One necessity exists: Martha and Mary

I worry about many things.

I am busy and anxious. I complain about the fact that other people are not helping me. I seldom know how to stop my activities. I feel that if I don’t do it, it won’t get done.

What does the Bible say about this attitude of mine? I can think of no better passage than the account in Luke 10 of Jesus’ interaction with Martha (me) and Mary (not me). What does this passage have to say about my life?

(Luke 10:38-42 ESV) Martha and Mary

[38] Now as they went on their way, Jesus(1) 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.(2) Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.”

(1) 10:38 Greek *he*
(2) 10:42 Some manuscripts *few things are necessary, or only one*

Why does Martha question Jesus instead of Mary?

I am intrigued that Martha asks Jesus for Mary’s help, instead of asking Mary directly. I think Martha is addressing Jesus because Martha does not place primary blame onto Mary for the lack of help. Rather, the phrases “Lord, do you not care” along with “Tell her then” show that that Martha is blaming Jesus for letting Mary ignore her duties. I think Martha’s reasoning and emotions are apparent given her choice of words. In Martha’s mind, Jesus should know that works and service are preeminent. Furthermore, Jesus should know that Martha is slaving away for Jesus all alone. Perhaps Martha can understand her sister being enamored with Jesus like a star-struck fan. After all, Martha wants to spend time with Jesus if only she had extra time. But that is just not the responsible thing to do when there is so much duty to perform. So, how can Jesus her Lord ignore Martha’s plight and condone Mary’s dereliction ? How can Jesus ignore such injustice and unfairness?

How prone I am to blame Jesus and those around me for my busyness. How prone I am to build resentment towards God and his people for causing stress in my life? How prone I am to decide what is fair and what is not.

Jesus responds with a perfectly accurate assessment of Martha’s state of mind, and tells her that she needs one thing. I am Martha, concerned with all the obligations of this world. I am not plotting nefarious plans but rather busy with service. I cannot slow down. Surely what I need is help! Either the natural help through Mary’s labor or perhaps Martha is hinting at Jesus for supernatural help. Well Jesus, if you are not going to tell Mary to help then maybe you can just turn the water into wine and turn the stone into bread.

If you loved me Jesus, you would not leave me alone in this mess.

So what is the one thing I need?

One necessity exists. The footnotes mention textual variation so let’s touch on that first. Interestingly, the NIV (2011) must be using what the ESV calls “some manuscripts,” and the ESV (2011) is using what the NIV calls “some manuscripts.” The respective translators appear to be differing on what they believe is the more accurate manuscript, so here’s the NIV.

(Luke 10:38-42 NIV) At the Home of Martha and Mary

38 As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him.39 She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said.40 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!”

41 “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things,42 but few things are needed—or indeed only one.[a] Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

Luke 10:42 Some manuscripts but only one thing is needed

I will forgo trying to track down textual variants, since there is no difference in meaning either way. The meaning of Jesus’ words are clear: one thing is necessary.

Jesus does not spell out what that one thing is. However given the context it is obvious. The one necessary thing is the “good portion” that Mary has chosen. Between ESV’s “good” and NIV’s “better” I believe “good” is the better translation. I have no knowledge of Greek but a simple search in Strong’s concordance shows that this word is the very common greek word used numerous times in the New Testament to mean “good.” Like the good tree that bears good fruit. Or the good soil among the four kinds of soil.

What is this good portion that will not be taken away despite the obvious pressing opportunities for duty and service? What could possibly be the “good” piece of the pie if the rest of the pie is time-sensitive Christian duty? Once again context makes obvious that the good portion is what Mary is doing, as opposed to the things Martha was doing.

“sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching.”

This–sitting besides the Lord and listening to him–is the good portion. Not only is this the good portion, it is the one necessary thing.

I have scores of obligations in my life. Multiple tasks to complete this day, some this very hour. And in the midst of all of those important non-evil things to do–some of them acts of Christian service–what is the one thing I need?

Sit beside the Lord and listen.

I struggle with the difference between need and want.

Jesus is very clear, using the Greek word that is unambiguously translated as need. (Once again, I do not know Greek and I am just relying on Strong’s concordance.) In my Christian walk, I clearly categorize things into want and need this way:

  • Need : performing duties
  • Want : spending time with God

Jesus categorizes our needs very differently.

  • the one need : spending time with God
  • not the one need : performing duties

Obviously, Jesus is right. Time and again I find that my performance of any duties are either anxiety filled or anxiety driven if I have not been spending time with God. Conversely, if I am spending time with God I am at peace as I perform any duty even if they are performed at a hectic pace.

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