One Necessary Thing
Preached by Jason Abbott
In the passage which we’re going to read in a moment, there are two possible, even two likely, reactions we could have…and both are wrong. We’ll see a woman named Martha who, while hosting Jesus, has a complaint about her sister’s behavior, and our temptation will be either to judge her too harshly for making this complaint or, on the far other side of the spectrum, to minimize the seriousness of her attitude and, perhaps, even justify her attitude in our own hearts.
So, as we prepare to read the passage, beware of these two wrong responses. Inspired by the Holy Spirit, Luke has something very important to teach us here about what’s essential in the Christian life. And we don’t want to miss it.
Well, let’s read today’s text.
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.”
Basically, this passage has three parts: (First), Luke tells us briefly the situation. (Second), because of the stress of this situation, Martha brings a complaint to Jesus. And, (third), Jesus responds to her complaint with a challenging lesson.
Let’s look at each of these in turn. We’ll begin with…
1. The situation (v. 38)
We find a familiar situation in verse thirty-eight. I’ll wager that most of us have experienced what’s going on here. Martha and Mary are having some guests over to their house—maybe only for dinner or maybe for an extended period of time. Luke doesn’t tell us which. He merely reports:
…Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house (v. 38).
So, this is the situation or context of the story. Martha and Mary are hosting Jesus and his disciples. They’re doing something that is biblically commendable. Being hospitable—or showing hospitality—is a high virtue according to Scripture. Just consider the command to be hospitable and the motivation for that hospitality as it appears in the Old Testament book of Leviticus for example:
“When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God” (19:33-34).
Do you see it? This command isn’t just to show hospitality to your friends—anyone can do that!—but to show it to even the strangers who enter your community, to show it to the foreigners dwelling among you. This was God’s command to Israel. And, the Lord required this of them because it was, in fact, how he had treated them when they were strangers in Egypt—caring for them and protecting them.
Friends, as Christians, we should be the most hospitable people on the planet since we haven’t just been rescued by God but also adopted into his eternal family. Jesus has promised to prepare a place for us in the New Heavens and the New Earth, where he will host us forever. If our Creator has cared for us in such a profound way, then we should be willing to care for others in a similar fashion.
So, Martha and Mary are doing the right thing here when they welcome Jesus into their home. And, it’s no small thing. It is, at least, Jesus and the twelve disciples. But, they could be hosting far more than that. They may be hosting the seventy-two who’ve now come back to Jesus as well. One commentator points out there could be as many as a hundred people with Jesus. 1 Now, I think this is not likely the case; nevertheless, hosting thirteen is a bunch of work. These women are being generous to this itinerant rabbi and his ministry.
And, this brings us to the second part of our passage:
2. The complaint (vv. 39-40)
In the middle of all the stress of hosting Jesus, Martha has begun to feel bitter towards Mary since she’s not doing her fair share. In fact, she’s not doing anything of value according to Martha. Look at what Luke tells us:
And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. 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” (vv. 39-40).
The Bible is such an honest narrative. It doesn’t fashion fictional characters. People act like people really act. It records situations that are true to life situations. Everyone of us has felt the way Martha feels here. And everyone of us has behaved as she is behaving here. You couldn’t produce a more authentic family interaction than this one from two-thousand years ago.
Natalie and I do a ton of hosting. It’s just one of the things that naturally comes along-with being in ministry. You have couples over to do premarital counseling. You have small groups over to study the Bible together and pray for one another. You host various kinds of ministry meetings. Inviting people into your home is part of being a member of a church. It’s a slice of Christian family-life.
So, here’s a confession for you. Natalie is much better at hospitality than I am. Now, I usually appear to be pretty good at it. But, if you could peer into the before and the after of hosting, you’d see a different Jason. When we’re cleaning the house, I’m immediately frustrated by how our five kids don’t put their toys or their clothes or their backpacks or their art supplies away. And, because I’m frustrated by this, I’m constantly snapping at them for it. Whenever we’re preparing to have guests, the way that Natalie makes the food drives me nuts. When she does it, she multitasks. And this makes our kitchen look like an earthquake just hit—every cabinet is open, cans and boxes are strewn across the counters, dirty dishes are stacked in the sink. She always waits until the end to clean up, even though everyone knows it’s better to clean up as you go…right?!
You can see why I’m such a stressed-out mess. I want everything to be perfect before you arrive, because only then can we share gospel fellowship with each other, because only then can good news ministry really take place. Right?!
No…I’m a lot like Martha when hosting, and I’ll bet you can be like her too. I’ll bet you can be “distracted with much serving” and begin to complain that you’re doing all the work. I’ll bet you can begin with a desire to serve God in some ministry then slowly grow bitter because of the details and the stress that are involved in it. I’ll bet you’ve experienced what once was some kind of good news service of God turning now into some kind of bad news slavery. This happens all the time in church. People begin serving well only to lose their way in the stress of ministry.
At my last church, we had a ministry leader who began a children’s program. He did it because he had a heart for kids and because, quite frankly, we needed one. For a number of years, he ran it well, and it grew. And, the kids who were involved loved it; my kids loved it! Then, however, we began to meet with him to discuss ways to hopefully improve it. And that’s when we first noticed a bitterness begin to emerge in him concerning the ministry. We hadn’t helped him start it or supported him in it, he complained. He thought of the ministry as his, and he eventually left the church over the prospect of changing it.
Friends, it was only after all this when we realized that he had stopped sitting through the sermons many months before the whole conflict with him ever began. Instead of sitting under the preaching of God’s word, he would go do ministry work because it was more pressing and necessary and important in his view.
Serving in ministry is a wonderful thing. If you’re a Christian, you should find a place to serve. The Apostle Paul tells us that “we are [God’s] workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared” for us to do (Ephesians 2:10). You’re not simply created to sit in a pew on Sunday mornings for an hour or two. You’re created for good-news-service.
- Welcoming those who are newcomers into church
- Managing the finances used for ministry
- Encouraging those who are downcast or depressed
- Visiting those who are sick or dying
- Discipling those who are younger than you in the faith
We cannot, however, allow our calling or service to become the main thing. If we do, then we will become possessive of the ministry we’ve been given by God. We’ll risk becoming arrogant because of successes or broken because of failures. We’ll risk becoming like that ministry leader from my former church or like Martha in her situation here—bitter and full of complaints.
Friends, we must keep our service of Christ in its right place. And, that’s just what Jesus teaches us in the third part of this text. Let’s look finally at:
3. The lesson (vv. 41-42)
Look again at what Jesus says in response to Martha’s complaint. He says:
“Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her” (vv. 41-42).
At the beginning of our time, I warned us against judging Martha too harshly in her complaint or minimizing the seriousness of her attitude here. If you’re tempted to judge her harshly then, when Jesus gives his answer, you read it with satisfaction like she’s getting what she deserves. But, if you’re tempted to minimize the danger of her attitude, then you might be confused by his response and probably wonder why he doesn’t also rebuke Mary for not helping Martha. Yet, each of these reactions misunderstands the tone which Jesus takes with Martha. Both assume that a rebuke, like the one our Lord gives, can’t be given compassionately. That, however, isn’t so. In fact, it is precisely because of the compassion and love which Jesus has for Martha that he challenges her about the state of her sinful heart.
Friends, Jesus rebukes her because she’s in danger. He’s like a caring doctor who scolds his patient for ignoring a life-threatening condition. It’s because he cares that he does it—not out of spite but out of love! And, we must learn to do the same. We must learn to speak up in a world where so many are pursuing what’s dangerous, like Martha, and we must learn to do so with compassion and humility.
Well, at this point, we might think the lesson Jesus teaches is a negative one: Don’t whine while you work. Don’t complain while you’re serving and sacrificing for others. This, however, cannot be the lesson. We know this because Jesus points to “one thing that is necessary” and “the good portion” (v. 42). What is that?!
Well, we know it has to do with Mary. Jesus has no words of rebuke for Mary. And, she is the one who has chosen “the good portion, which will not be taken away from her” according to Jesus (v. 42). Do you recall what Luke tells us she’s doing? She’s sitting “at the Lord’s feet and” listening “to his teaching” (v. 39). That’s all. That’s what she’s commended for doing. So, what’s the positive lesson for Martha? What’s the thing that will not be taken away from Mary? What’s the good portion? Friends, it’s (above all else!) drinking in, feasting upon, listening intently to Jesus. This is the one necessary or primary thing.
In the gospel of Luke, there are two kinds of people when it comes to Jesus. There are those who come, like the religious lawyer in last week’s sermon, and stand over him and attempt to test him. They want to use his words to justify themselves. In contrast to that kind of person, there are those who sit at his feet listening to him, soaking in his words, like Mary does here. And while the first type goes away angry or sad or confused after hearing Jesus, the second type is sent out to serve with joy and power. They have the word of eternal life…Jesus Christ.
There was a time in Jesus’ ministry when what he was teaching became more than his congregants could take. When this happened, John says, “many turned back and no longer walked with him” (John 6:66). So, Jesus looked at his twelve disciples, and asked them if they too would leave him. To this, Peter confessed:
Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life… (John 6:68).
This is what Mary is drinking in. This is what Martha, with all the distractions of hosting, is missing out on—the very words of eternal life, the one necessary thing which will never be taken away.
Friends, as we close, don’t leave and immediately reenter all the distractions of your daily life without asking yourself this question: How am I making it a priority to take in the words of eternal life—to sit at the feet of Jesus, and listen to and learn from him? It’s necessary. It’s essential. It’s the good portion.
Let’s make this in your face practical. Take time every day to read your Bible. Do it in the morning if possible, because that will implicitly demonstrate its primacy for you and help establish its priority. So, get up early and open-up your Bible early and, before you read a single word, pray that the Holy Spirit would open your eyes so that you can hear and receive the words of eternal life.
In so doing, you’ll be singing in chorus with the psalmist and countless others throughout Christian history:
Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days (Psalm 90:14).
Amen. Will you pray with me?