Most believers are familiar with the Biblical story that contrasts Martha’s busyness with Mary’s choice to sit at Jesus’ feet. There is no complicated theology here, just a simple story. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Biblical passage challenge people’s sense of practicality the way this one does.
Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. 39 And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. 40 But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” 41 But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, 42 but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38-42 ESV)
Martha welcomed Jesus into her home, but then she was too busy to actually spend time with him. Scripture says she was “distracted with much serving”. She valued Jesus’ presence for herself and for others, but she also had a misguided conviction that many things had to be taken care of for this encounter to be successful. And sadly, she was more committed to her plans than she was to personally connecting with Jesus. Now this is what’s so challenging about this story; if we could examine all the things that Martha was concerned about, each one would probably seem legitimate and worthwhile, but according to Jesus they were not necessary.
Because Martha was overwhelmed with “much serving”, she appealed to Jesus to make Mary help her. Busy people, filled with creative plans and strategies, just love to draw others into being busy with them! They are confident that their busyness is going to accomplish something great and they cannot bear the thought that someone might miss out on being part of it. Martha’s appeal to Jesus sounds like a lot of prayers I’ve heard over the years, “Lord, please help us to do all the things that we are doing for you.” Rather than seeking the Lord, waiting in his presence 1, and letting him work His will in us and through us; we take on all kinds of projects that we have decided will benefit God’s cause and then we ask Jesus to come make them successful.
Jesus’ response of “Martha, Martha” demonstrates a tone of patience and tenderness. Jesus certainly isn’t cross with Martha, it’s more like he’s concerned for her, disappointed that she’s choosing the wrong thing and missing out on what really matters. He goes on to reveal something incredibly profound when he tells Martha that “one thing is necessary” and “Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her”.
The Bible has much to say about doing the work of the Lord 2. So, this story isn’t telling us that all Jesus ever wants us to do is sit in His presence. The take-away message is that the “good portion”, the “one necessary thing”, is the Lord Himself. Sitting at Jesus’ feet and listening to his teaching is not the goal, it is the means to the goal. The goal is Jesus Christ himself; to be joined to the Lord and to be one spirit with him 3. Genuine relationship with Jesus is the means to all that God desires us to be, and all that God desires us to do.
Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life”. (John 14:6 ESV)
Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. (John 15:4 ESV)
And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. (John 17:3 ESV)
For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. (Colossians 3:3 ESV)
I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. (Galatians 2:20 ESV)
Our greatest need is to be rightly connected to Jesus Christ. He is the head, and we are his body. Everything we need proceeds from him 4. He is the one necessary thing. Yet it’s disturbing how easy it is to get immersed in the Christian lifestyle and have little interaction with Christ himself.
The pragmatic sensibilities of many people are seriously challenged by the simple message communicated in the story of Martha and Mary. It’s very tempting to operate in a spirit of self-sufficiency, trusting in our own creativity and organized efforts. It’s hard to actually be still and let go; to focus on the Lord and choose to rely on him. This is more of a trust issue than it is a faith issue. We must let go of what we want to happen, and even what we think needs to happen. We must let him do what he wants, how he wants, when he wants. We must guard our hearts, so that ultimately, we aren’t seeking him for what he can do, we’re seeking him because he is the desire of our heart.
I once heard a pastor say that if he had a dozen Martha’s he could build an amazing church. This is sad. Not because he didn’t understand this particular passage, but because he didn’t seem to understand what makes an amazing church. If what he envisions building would prosper more with a bunch of Martha’s than it would with a bunch of Mary’s, then whatever he is devoted to building isn’t really what the Lord is looking for.
Many churches are devoted to getting people connected and committed to their church. The primary means to accomplish this is to get people socially connected as well as engaged in various church activities. When they see someone busily engaged in church activity, they feel quite confident that they are locked in and doing well. While there is a concerted effort to get people connected to their church, cultivating devotion to Jesus himself seems to suffer. Francis Chan once asked if we had redefined disciples as people who are faithful to our stuff 5.
But I am afraid that, as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, your minds will be led astray from the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ. (2 Corinthians 11:3 NASB)
The apostle Paul gave himself fully to the work of God. He was used by God to carry the message of Christ to the known world of his time. He performed many miraculous healings and even raised someone from the dead. He had amazing revelations and wrote a large portion of the New Testament. His life accomplishments are truly amazing! Yet his compelling desire was to know Jesus Christ. Not just to do things for him, not just to know about him, but to know him. Just like Mary, Paul understood that the one necessary thing and the good portion was Jesus Christ himself.
Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ. 10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death. (Philippians 3:8, 10 ESV)
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- “Seek the LORD and His strength; Seek His face continually.” (Psalms 105:4 NASB) “From of old no one has heard or perceived by the ear, no eye has seen a God besides you, who acts for those who wait for him.” (Isaiah 64:4 ESV)
- “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” (1 Corinthians 15:58 ESV)
- “But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him.” (1 Corinthians 6:17 ESV)
- “And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, 23which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” (Ephesians 1:22-23 ESV)
- Francis Chan, Letters To The Church, (David C Cook, 2018)