2020-2-23 The One Thing Needful

Cornerstone EPC                                                                              Sunday morning
Franklin, NC 28734                                                                          February 23, 2020

“The One Thing Needful”
Luke 10:38-42

Joanna Weaver, in her book Having a Mary Heart in a Martha World, notes rightly that God created both us to worship Him and good works for us to do.[1]  There is a right ordering of these—and, alas, there is a wrong ordering of these.  Scripture helps us to get these things in the right order.  Let’s hear this beloved narrative from Dr. Luke’s Spirit-led pen—and, in the hearing, let us learn and endeavor to put the first thing first.


As this Gospel narrative opens, Jesus, and His disciples, were going.  They were going immediately from the expert in the Law who, thinking to justify himself, asked of Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29).  Jesus responded with the timeless parable of the Good Samaritan, in which the hated Samaritan becomes the human hero of the story—and at which the expert in the Law likely felt surprise, offense, and challenge intermingled.

They were going ultimately to Jerusalem by a back-and-forth route.  Jesus, as the times approached for Him to be taken up, He set His face to go to Jerusalem (Luke 9:51).  He resolved thus to go to Jerusalem to yield His life upon the Cross, only to take it up again—and that for His Father’s glory and for the redemption of every one who trusts in Him alone for salvation.  Within such a momentous journey we have today’s episode.

They, while going, came to a village.  The village, we learn elsewhere, is Bethany (John 11:1 ff., 12:1-3), located just under two miles from Jerusalem.  In this village live three siblings famous in the Gospel record: Lazarus (unmentioned here) and Martha and Mary.  The two ladies are front and center in this narrative—and to the narrative proper we now turn.

Martha, the owner of the house, welcomed Jesus into her home and—true to her personality—got busy serving.  Mary, Martha’s sister, sat at Jesus’ feet and heard His Word—true to her personality.  In fact, Mary fixed such attention upon Jesus’ Person and Word that she left all the serving to Martha—a fact not lost upon Martha.  In due time (we are not told exactly how much time) Martha raises the issue with Jesus, and that conversation takes the rest of today’s text to finish.

Martha, before she utters a word to Jesus, is distracted from Him and from His teaching by her service.  Moreover, she is anxious concerning her service.  She may be asking herself, “Will my service be enough for Jesus and His friends?  Will my service be good enough?  How will I, laboring alone, get the result to Jesus and His friends?”  The weight of her thoughts, not to mention the weight of her care, becomes too much and she cries out to Jesus for relief, saying, “Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to serve alone?  Tell her then to help me.”  This is no rant; this is an apparently reasonable request for assistance.  As we shall see, Jesus’ responds in surprising fashion.

Jesus, having heard such a remark about His care earlier in His ministry (in Mark 4:38, when the disciples, in view of a fierce sea-storm, asked Jesus, “Master, carest Thou not that we perish?”), speaks with tender affection to Martha, saying, “Martha, Martha….”  Then Jesus diagnoses Martha’s soul condition.  She is anxious and troubled—or upset—about many things, but only one thing was needful.  This may mean one service, such as one food or drink item provided—but it more likely means one focus.  Martha, by missing single-minded devotion to Jesus, missed the better portion, whereas Mary did not.  Furthermore, Mary’s good portion will not be taken from her.  That which Mary gains from hearing Jesus, she will never lose—and neither shall we.

We must avoid two misunderstandings here.  First, Jesus is not preferring thinkers to doers, or contemplative souls to active ones.  Second—men—this is not a narrative for women only.  Men too need the right application of God’s Word here—and, though the narrative features two women in Jesus’ company, the lesson here applies equally to men as to women.

Now let us come to the heart of the application.  God’s Word has a message for each class represented by Martha and Mary.  To the active, get-things-done Martha type, Scripture implies that—though service unto God be great—devotion unto Him is greater still.  To the thinking, contemplative Mary type, Scripture states that we are created for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them (Ephesians 2:10).  Being a vigorous doer in Christ’s service is not bad in itself; in fact, it is highly commendable.  Being a devoted worshipper of Jesus is likewise excellent.  Let us get these in proper order, however.  Let our service unto the Lord flow from our worship of Him, and let not our service distract from worship.  Above all, let not excessive service nettle our souls—as it did Martha on this occasion.  Let us, each and all, choose the good portion, and let us rest in the promise that it—and He—shall not be taken from us.


[1] Joanna Weaver, Having a Mary Heart in a Martha World: Finding Intimacy with God in the Busyness of Life (Colorado Springs, CO: Waterbrook Press, a division of Random House, Inc., 2000).