One Thing Is Necessary

38 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

Jesus is continuing His move toward Jerusalem. Since leaving Galilee, He has traveled through Samaria and is now in Judea, having arrived at the village of Bethany. While Luke does not provide the location for the events recorded in these verses, the apostle John reveals that Mary and Martha lived in the village of Bethany with their brother Lazarus (John 10:1). Sometime later, when Lazarus became deathly ill, the two sisters would beg Jesus to return to their home so that He might heal their brother. But by the time Jesus arrived, Lazarus would die, providing Jesus with the opportunity to display His power and authority over death and the grave.

But on this occasion, Jesus and His disciples visit the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, where they enjoy a much-needed respite from the travels. With His arrival in Bethany, Jesus had gotten within two miles of Jerusalem. Bethany will become Jesus’ unofficial headquarters in Judea as He prepares for the final weeks of His earthly ministry and life. In the days ahead, Mary and Martha will become recurring characters in the story surrounding His final days.

We are not told if Jesus had a previous relationship with these two women and their brother, or if this is His first encounter with them. But Luke reports that “Martha welcomed him into her house” (Luke 10:38 ESV). She played the role of gracious hostess, inviting Jesus and His disciples into her home, where she quickly busied herself with the preparations of a meal. But her sister, Mary, chose to join the disciples as they listened to Jesus teach. It seems clear that both of these women were familiar with Jesus and had some kind of former relationship with His ministry. Perhaps they had encountered Him in the Judean wilderness after His baptism by John.

But Luke’s intention for including this story seems to be based on the diametrically opposed responses of the two women. He presents Martha as an anxious and somewhat driven individual who wants to make a good impression on Jesus and His companions. Luke describes her as being “distracted by the big dinner she was preparing” (Luke 10:40 NLT). It seems obvious that Martha has the gift of hospitality. She is working feverishly to prepare a meal for Jesus and she wants everything to be just right. It almost appears as if Luke is attempting to portray Martha as being driven by a legalistic, works-based mentality. But for Martha, the presence of Jesus in her home presented her with the opportunity to do what she did best: Entertain her guests with a well-cooked meal. It was something she enjoyed doing and it brought her great joy. But Luke makes it clear that Martha was a bit put out that her sister was letting her do all the work. While she was slaving away in the kitchen, Mary was enjoying a relaxing evening in the living room, listening to Jesus teach. This prompted Martha to interrupt Jesus and ask, “Lord, doesn’t it seem unfair to you that my sister just sits here while I do all the work? Tell her to come and help me” (Luke 10:40 NLT).

It’s not difficult to tell that these two women had distinctly different personalities. Martha was a doer. Since the moment Jesus had shown up at her home, she had spent all her time in the kitchen, doing everything in her power to make sure that her guests were well taken care of. The thought of postponing her preparations so she could listen to Jesus teach never crossed her mind. And when she saw her sister doing just that, it made her angry and resentful – perhaps even jealous.

Martha wanted Jesus to take her side and order Mary to come to her assistance. But Jesus does just the opposite. Instead of speaking to Mary, He addresses the disgruntled Martha.

Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things…” – Luke 10:41 ESV

Jesus can sense Martha’s frustration. She is filled with angst and anxiety, and more than a little put out with her sister’s lack of assistance. And Jesus’ words seem to convey that He knows there is more going on than meets the eye. Martha is dealing with far more than just resentment over having to prepare a meal on her own. Jesus reveals that she is “troubled about many things.” He seems to know that all her feverish activity is driven by hidden insecurities an incessant need to earn favor through hard work. And Jesus points out the fact that Martha’s nervous energy, while well-intended, was distracting her from what was really important.

“There is only one thing worth being concerned about. Mary has discovered it, and it will not be taken away from her.” – Luke 10:42 NLT

Whether she realized it or not, Martha had the Messiah of Israel as a guest in her home. But rather than sitting at His feet and listening to Him teach, she was busy trying to impress Him with her culinary skills. Mary represents all those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Matthew 5:6). And as Jesus stated in His sermon on the mount, “they shall be satisfied.” But Martha was busy trying to prepare a meal so that she could feed Jesus. She had reversed the roles. She saw herself as the one responsible for meeting Jesus’ needs and she wanted Mary to assist her. But in doing so, she was missing the whole point of Jesus’ incarnation.

This entire scene is reminiscent of an earlier event in Jesus’ life involving a Samaritan woman whom He had encountered at a well. His disciples had gone into town to get food, leaving Jesus alone with the woman. He had struck up a conversation with the woman by asking her for a drink of water. “The woman was surprised, for Jews refuse to have anything to do with Samaritans” (John 4:9 NLT).

Shocked that Jesus had even spoken to her, the woman responded, “You are a Jew, and I am a Samaritan woman. Why are you asking me for a drink?” (John 4:9 NLT). And Jesus further surprised the woman by stating, “If you only knew the gift God has for you and who you are speaking to, you would ask me, and I would give you living water” (John 4:10 NLT). This prompted a conversation between Jesus and the woman regarding that dealt with what Jesus meant by “living water.”

“…those who drink the water I give will never be thirsty again. It becomes a fresh, bubbling spring within them, giving them eternal life.” – John 4:14 NLT

Jesus was offering the woman something far more significant than ordinary water from a well. He had begun by asking her for a drink of well water but had quickly turned the tables by offering her the source of eternal life. As their conversation progressed, the woman began to grasp the meaning of Jesus’ words. She went from thinking that He was offering her a better source of water to realizing that He was the long-awaited Messiah. She immediately left her water jar at the well and returned to the town where she told everyone she could find “Come and see a man who told me everything I ever did! Could he possibly be the Messiah?” (John 4:29 NLT).

Meanwhile, the disciples returned with food and urged Jesus to eat. But Jesus responded by telling them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about” (John 4:32 ESV). Like the woman who had considered offering Jesus water from her jar, the disciples had attempted to offer Jesus food they had purchased in town. But Jesus surprised them when He said, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work” (John 4:34 ESV).

Jesus didn’t need the woman’s water or the disciples’ food. He had not come to receive but to give. And Martha was learning a similar lesson concerning her relationship with Jesus. He did not need the meal she was so feverishly preparing. But she did need what He had to offer. That’s why He told her, “Mary has discovered it, and it will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:42 NLT). Mary had been sitting at the feet of the Messiah, taking in all that He had to offer. He was feeding her from the rich bounty of His wisdom, satisfying her hunger and thirst for righteousness. She had willingly and submissively come to the true source of all her needs. And, unlike her sister, Mary’s life was marked by peace and security, rather than frenzied activity and anxiety.

This passage is not intended to condemn Martha’s activity or her desire to serve. But it is meant to stress the disciple’s need to rest at the feet of Jesus. He is the source of living water. He is the bread of life. It is He who provides for all our needs and not the other way around. Serving Jesus is commendable. But recognizing our constant need to be served by Him is essential if we are to experience the fulness of life He came to offer. That is why He reminded His disciples, “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45 NLT).

We are to emulate His life of service and sacrifice, but we can only do so when we realize our complete dependence upon Him. When the Samaritan woman returned to her village, she was able to offer her friends living water because she had met the Messiah. After Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, the disciples were able to offer others the bread of life because their hunger for righteousness had been satisfied by Jesus, the bread that came down from heaven (John 6:50).

Mary had recognized that “one thing is necessary” (Luke 10:42). And it would not be long before Martha and all the disciples learned the same invaluable lesson. Jesus is the source of all that we need. He is living water, the bread of life, and the only means by which sinful men and women can be made right with God.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson