“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one.”Luke 10:41,42
I have always been fascinated by the story of Mary and Martha. It’s an episode that only takes a few verses in Luke’s gospel yet it is a source of great insight and wisdom, and a passage that bears continual study and reflection.
The story is a very human one. One sister carrying the burden of all the work and chores that need to be done; another sister who is seemingly goofing off, ignoring the practicalities of life to sit and listen at Jesus’ feet. There are real human emotions on display too. You can feel the frustration and irritation in Martha’s voice as she complains to Jesus about her sister’s neglect of her duties. There is no struggle to identify with Martha and her worries, we relate to them easily.
But it seems to me the most fascinating thing about this episode are Jesus’ words to Martha. He sees right to the core of her struggles, that she is worried and upset about many things. Jesus’ solution to Martha’s worry is to help her to see that “few things are needed—or indeed only one” (Luke 10:42).
Only one thing is needed. That’s the truth that lies at the heart of this story. It’s the truth that Mary has grasped and that Jesus wants Martha to understand. Yet it’s the truth that I find it hardest, perhaps even impossible, to get my head around.
The reason we can identify so easily with Martha is that we, like her, have so many things to attend to. Our lives are full of distractions, worries, concerns and responsibilities. However much we want to simplify our lives, we find ourselves juggling a range of different duties.
Into this situation steps Jesus and tells us that only one thing is needed – and instantly I push back. “Surely you don’t really mean that Jesus? Don’t you know what my life is like? I have a lot of things to look after. How can I only need to focus on one thing?”
Of course, Jesus is fully aware of the complexity of my life, and of yours, just as he was aware of the many concerns of Martha. Yet he still claims only one thing is truly needed. That one thing is what Mary got right: to sit at the feet of Jesus. And this one things brings all the other things into perspective.
You see, I don’t think Jesus was commending Mary because she represented some monastic withdrawal from the world and its worries. Mary still carried on with life after Jesus had visited, and no doubt helped with cooking, cleaning and household chores too. But what Jesus commends is that she gets her priorities right. The one thing that is needed above all is to seek the Lord. The other concerns and complexities of life can wait. Before all else, we come to sit at Jesus’ feet.
Eventually, we will need to pick up the tasks and responsibility of everyday life once again. But if we have gone after the one thing first – Jesus – then we will have the right attitude and perspective to all the other things that need to be done. There are plenty of things that clamour for our action and attention. But one thing is needed before and above all else: to sit and listen at Jesus’ feet.