One Thing Is Needed

Luke 10:38-42

As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her”  (Luke 10:38-42).

Martha was simply being Martha. She was Mary’s older sister (and we’ll learn from John’s Gospel, the sister of Lazarus as well). Notice, it was her home, she was the hostess to this gathering. She had invited them to stay at her home in Bethany. Imagine having an extra 13 men as your houseguests – extra food, extra beds, extra work.

We’ve had Diana’s brother and family come to visit in the past – Larry, Connie Zinck – they’re missionaries in Rio de Janeiro – and when they come, they come packed for two months in the states. So basically, they carry everything they need to live on with them – plus all of the Christmas presents and extra purchases they’ve made in the states while they’ve been here. Now, two isn’t that big a deal. But when their boys were younger – and they have four of them – that’s six people with two enormous suitcases each in a 15-passenger van come driving up. And when they unloaded into our house – and we had our own three at home – the house was overflowing. And it was a huge production keeping everybody fed and enough clean towels and finding places for everyone to sleep. They were wonderful houseguests and we loved having them come. But it just takes a lot of extra work. Well, you can imagine.

And I can imagine how Martha must have felt having her house full of extra houseguests. She wanted them there, mind you – it’s not that she resented them being there. But that’s a lot of extra work and stress that went with the invitation to come and stay at her home.

She is busy preparing a meal. And I don’t mean she was in her kitchen microwaving a frozen Stouffer’s lasagna. Sure, Jesus can feed 5000 with just five loaves and two fish, but for Martha to feed 15, she had to begin early in the day, gathering firewood, killing a dozen chickens and dressing and plucking them, and going to the market to buy vegetables and fruit and bread – they didn’t have pantries and refrigerators – everything you needed for the day had to be purchased or prepared that day. So just one meal – and for that many people – was a daunting task. And she’s been at it since before dawn that morning. Are you exhausted just thinking about it?

And you know how houseguests are – “Martha, where do you keep the towels? Martha, you’re out of Diet Coke! Martha, Thomas spilled on the sofa! Martha, will you bring us some more of those hot wings? Martha…!” Have you been there? Even though you love your company, after a couple of days you want to stuff them back into their suitcases and push them out the front door.

Really, though, have you been there? Are you that conscientious older sister who is always glad to have the big family gatherings at your house – but you’re a nervous wreck before anyone even arrives, and a basket case after they leave? Or maybe you have the older sister who invites you to come, and you never do understand why she is always so stressed out while you are there.

So, when Luke says that “Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made” he was making an understatement. Martha was up to her neck with all the work that had to be done – and she wasn’t getting any help.

In the meantime, Jesus is in the other room with all of his disciples gathered around him, teaching them. And don’t forget, wherever Jesus is, who is also close by? The crowds. Picture in your mind – Jesus sitting surrounded by disciples and everyone else who could crowd in – and those who couldn’t were standing at the doors and windows listening (probably a lot like the gathering in the house in Luke 5, where it was so crowded the four friends had to climb up and dig a hole through the roof to let their paralyzed friend down to Jesus.)

And Martha walks in on this, which is bad enough, but she looks over the crowd, and who is sitting on the front row at Jesus’ feet? Her sister Mary. And that’s it – she’s had it. She shoves her way through the crowd, past Peter, past Matthew, past them all, and plants her feet in front of Jesus and says, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” I probably didn’t do a good job of inflecting the frustration and bottled anger. After all, you can’t get mad at Jesus – but everybody is just sitting there, including Mary, while she’s been working all day to fix a meal and everything else that has to be done, and she is on her last raw nerve.

If you had never read this story before – and before you look back at Jesus’ response – what would you expect him to say? Jesus is a responsible person – he certainly has always taught and modeled the importance of serving others. In fact, in the parable of the Good Samaritan that immediately precedes this story, Jesus highlighted two religious men who chose religious duties over serving their fellow man, and chose wrong.

I would have guessed that Jesus would look at Mary and say, “Mary, Martha’s right – you need to get in there and help out.” Or, what most of you women might hope Jesus would say is, “Guys, Martha’s right – let’s all get in there and help get this meal on!”  Whatever answer he gives, my bet is that he will affirm the importance and priority of serving. But he doesn’t. Instead, Jesus says, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

I want to make sure you don’t misunderstand what Jesus is saying.

He’s not rebuking Martha and telling her to quit whining. There is a kindness and compassion in his voice when he says, “Martha, Martha.” And he recognizes that she has invested a lot of herself in the preparations for the meal and for their stay – “you are worried and upset about many things.” I think Jesus truly appreciated what she had done to serve and honor him.

Jesus isn’t advocating laziness, or belittling the one who serves, in preference for the one who sits.

But at the same time, Jesus reframes her focus. It’s not that all of the work that needs to be done isn’t important, it’s just that under the circumstances, it’s not the most important.

If Jesus came to your house, would you be more concerned with the house or with Jesus? Would you spend more time feeding him a meal, or in being fed by the words from his mouth?

Martha was so distracted with all of the work that needed to be done, she didn’t stop to focus on Jesus. And so Jesus reminds her, “only one thing is needed.” What is that one thing? It is what Mary has chosen – to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen.

The Pharisees will complain that Jesus’ disciples don’t fast like they do. And Jesus will tell them, you don’t mourn while the bridegroom is with you – you celebrate. In a few months – in this very house – Mary will break a jar of expensive perfume to anoint Jesus feet, and Judas will complain about what a waste it is – how it should have been sold to feed the poor. And Jesus will reply, “You will always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me.” Is fasting wrong? Is benevolence wrong? Is serving wrong? Not at all – but when Jesus is with you, there is one thing that is needed – to be with him. It is a reminder that the “good” things often compete with the “best” thing for our time and attention.

What an incredible moment – to have Jesus with you – to spend time at his feet listening and learning. Martha was so busy she couldn’t see it. And so Jesus calms her down and brings her back.

I’m a lot like Martha. I get busy – and the truth is, a lot of the stuff I get busy with is in the name of serving Jesus. I get so busy with the “many things” that I lose track of the “one thing that is needed” – spending time with Jesus. Personal devotion gets sidetracked by preparing sermons. Prayer gets postponed by visiting the sick. Time with Jesus gets trampled under by the busy-ness of Jesus’ church.

Are sermons and visiting and church-work important? Absolutely. Are they most important? Absolutely not. Time with Jesus is the “one thing that is needed.” If you are shortchanging that for anything else, you have been distracted by the “many things” that captured Martha’s attention and heart.

We need discernment and balance. The Priest and the Levite should have missed church in order to stop and care for the man who lay beaten by the side of the road. Martha should have taken off her apron and sat down at Jesus’ feet.

I’m not telling you to sit and visit with your friends at the church potluck while others are working in the kitchen. And I’m not justifying you missing church to work on your neighbor’s car. Wisdom is knowing what is most important.

The question is, do you know what is most important? Have you prioritized your life in a way that you know when to choose the one thing over the many things? Do the choices you make intentionally draw you nearer to Jesus? Or do you find yourself frustrated and upset by the choices you make, while knowing in your heart that Jesus would really have you choose something else?

I was amused by a plaque I read about near Hodgenville, KY marking the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln. On the plaque is recorded this scrap of conversation:

"Any news down t' the village, Ezry?"
"Well, Squire McLains's gone t' Washington t' see Madison swore in, and ol' Spellman tells me this Bonaparte fella has captured most o' Spain. What's new out here, neighbor?"
"Nothin', nothin' a'tall, 'cept fer a new baby born t' Tom Lincoln's. Nothin' ever happens out here."

Some events, whether birthdays in Hodgenville (or Bethlehem) or spiritual rebirth in a person's life, may not create much earthly splash, but those of lasting importance will eventually get the notice they deserve.

God isn’t just working where all the action is – sometimes he works in the quiet of our prayer closet, or in the dogged-eared pages of our Bible – where nothing much happens… except the transformation of a soul.

This has been a challenging passage for me. I’ve wrestled with it and wrestled with myself. Truth be told, I’m more like Martha than Mary, and I need to be brought back to Jesus’ feet and reminded of the one thing that is needed. And maybe you do too.