“As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said.
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’.
‘Martha, Martha’, the Lord answered, ‘you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.’”
When we read the story of Mary and Martha, it is very easy for us to immediately launch into a comparison between Mary and Martha’s response to Jesus, and to overlook that the story begins with Jesus himself.
Jesus is the Living Word of God in human form. He came to the village of Bethany and into the home of Mary and Martha, not to be served by them but to serve them; to bring something precious to them – the Word of God.
Both Mary and Martha were excited and honoured by the presence of the Living Word. Both their responses were appropriate responses to his presence.
Martha exercised the spiritual gifts of hospitality and service. She wanted to honour her Lord with the best of her gifts. Hers was God-pleasing service. We could describe her response in one word – serving.
Mary exercised the spiritual gifts of devotion and discipleship. She chose a place and a posture where her Saviour could draw near to her heart with his grace. We could also describe her response to Jesus in one word – sitting.
Both Mary and Martha ‘waited on the Lord,’ but each in a different sense. Martha was preparing earthly bread for the Lord; Mary was receiving heavenly bread from the Lord.
When Martha complained that Mary was sitting while she was serving, Jesus gently corrected her attitude, ‘Martha, Martha… you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her’ (41, 42).
Martha’s problem was not that she was serving and showing hospitality; it was that she had become ‘distracted by all the preparations’ (40). She had become ‘worried and upset about many things’ (41). She had become more interested in serving actual bread than in receiving the Bread of Life, and in doing so she had lost a valuable perspective.
Jesus said that Mary’s choice to sit at his feet and listen to him was not just the ‘most important’ thing; it was the ‘only’ thing that is needed (42).
Giving attention to God’s Living Word is not just one of our needs; it is our primary need, the one true necessity of life, the one thing that gives purpose and perspective to everything else.
Remember the words of Deuteronomy 8:3 with which Jesus rebuked Satan: “Man does not live by bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). There are many pressing needs in our lives, but our priority is to “seek the Lord while he may be found; call upon him while he is near” (Isaiah 55:6) – as he comes near to each of us in his written word, the Scriptures.
What a difficult lesson this is to learn! Author, Eugene Petersen has a description for Christian service that is done without true nourishment from the Scriptures. He calls it “cut flower ministry”. Cut flowers look very nice for a while but they will not last because they have been severed from their source of nutrition and strength.
The challenge for each of us is to constantly ask what things may be distracting us from ‘the one thing needful.’ To seek God’s help so that we may not be like cut flowers, but like flowers still attached to the divine plant and the nourishment he brings.
The challenge for us is to believe – in our heart of hearts – that all our serving, whether it is in the realm of church, family, or society is entirely dependent on our sitting in the Lord’s presence and our soaking up his Word.
The challenge for us all is, in God’s strength, to choose – as our primary need for each day – the posture of Mary, where our Saviour who has graced our homes with his presence can also draw near to our hearts with his grace and equip us to serve others in his name. Amen!
Rev Lester Priebbenow
Bishop, Victoria Tasmania District