” His most famous painting is Girl with a Pearl Earring, which was the subject of a movie of the same name in 2013.

As is often the case, there are a few symbolisms in this painting to point out. Mary is looking intently at Jesus, resting her head on her hand and leaning against an oriental carpet. Carpets were rare and quite expensive in the 17th century. By painting this elaborate carpet into the setting, Vermeer is hinting at the spiritual richness of Mary. Martha, on the other hand, is dressed in plain white sleeves standing over a plain white tablecloth. She holds a basket of bread which is oftentimes linked to Jesus as “the bread of life” but it seems Martha misses this symbolism and perhaps only thinks of the loaf as something she is expected to prepare for her guest. Jesus points to Mary as he looks to Martha, perhaps saying something like this: “Please, have a seat. Take the load off. Put away your ‘to-do’ list and rest—and listen.”

Being Human connection: Therein lies the lesson for all of us. Stop, listen, and be blessed. There will always be something we need to do but we grow spiritually richer when we recognize the voice of our Savior inviting us to be still. His invitation isn’t, “Don’t just sit there. Do something.” Rather is it, “Don’t just do something, sit there.”

Featured art: Johannes Vermeer, Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, 1655, © Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh