Only One Thing Is Needed (Luke 10:42a)
"... but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her." (10:42)
The next phrase, "only one thing is needed," is a bit obscure. This is one of the passages in the New Testament where there are a number of textual variants. One of the variant readings is: "but few things are needed -- or only one" (NIV mg.). One question is: What did Jesus mean by "one thing"? Is he referring to the one spiritual goal, or to a single dish rather than multiple dishes that Martha may have been preparing in order to show special honor to her guest? We're not sure.
What we do know, however, is that Martha is gently corrected by Jesus, and Mary's choice to sit at Jesus' feet and listen to him teach is affirmed. When you think about it, that response is the one you wouldn't really expect Jesus to make.
After all, Mary IS shirking her responsibilities to help her sister prepare the meal. In Jesus' culture (and most others), fixing meals is considered part of a woman's responsibility. And a woman being taught the Torah was frowned upon. I am sure that Jesus' disciples would have expected him to side with Martha here, and say something like: "Mary, your sister has a lot on her hands. Why don't you get up and help her; and it would mean a great deal to her" -- or something like that.
It is really remarkable that Jesus DOESN'T encourage Mary to help Martha. This isn't the first time that Jesus has cut across his culture's expectations about familial responsibility in order to make a point that will be remembered:
- A would-be disciple said he needed to bury his father first, and Jesus replied, "Let the dead bury their own dead." (9:59-60)
- Another wanted to say good-bye to his family. Jesus talked about the importance of putting one's hand to the plow and not looking back. (9:61-62)
- His mother and brothers came to see him, but he told the crowds, "My mother and brothers are those who hear God's word and put it into practice." (8: 21)
- Later he promises blessing to those who have "left home or wife or brothers or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God." (18:29-30)
Why does Jesus say such off-the-wall things? He’s teaching. He is seeking to make an indelible, memorable imprint upon the minds of his disciples. His followers had been raised to think of one's responsibilities to family as preeminent. Jesus puts a person's allegiance to following him higher than any other human responsibility.
It Will Not Be Taken Away from Her (10:42b)
"Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her." (10:42)
Even though it cuts across the grain of societal expectations, even though it means neglecting her regular duties, Mary has correctly discerned that listening to Jesus and learning his ways is more important than anything else she can choose. And no one can rip this precious spiritual food away from her. The word translated "taken away" is Greek aphaireo, "passive 'be taken away, robbed ... deprived of something.' "
As I ponder on the lessons for disciples to be learned from this incident, I see two:
- Listening to what Jesus is teaching is the highest way to show him honor, and preferable to any human way we seek to honor him.
- The good is the enemy of the best. We must be willing to shift our priorities in order to follow Jesus.
My mind goes to another pair of siblings who sought to honor God -- Cain and Abel.
"Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil. In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord. But Abel brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast." (Genesis 4:2-5)
Apparently, God has preferences on the way people respond to him and worship him. All forms of worship are NOT equal in God's eyes. In the case of Jesus, putting on a great dinner for the Master doesn't compare to listening to him and obeying him.
I don't want to be too hard on Martha, Jesus certainly wasn't. But he tried very gently to explain how Mary's choice was better, and that she shouldn't be deprived of it by having to be marched off to the kitchen by her older sister.
What is it that you are trying to offer Jesus? …Your talents and abilities perhaps? The open doors and opportunities afforded by your position in the community? Faithful service as a Sunday school teacher even though you might prefer to do something else? All these can be good. And I am sure that Jesus wants each of these from you in their own time.
But the one thing that Jesus seeks above all else is time that you spend time listening to him, "sitting at his feet,". That needs to come first, before all these other things. That is where peace is found. That is the only place of spiritual rest.
"Martha, why don't you take off your apron and sit down for a few minutes. Dinner can wait. There's something very dear to my heart that I'd like to share with you personally.
Do you have some time right now?
Meditate on this song, The Alabaster Box, as sung by Cece Winans.
Father, when I look at my own life, I'm often too busy to just listen to you. I'm an activist. I always want to be doing something. I have trouble sitting still before you. Please forgive me for my restlessness. Forgive me for putting my agenda before yours. Help me to listen with unclogged ears and a focused and attentive mind to what you want to teach me today. In Jesus' name, I pray.