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 (Luke 10:41).
This story of two sisters resonates with me. Like Martha, I like things done well. I’m not a laid back, fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants kind of girl. I may wish I was, but I have a deep-seated compulsion to cross my t’s and dot my i’s. I like my house clean, my meals balanced and my calendar organized. (Although I don’t accomplish this often!) Like Martha, I am frequently, as Jesus diagnosed, “anxious and troubled about many things”.
In Martha’s defence, she does have Jesus sitting in her living room. Jesus. This is not your average house guest. I imagine that Martha is not merely a resentful sibling; but she is sincerely distressed. She wants to please Jesus. She longs to be the perfect hostess, as defined by her family and culture.
Meanwhile, her beloved sister, Mary, was not helping. The text says that while Martha “was distracted with much serving” Mary “sat at the Lord’s feet” (v.39).
It’s not hard to understand Martha’s frustration when she asks, “Lord do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone?” (v.40).
Jesus’ response to Martha is neither scathing nor placating. Instead, he cuts straight to the heart of the issue with both compassion and frankness; “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary.”
When Jesus tells Martha that “one thing is necessary”, He doesn’t mean that food and shelter are superfluous. It was not that Mary had chosen a spiritual occupation (learning from Jesus) while Martha had chosen a carnal one (serving and hospitality). John 12 records how Jesus dined with them again, and again “Martha served” while Mary anointed Jesus feet with expensive oil. Jesus was not rebuking Martha for her role in the household—service and hospitality are Christian virtues–rather, Jesus was diagnosing a spiritual malady.
Those of us who resonate with Martha like to be able to control our environment. We trust in our own ability to make life comfortable, safe and sustainable. Jesus didn’t despise Martha’s servant heart; He loved her (Jn. 11:5). But Jesus loved Martha enough to tell her that her pursuit of perfection on earth was wrong-headed. Not only is it impossible for humans to control their circumstances with God-like ability, it’s also prideful and inherently unstable. There was a better way, and Mary had chosen it.
The Good Portion
Anyone who struggles with anxiety can tell you that it’s torturous and exhausting. Jesus’ rebuke cuts through the ropes that bind Martha to false obligations of perfection. “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary.”
The simplicity of Jesus direction is paradigm shifting. Martha is not the linchpin upon which all other moving pieces depend. She is a valued part, but not the centre. Martha’s problem was that she had an over-inflated view of both her ability and responsibility. She was limited by humanity, but expected her work to reflect the perfection of Divinity.
Perhaps Mary should have helped Martha, but Jesus said that Mary had chosen the “good portion”. These words bring to mind numerous Old Testament passages that speak of close communion with God as the believer’s “portion” or “inheritance” (e.g. Ps. 16:5-6, 73:26, Josh.18:7). Mary took the posture of disciple and servant. She chose close fellowship with Jesus as her priority.
The irony for Martha was that she felt the weight of the world on her shoulders. meanwhile, the One who actually “upholds the universe” was sitting in her living room (Heb. 1:3)! She was tore up about food, drink and hospitality standards, while the Creator, Sustainer and Savior of humanity was sitting at her table. I can’t help feeling embarrassed for Martha when I read this passage, and yet how often do I choose to fixate on temporal things while matters of eternal value fade into the background?
We may not have Jesus at our table, but distance doesn’t make a difference. Only Jesus holds the universe together by the word of his power. He dwells in us by His Spirit (1 Jn 3:24) and strengthens us for the tasks ahead (Phil. 4:13). And yes, this is good news for the Marthas among us.
For those of us who resonate with Martha’s control-anxiety, we need to constantly choose the better portion; we must prioritize time at Jesus’ feet. We may have emails to send, people to feed and responsibilities to fulfill. But when we choose fellowship with God first, we acknowledged that He is the centre of our universe. He is the linchpin that holds it all together.
When the stuff of life pulls us in twenty different directions, the good news is this: only one thing is necessary. The rest is transient. Like Martha, our role may be to serve, but when we choose to prioritize close communion with the Lord first, it allows us to relinquish our control-anxiety to Him. The day ahead may be filled with responsibilities, deadlines and scheduled events, but our hearts are not frantic. “My flesh and my heart may fail,” says the Psalmist, “but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” (Ps. 73:26)