The One Thing Needful

Scripture     Luke 10:38-42


Mary sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying.

But Martha was distracted by her many tasks;

so she came to Jesus and asked;

‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself?

Tell her to help me.”

But the Lord answered her, Martha, Martha, you are worried and    

distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.

Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”




The Gospel today comes to life in the living room of two sisters named Martha and Mary. Jesus, their rabbi and friend had come to visit. They immediately recognized the privilege of having Jesus in their home and set to work fulfilling the sacred duty of hospitality. The problem was, they had conflicting ideas of what that duty entailed. Martha’s response is very recognizable, especially by those familiar with Mediterranean and Jewish culture. The role of the woman was to serve the drinks and appetizers and get a meal on the table. Mary thought that the supreme compliment that she could pay to her divine guest was to give him her full attention. Jesus, the fullness of truth, had come to her home to nourish, enlighten, and transform her.  Not to receive and unwrap this wonderful gift would be an insult to the giver. Both sisters are being stretched in this personal encounter with Jesus.


I invite your reflection upon this encounter from three different focal points.


Firstly, this little story of Martha and Mary has been interpreted throughout the centuries as dealing with the "active" and "contemplative" approach to the spiritual life. Martha represents the active life, the necessary and responsible carrying out of our services for the good of the dear neighbor. And Mary represents the contemplative life of prayer and silent listening to the word of God that moves one to respond in some loving service. There is a spiritual wisdom to be gleaned here from both sisters. Life needs to be balanced. Hurry, noise and excess are enemies of a healthy spiritual life. Martha’s problem was not that she attended to her honoured guest’s bodily needs. Martha’s problem was that she allowed the activity of hospitality to become a distraction. She lost her focus and actually got annoyed that her sister would not join her in her frenetic fussing. This distracted life of frenetic activity needs be challenged and addressed. Jesus does this lovingly and sensitively, yet with an emphasis that can’t be missed either: “Marthe, Marthe… you are worried and distracted by many things.” 


Mary kept her focus. She was not passive – attentiveness to the fullness of truth is supremely active. Mary’s listening to the word of God first, before acting, is essential. If our actions are in fact going to be congruent with the word of God, we will need time to pause in quiet reflection and contemplation. For us today in our not-so-contemplative society, there is an urgent need to recover and restore this right ordering of our contemplative-active lives. We must become Mary-Martha sisters, living in this cooperative, collaborative harmony within our one household/personality. The fullness of truth, the fullness of life, the fullness of grace deserves our full attention. Jesus really cannot be merely a part of one’s life, but must be the center of one’s life. It does not mean that our life cannot be full of activities and rich with life experiences. But unless we preserve some quiet time each day to sit at his feet as did Mary, our actions will soon become distraction and we’ll be as snappy and unhappy as Martha.



Secondly, we need to address the meaning of ‘the one’ and ‘the many’. Mary lives the “one thing necessary” and Martha is distracted by “the many things”. Jesus proclaims that Mary has chosen the better part. The key to a healthy spiritual life is having one’s life, mind and will focused on the one thing necessary. Then, all other things fall into place. There is a peace, harmony and order that permeates one’s whole life and being. The problem for Martha was that she became ‘lost’ in the pursuance of ‘the many tasks’. She lost her peace. She lost her focus. Her anxiety was stressing her out and the exasperation with the situation even caused a rupture in her relationships. "Lord, do You not care...?" I can well imagine her "stewing" for a time in the kitchen before being emboldened to charge into the room in such a way. And certainly the Lord does care, but not nearly as much about the problem as Martha sees it as He does about the real problem of which Martha is unaware. The Lord is more concerned about Martha's state of mind and her priorities than He is about being served a feast later on. Where faith grows, anxiety lessens. 


Mary is anchored in “the one thing”. She is a dedicated disciple of Jesus. She knows and loves this man and his message. Her heart is enkindled and she is on fire for the coming of his kingdom. When we learn to live like Mary with our whole day anchored in "the one thing necessary" we too will be living a Gospel-centered way of life. The fruits will be a “peace surpassing understanding” even in the midst of accomplishing many things. How many households today need to take up some examination and gentle correction here!


Thirdly the home visit can be read as Christ’s invitation to all people – women too – to partake in his inner circle of discipleship. Christ overturned the social conventions of his time by summoning all people to discipleship. “All people” from now on, must mean, men and women, Jew and Greek, slave and free. There can be no barriers to discipleship. When Luke inserts this Martha-Mary story into his Gospel he is helping his early Christian communities- and us today - to see the radical new inclusion of women that was unheard of in Jewish times. Martha is following the conventional role of women as she occupies the space of hospitality and is ‘in the kitchen’ serving. Mary ‘sat and listened’. This was the usual posture of a disciple of any teacher in the ancient world. But disciples were usually male, so Mary must have been quietly breaking the rule that reserved study for males, not females. Her sister Martha was not merely asking for help. She was demanding that Mary keep to the traditional way of behaving. Jesus was ignoring the traditional role of women, and encouraging Mary to think and learn. He upheld her right to listen to and think about ideas, and to develop her mind. She should not be limited to the tasks that society laid down for her, but be allowed access to ideas, as Jewish men were.



Jesus had previously encouraged the idea of service among his followers, so he did not say that Martha’s role of service was unimportant either. This would have gone against all his other teaching. What he did say was that being a disciple, and learning about the ideas he was explaining, was even more important. Mary had the daring to take up a new place and it was a signaling of a new attitude of discipleship when she "sat and listened" to the Great Teacher. As such, Mary has come to be seen as a forerunner of all women who have made bold to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen. Jesus invites her into this role. The “better part” is to take our place at Jesus’ feet in a stance of full discipleship. Everyone is invited, summoned into discipleship. It is the most important decision one makes in life.



Carrying Grace   In Christ, I live and move and have my being! My One alone, I need! 



#4 arletteh 2010-07-18 20:39
At different times in our lives, the balance between the active and contemplative dimension of our lives shifts; more to the one or to the other.The responsibility for the grounded,focuse d service remains.Thank the Spirit for calling us to our focus in Jesus,and for the promptings of the Spirit to perhaps new directions?Dire ctions that are more inclusive.Most grateful for this chance for reflection,espe cially coming with the gift of the leisures of summer.
#3 arletteh 2010-07-18 20:25
It is summer. For many, it is a time of greater leisure.The Sunday readings often reflect this. Abraham eagerly provides hospitality for his 3 visitors.It is an extended time of hospitality, for a calf is prepared.Abraha m has the opportunity for conversation and exchange with the guests.The practical work of hospitality is done by the servant and Sarah(like Martha).---Jesu s probably came for an extended stay with Martha and Mary.Mary realized this was her opportunity for her soul to receive in-depth companionship. It was a priority. There was plenty of time.---
#2 Mark Dickinson 2010-07-18 01:54
... and barriers of our day. Where do we exclude people? Where do we make judgements? Do we expect, and assume, that behaviours should follow the traditional practices (and prejudices) of yesteryear? If Love is not our guide, then are we not merely following a roadway that takes us only deeper into darkness, and not Light? We are called to be a light among the darkness ... a light that is not afraid to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. If Light is our guide, then we have nothing to fear ... for our life is grounded in Life. And our love is rooted in the True Love that brings us all into Light.
#1 Mark Dickinson 2010-07-18 01:38
As was so often the case with Jesus ... we are called to radical change .. and a dramatic transformation. Jesus constantly challenged the social order and traditions of the day .. all too often, outcasts, the handicapped, lepers, women, Samaritans, Gentiles, etc. ... were omitted from the House of God. And it was the Temple in Jerusalem that served as the focal point for Jewish worship. Yet, its rules and practices often left too many people on the outside.
God leaves no one on the outside ... it is the principal message of Jesus. The broken, the forgotten, the lost, the abandoned ... all have a home in the House of God. And so Jesus called His disciples -- and ourselves -- to see the world of humanity .. as an inclusive world. A world without fences and borders. A world that sees equality in all peoples ... and freely opens the doors of the Kingdom to all.
As we see Jesus challenge the traditions and obstacles of His day ... we are reminded to evaluate the traditions and barriers of our day. Where do we exclude people? Where do we make judgements? Where do we expect, and assume, that all behaviours should follow the traditional practices of yesteryear? If Love is not our guide, then we are following a roadway that takes us only deeper into darkness, and not Light. We are called to be a light among the darkness .. a light that is not afraid to follow in the footsteps of Jesus.

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